The Theory of Moral Sentiments

October 30 - November 1, 2014

Though The Theory of Moral Sentiments was Adam Smith’s first major work, its significance has often been overshadowed by the impact of The Wealth of Nations and the ideas that follow from it. Indeed, even in his time the widespread attention accorded to his masterwork of economic thought tended to obscure his identity as one of Europe’s preeminent moral philosophers, a phenomenon that continues to this day. As a consequence, The Theory of Moral Sentiments remains in many respects secondary to The Wealth of Nations, Smith’s legacy rooted in his foundational account of economic self-interest while the importance of his moral theory is downplayed or otherwise ignored.

This seminar reconsiders the importance of The Theory of Moral Sentiments to Smith’s intellectual project, with a particular emphasis on the central arguments of the text, its place in European intellectual history, and the way Smith understands the links between his moral and economic thought. It begins, therefore, with a close examination of The Theory of Moral Sentiments and its account of sympathy, asking what sympathy is, where it comes from, and in what way it grounds Smith’s account of morality. What exactly does Smith mean by “sympathy”? What influences his understanding of the term? How does it work? And what kind of moral theorist should we understand Smith to be?

The seminar then turns to the context of the arguments put forth in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, as well as the ways in which the book has been read in the years since it first appeared. How should we understand Smith's relationship to his broader intellectual milieu? What defined the reception of the book by Smith's contemporaries in Britain, Germany and France? What defines the approach of the many scholars who have sought to reconsider Smith’s work since? Is The Theory of Moral Sentiments secondary to the thought set forth in The Wealth of Nations? Or does The Theory of Moral Sentiments have a similarly important intellectual legacy of its own?

Finally, the seminar examines the relationship between The Theory of Moral Sentiments and the Wealth of Nations, two key moments in Smith’s thought that have often been treated as widely divergent in the reception of his work. In what way does Smith’s understanding of the foundations of morality bear on the foundations of his economic philosophy? Is sympathy unrelated to self-interest? Or are the two concepts more closely linked than it seems? Can The Theory of Moral Sentiments and the Wealth of Nations be separated from one another? Or do these two texts from complementary parts of Smith's broader philosophical work?

By re-examining the basic argument and influence of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, the seminar hopes, in one sense, to come to a better understanding of a text whose intricacies and importance have often been overlooked. In another sense, though, the seminar aims to excavate the relationship between Smith’s moral and economic thought, the better to understand the moral foundations of the economic system that structures our world. At a time when the moral foundations of capitalism are ever more in question, the seminar hopes to consider this fundamental work of Enlightenment philosophy anew.

Presenters include James Chandler (English), Jennifer Pitts (Political Science), Candace Vogler (Philosophy), Samuel Fleishacker (Philosophy, University of Illinois at Chicago) and Ryan Hanley (Political Science, Marquette University).