Adam smith on dignity and equality


Where exactly should we place Adam Smith in the cannon of classical liberalism? Smith's advocacy of free market economics and defence of religious liberty in The Wealth of Nations suffice for including him somewhere in that tradition.1 The nature and extent of Smith's liberalism, however, remain up for debate. One recent trend has been to characterise Smith as a proponent of social liberalism. This includes those like Stephen Darwall, Samuel Fleischacker and Charles Griswold, who have drawn attention to a kind of descriptive moral egalitarianism in Smith.2 Humans, Smith seems to hold, are naturally disposed to valuing one another under a conception of equality. But that is not all these scholars suggest. They have also hinted at something more contentious-the idea that, according to Smith, we value one another in a way resonant with contemporary notions of human dignity, conceived as the inherent value of persons grounding certain rights to, or restrictions on, treatment by others.3 In saying so, these scholars have hit upon something remarkable. However, I also think their arguments in this respect are both indirect and incomplete. Consequently, the full import of Smith's view remains obscure. This essay aims to bring some clarity. 1I intend this historically. I grant there are good reasons to be sceptical about the ultimate fate of liberty in capitalist society (e.g. Marxist reasons and reasons based on various postmodern critiques of enlightenment ideology). Also, the designation free market should be understood loosely, as most scholars now agree it is a mistake to identify Smith with thoroughgoing laissez-faire economics. 2Darwall, S., Sympathetic Liberalism: Recent Work on Adam Smith, Philosophy & Public Affairs, 28 (1999) No. 2: 139-64; Fleischacker, S., A Third Concept of Liberty (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999) and On Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004); and Griswold, C., Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999). Other major commentators holding some version of this view might include Raphael, D. D. The Impartial Spectator (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007) and Vivienne Brown, Adam Smith's Discourse: Canonicity, Commerce and Conscience (London: Routledge, 1994). 3See e.g. Fleischacker (2004), 205; Darwall at 142, 156 and Griswold at 235-239. However, one must read Fleischacker carefully, for he also uses the adjectival dignified to express Smith's concern with what is honourable or respectable about persons, which use does not obviously match up with the notion of inherent value (see e.g. p. 207). Darwall's argument includes by far the most explicit discussion of dignity as I've defined it. But as Darwall's article is ostensibly a book review (albeit a substantive one that addresses three books at once, including Griswold's), it cannot be called a direct inquiry. Griswold never explicitly puts his interpretation in terms of dignity, but that is clearly what he is after. Thus Darwall also reads him that way. © 2012 Copyright Taylor and Francis Group, LLC.

Publication Title

British Journal for the History of Philosophy