Adam Smith vs Modern Ideas of Justice

I am reading through Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, currently Part 2 Section 2, and am struck by the difference between Smith’s statements of what, by nature, humans feel toward justice and kindness, and the ideas stated by many modern people. Smith posits justice as a “negative virtue,” meaning to practice justice toward others is to refrain from harming or taking their person, property, or reputation. Justice lies between harm and beneficence, and therefore deserves no punishment or special praise. I have the sense that today many people have a different view of justice: that it is about equality, and receiving the subjective desserts of effort, which usually means less for the wealthy and more for the poor. Perhaps those sentiments were also common in Smith’s time, but were seen more as envy.

Today, the ugliness of envy is excused by proclaiming one’s envy to be on behalf of another who has no voice. I think especially of the Occupy movement of two years ago. A large portion of Americans thought the protests justified because the wealthy had unjustly taken wealth from the rest of the country. This may be true for some wealthy people, but it doesn’t justify condemning one in a hundred people. The thought that kept going through my head while reading this section was, “How did an entire nation move from largely agreeing with Smith to seeing mere justice as he describes it as something deserving judgment?”

Theory of Moral Sentiments Part 1

Inspired by a series from my current favorite podcast, EconTalk, I have been reading Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. I am in the middle of Part 2 at the moment, but this post will be about Part 1, at least as best as I can recall it.

First, my thoughts on the book’s content and style in general: I think it is much more readable than Wealth of Nations (which book I’ve only read a dozen chapters of so far). Smith’s sensibilities are probably more appealing to those with a similar moral upbringing – i.e., British/Scottish/North American. However, I do think his theories of the sentiments that guide and plague humans are true for all but the most psychologically injured or abnormal, and elegantly stated as well.

For Part 1, I have no very strong thoughts. Smith seems to be laying a framework for the later parts, and there is little to disagree with, but also little that is not quite obvious to the reader already. Part 2, I do have one pressing thought already, but I will put that in its own interim post between this and the whole Part 2 post.