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Department of Philosophy, Agnes Scott College. The Canon Revisited: Women Philosophers. Department of Philosophy, Northern Arizona University. International Colloquia on the Philosophy of Technology. Australasian Seminar in Early Modern Philosophy. They do better restricting their activities to protecting individual liberty against violence—to defense and the administration of justice. We might call this the libertarian reading of Smith, and it certainly captures an important element of his political philosophy. But he does not say that the enforcement of justice is the sole job of government.

But once civil government has been established, people may legitimately be forced to carry out at least the greatest and most obvious duties of beneficence. Smith says that. Smith had no principled objections to government power being used to help the poor, and indeed proposed a number of policies with that in mind.


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Only in the s, after Smith died, did Jeremy Bentham and Tom Paine offer their groundbreaking poverty programs; the socialism of Robert Owen and Charles Fourier lay another generation in the future. Smith had more influence than anyone else in changing this attitude—he was one of the earliest and most fervent champions of the rights and virtues of the poor, arguing against wage caps and other constraints that kept the poor from rising socially and economically see Baugh and Fleischacker , chapter Smith also had a more restricted conception of individual rights than do contemporary libertarians.

Although it may be inefficient and otherwise unwise, it is not unjust for the government to intervene in the economy on behalf of one or another commercial interest, to spread propaganda for one or another conception of virtue, or even to establish a religion. Smith of course opposes economic intervention of this kind and thinks it better if governments do not establish religions, but his views on these issues stem from concerns other than justice.


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Why, then, does Smith recommend such a minimal state? The interventions just listed are practically the only ones he urges in WN, and even in those cases, Smith calls for limited state action. Why allow governments to go so far, and no farther? The first answer to that is that Smith did not think government officials were competent to handle much beside the needs of defense and the administration of justice. He also believes that politicians tend to be manipulated by the preaching of merchants who do not have the good of the nation as a whole at heart WN —7 , and that they can rarely know enough to guide large numbers of people.

Correlatively, Smith has a great respect for the competence and virtue of common people. He shows no trace of the thought, common at the time and strongly held by Hutcheson, that a class of wise and virtuous people ought to rule over the common herd. In addition, Smith holds that social sanctions can do a better job at many tasks that other thinkers expected of political sanctions. His rich account in TMS of the way that spectators around us subtly and unconsciously shape us morally enables him to hold that governments need not teach virtue.

Society, independent of governmental power, will do that on its own. Thus religious groups that spontaneously arise without government assistance do a better job of inculcating virtues than their government-supported counterparts WN —6. And thus—implicitly—the civic republican obsession with a citizen militia is overwrought because the habits of self-command inculcated by military service can also be achieved, for most people, by the social interactions of the market see Fleischacker , pp. Finally, Smith limits the activities of governments because he considers it crucial to the development of virtue that people have plenty of room to act, and shape their feelings, on their own.

Becoming a good human being is ultimately a task that each individual must take up for him or herself. People develop better moral judgment by actually making moral judgments WN —3, , and virtue requires the practice of virtue TMS ; we cannot achieve these things simply by following the say-so of an authority. So exercises of power tend to be inimical to moral development, and governments should use their power mostly to minimize the degree to which power gets exercised elsewhere.

Indeed, for Smith, governments can best encourage virtue precisely by refraining from encouraging virtue. In TMS, the person who merely tries to appear virtuous, whether out of fear of the law or out of fear of social disapproval, is not really virtuous. But there is a sliding scale here. One who acts virtuously out of concern for the praise and blame of her neighbors is not as virtuous as one who is concerned to be praise-worthy in the eyes of an impartial spectator, but one who acts virtuously out of concern for legal sanctions is worse than either of the other two.

As long as neighbors know each other reasonably well, their approval and disapproval will normally take into account the particular circumstances, the peculiar history and psychology, of the individuals they judge—their judgments will reflect, say, the difference in gratitude due to a loudly self-pitying parent as opposed to a truly long-suffering one. Legal sanctions are blunt instruments that cannot attend to such subtleties. So social approval is more likely than legal approval to pick out the right sort of actions to mark for moral worth.

The pressure of social sanctions is more like, and more likely to draw one towards, the pressure of conscience. Even if concern for social approval is not the ideal motivation for moral action, therefore, it is at least some sign of good character, and a step along the way to the motivations of the fully virtuous person.

Legal sanctions by contrast affect our physical well-being and social standing so severely that they drive out all thought of the sanctions of conscience. A government concerned to foster virtue in its citizens should therefore aim as much as possible to remove its own sanctions from the pursuit of virtue.

Governments foster virtue best where they refuse, directly, to foster virtue at all: just as they protect economic development best where they refuse, directly, to protect development. Accordingly, his main political object in writing WN is to instill modesty in policy-makers, to urge them to take on only very limited, well-defined tasks, and to recognize that the flourishing of their society does not, on the whole, much depend on them.

Today, many libertarians are suspicious of the notion that individuals ought to develop virtues expected of them by others: beyond, at least, those virtues that are needed for the functioning of the market and the liberal state themselves. Smith does not share this attitude. He is far from an agnostic about what a good human life looks like, let alone an enthusiast for a conception of the good life that eschews virtue in favor of preference-satisfaction. He is not a positivist sceptical of the significance of moral argument, like Milton Friedman, nor a hedonist, like Bentham and his followers, nor a radical individualist, like the followers of Ayn Rand.

Any decent human life, he believes, requires certain virtues, and depends on a respect and love of individuals for the people around them. If he encourages governments, nevertheless, to refrain from promoting virtue, that is because he thinks that social forces can effectively achieve that end without government help, and that legal sanctions are in any case useless or counter-productive for the promotion of virtue. So he may arrive at some libertarian conclusions, but not in the way that most libertarians do.

Few of these contributions are spelled out with the clarity and tight argumentation that contemporary philosophers demand of their canonical figures, but Smith compensates for this weakness by the humanity and thoughtfulness of his views, by their detachment from metaphysical commitments, and by an abundance of historical and imaginative detail. The richness of his ideas, and their quiet plausibility, earn him a place among the most important of modern moral and political philosophers.

Methodology 2. Smith says that [t]he civil magistrate is entrusted with the power not only of … restraining injustice, but of promoting the prosperity of the commonwealth , by establishing good discipline, and by discouraging every sort of vice and impropriety; he may prescribe rules, therefore, which not only prohibit mutual injuries among fellow-citizens, but command mutual good offices to a certain degree. Raphael, British Moralists — , Indianapolis: Hackett, , vol.

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Nidditch and L. Selby-Bigge eds. Schneewind ed. Raphael and A. Macfie eds. Meek, D. Raphael and P. Stein eds. Campbell, A. Skinner, and W. Todd eds. Wightman and J. Bryce eds. Bryce ed. Mossner and I. Ross eds. Secondary Sources Baugh, Daniel A. Baxter ed. Campbell, T. Fricke and D. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, pp. Raphael, D.

Brown and S. Fleischacker eds. Berry, M. Smith eds. Other Secondary Literature Berry, C. Brown, Vivienne and Samuel Fleischacker eds. Hanley, Ryan ed. Hont, Istvan and Michael Ignatieff eds. Jones, Peter and Andrew Skinner eds. Academic Tools How to cite this entry. Enhanced bibliography for this entry at PhilPapers , with links to its database.

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