Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Notes on Smith's Philosophy: an occasional series, no. 1

Adam Smith on the virtue of "doing nothing"

On the always interesting Blog,’ Division of Labour', a regular contributor quotes a passage from Smith’s “Moral Sentiments” (TMS II.ii.1.9: p 89):

"Mere justice is, upon most occasions, but a negative virtue, and only hinders us from hurting our neighbour. The man who barely abstains from violating either the person, or the estate, or the reputation of his neighbours, has surely very little positive merit. He fulfils, however, all the rules of what is peculiarly called justice, and does every thing which his equals can with propriety force him to do, or which they can punish him for not doing. We may often fulfil all the rules of justice by sitting still and doing nothing."
Posted by Robert Lawson


Robert Lawson’s quotation on justice from Adam Smith is indeed an ‘oddity’ when read in isolation from this most significant chapter in his book “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” (1759). He did not claim that the views expressed were his own uniquely – he reported on the “account commonly given” (which he considered to be “undoubtedly true”) and a little reflection on the context shows the good sense in what he reports.

He compares beneficence with justice. Beneficence is always free, ‘it cannot be extracted by force’ (flogging someone for not showing beneficence would be a nonsense; imposing a law requiring people to show beneficence on pain of punishment would be unenforceable) and the lack of beneficence is ‘no positive evil’ (it may be the ‘blackest ingratitude’, however). Justice on the contrary, may be extracted by force. The violation of justice is injury. The positive virtues do not have that affect; they are more a disappointment in their breach).

Justice is a negative virtue. There can be no excuse for ‘hurting our neighbour’. To ‘disturb his happiness merely because it stands in the way of our own, to take from him what is of real use to him merely because it may be of equal or more use to us, or to indulge in this manner, at the expense of other people’ (TMS II.ii.2.1) are examples of injustice for which the victims may seek remedies. (Is this relevant to the current ‘eminent domain’ issue in the USA?)

Man only subsists in society, and always has, in contrast to Locke and Hobbes, as do other primates. Everyman stands in need of assistance from others, and are likewise exposed to mutual injuries from others. At one end of the spectrum, the necessary assistance, based on reciprocity, arises from love, gratitude, friendship and esteem, and society is ‘happy’ (many are laughing and enjoying themselves). At the other end of the spectrum, the source of reciprocity comes without these laughing virtues, but in no wise is society threatened with dissolution (always remember there is always ‘a lot of ruin in a Nation’). It may be less ‘happy’ (in the sense that few are overtly laughing) but the utility of the power of the reciprocity principle suffices, and it will continue to be so because of the resultant ‘mercenary exchange of good offices according to an agreed valuation’, otherwise known as bargaining (i.e., ‘truck, barter and exchange’ from “Wealth of Nations”, Book I.ii.1: 25).

Society, however, cannot subsist among those ‘who are at all times ready to hurt and injure one another’ (TMS II.ii.3.2: 86) The moment that injustice happens and it is not curbed and punished, from that moment ‘mutual resentment and animosity take place’ and all of society’s bonds are ‘broke asunder’, and it descends into the violence and opposition of the ‘discordant factions’ (lynch mobs, fiery crosses, pograms, genocide, vendettas, and revenge attacks).

Justice is the ‘main pillar that upholds the whole edifice’ and without it society must ‘crumble into atoms’. Through merited punishment (the rule of law) society ‘protects the weak, curbs the violent and chastises the guilty’. Without justice ‘a man would enter an assembly of men as he enters a den of lions’ (here, Smith paraphrases Montesquieu without acknowledgement).

From this, we can see the importance that Smith attached to the principle of justice, the negative virtue which is practised by abstaining from injuring others. If a person abstains from injuring or harming others he practises the virtue of justice; to make his point (bearing in mind his students were aged between 14 to17) Smith went to an extreme for rhetorical effect; hence, ‘sitting still and doing nothing’ is eminently sensible ad striking enough to catch the attention of his young students (it caught Robert Lawson's didn't it?).

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