Was Smith A Moral Subjectivist?

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This paper may appear quixotic in the extreme. Adam Smith’s Theory of The Moral Sentiments has generally been seen as a species of the genus of moral sentimentalism. Moral sentimentalists agree in grounding our moral distinctions in our sentiments, as opposed to the world. They are in this respect the progenitors of various stripes of subjectivism in meta-ethics. I want to argue that Smith does not fit this picture. I think he can be easily read to do so, and that he was sometimes confused about what he was doing, but that we ought to, at a minimum, recognize an alternative, objectivist ( and  therefore, I think, correct)  strain in Smith, in tension with his apparent subjectivism.

Posted for comments on 11 Sep 2017, 2:03 pm.

Comments (1)

  • Michel Zouboulakis says:

    As far as I can judge, this is a concise but very elaborated paper on Smith’s Moral Philosophy. It debates a real issue raised recently by Griswold (1999) and Parfit (2011) about the subjective character of moral rules in the Theory of Moral Sentiments. Quinn, quite honestly, presents a number of arguments of Smith’s modern readers and tries to answer them giving some thoughtful and convincing answers. He maintains that Smith was a Moral Objectivist meaning that the morality of human actions are not be judged according to a subjectively perceived rule by the actor himself, but according to an objectively established morality as an “impartial spectator” –that is someone placed above mankind- would see it. Quinn rightly insists on the “theological cast” of Smith’s ideas (p.8) as they are clearly indicated in the Chapter 2 of the TMS. In his comparison between Hume and Smith, I believe that Quinn is again right: Smith does not share Hume’s proto-utilitarian idea of usefulness as a criterion of morality (p.12). As he concludes (p.13), Smith believes that “propriety is not transparently utilitarian” and also that “an exclusively utilitarian account of objective value is wrong”.

    I do not have a thorough knowledge of Moral Philosophy, but the paper is well written and publishable. It lacks a comprehensive general conclusion and certainly a strong secondary literature – it has only 6 references and Smith.

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