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  • James R. Otteson (a1)

Adam Smith argues that virtue falls into two broad categories: “justice,” which he calls a “negative” virtue because it principally comprises restraint from harming or injuring others; and “beneficence,” which he calls “positive” because it comprises the actions we ought to take to improve others’ situations. Smith’s conception of justice is thus quite “thin,” and some critics argue that it is indeed too thin, since it fails to incorporate substantive concerns for the well-being of others. In this essay, I lay out Smith’s conception of justice and offer a way to understand it that attempts to comprehend the various things he says about it. I then offer a cluster of objections drawing on criticisms that might fall under the heading of “social justice.” Finally, I suggest how Smith might respond to the criticisms by outlining a Smithian conception of what I call “ultimate justice.”

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1 Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, eds. D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1982 [1759]), II.ii.1.9. Hereafter, this work is referred to as “TMS.”

2 Although Smith speaks in various places of “malevolence,” or ill intent, he does not use the term “maleficence.” Nevertheless, “maleficence” seems to capture what he has in mind, and it maintains a parallelism with “beneficence.”

3 Smith distinguishes “beneficence” from “benevolence”: by “beneficence” Smith means taking positive action to do good for another; by “benevolence” Smith means wishing another well. His discussion here concerns the difference he sees between justice and beneficence.

4 Adam Smith, Lectures on Jurisprudence, eds. R. L. Meek, D. D. Raphael, and P. G. Stein (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1982), 5. I note that these are actually students’ notes from the lectures Smith gave in his Moral Philosophy class at Glasgow University. We do not retain Smith’s own lecture notes. The students’ notes are reprinted here exactly as they appear in the original. Hereafter, this work is referred to as “LJ.”

5 Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, eds. R. H. Campbell, A. S. Skinner, and W. B. Todd (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1976 [1776]), V.i.a.42. Hereafter, this work is referred to as “WN.”

6 For the former, see, e.g., WN IV.i.32, IV.vii.b.2, IV.vii.c.54, and IV.ix.51; for the latter, see WN I.i.10.

7 By “the system I have already explain’d,” Smith probably means TMS II.ii.1–2.

8 This would complicate Smith’s claim that the resentment one might feel in such a case is “natural.” If it is natural, why would we need recourse to the device of consulting an imagined impartial spectator? I suspect Smith thinks that our natural resentment is at times partial and uninformed, and thus asking what an impartial spectator might feel helps correct the errors our natural (or instinctive) resentment might make. For discussion of Smith’s conception of an “impartial spectator,” see James R. Otteson, Adam Smith (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), chap. 4 and D. D. Raphael, The Impartial Spectator: Adam Smith’s Moral Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

9 See, for example, Samuel Fleischacker, On Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations: A Philosophical Companion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), chap. 8.

10 Ibid., 201.

11 Ibid.,150.

12 LJ reports Smith having lectured extensively on Locke. See, e.g., 200, 316, 323, 370, 381, 435, and 508.

13 See, e.g., TMS II.ii.8. I discuss this passage in Section V.

14 Smith offers the following analogy illustrating the differences: “The rules of justice may be compared to the rules of grammar; the rules of the other virtues, to the rules which critics lay down for the attainment of what is sublime and elegant in composition. The one, are precise, accurate, and indispensable. The other, are loose, vague, and indeterminate” (TMS III.6.11). Smith also claims that although there are “general rules of almost all the virtues,” nevertheless, regarding the rules of beneficence, “to affect, however, a very strict and literal adherence to them would evidently be the most absurd and ridiculous pedantry” (TMS III.6.8). For discussion, see James R. Otteson, “Adam Smith on Virtue, Prosperity, and Justice,” in Jennifer A. Baker and Mark D. White, Economics and the Virtues: Building a New Moral Foundation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 72–93.

15 See Peter Singer, The Life You Can Save (New York: Random House, 2009). See also Garrett Cullity, The Moral Demands of Affluence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006). (I note that Singer’s conclusion is underdetermined, since there are many actions that might be implied by the premises—many different “very bad” things, many different ways to alleviate or address them, and so on. For discussion, see Otteson, James R., “Limits on Our Obligation to Give,” Public Affairs Quarterly 14, 3 [July 2000]: 183203.)

16 See Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 3rd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), chap. 7.

17 Thus, Smith thus has four possibilities: (a) just and beneficent, (b) just but not beneficent, (c) unjust and beneficent, and (d) unjust and not beneficent — though, for Smith, only (a) and (b) meet the minimum threshold of moral acceptability. Singer has only two possibilities: (a) right/just, and (b) wrong/unjust.

18 See Singer’s The Life You Can Save, chap. 3. I note that this would be Smith’s scenario (c) above. Because of the lexical priority of his NDO conception of justice, however, on Smith’s account positively benefitting some at the expense of (unwilling) others is a violation of justice and thus unacceptable.

19 The many different ways people define or use the term “social justice” leads Friedrich Hayek to write that the term “does not belong to the category of error but to that of nonsense, like the term a ‘moral stone’” (Friedrich A. Hayek, Law, Legislation, and Liberty, Volume 2: The Mirage of Social Justice [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976], 78).

20 John Tomasi, Free Market Fairness (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012).

21 Ibid., 89.

22 Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2014), 480.

23 See Tomasi, chap. 5 and Piketty, 20–21, chap. 13, and 575–77.

24 See also Lippert-Rasmussen, Kasper, “Luck Egalitarianism and Group Responsibility,” in Knight, Carl and Stemplowska, Zofia, eds., Responsibility and Distributive Justice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 98114.

25 The argument in Smith’s words: “What is the species of domestick industry which his capital can employ, and of which the produce is likely to be of the greatest value, every individual, it is evident, can, in his local situation, judge much better than any statesman or lawgiver can do for him” (WN IV.ii.10). Smith repeats variations of this argument elsewhere. For example, when discussing corn prices, he writes, “The interest of the corn merchant makes him study to do this [i.e., set prices] as exactly as he can; and as no other person can have either the same interest, or the same knowledge, or the same abilities to do it so exactly as he, this most important operation of commerce ought to be trusted entirely to him; or, in other words, the corn trade, so far as at least concerns the supply of the home-market, ought to be left perfectly free” (WN IV.v.b.25). I note that Friedrich Hayek makes a similar argument in several places; see, for example, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” American Economic Review XXXV, 4 (September 1945): 519–30 and The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011 [1960]), chap. 2.

26 Copp, David, “Equality, Justice, and Basic Needs,” in Brock, Gillian, ed., Necessary Goods: Our Responsibilities to Meet Others’ Needs (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998), 124.

27 Martha Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2011), 32–33.

28 Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities, 33–34. See also Martha Nussbaum, “Aristotelian Social Democracy,” in Gillian Brock, ed., Necessary Goods: Our Responsibilities to Meet Others’ Needs (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998), 150–51 and Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2006), 75–78.

29 Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities, 19 (emphasis in the original); 63.

30 Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, rev. and exp. ed. (New York: Penguin, 2009), 5. See also Peter Ubel, Free Market Madness: Why Human Nature Is at Odds with Economics — And Why It Matters (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School, 2009) and Sarah Conly, Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

31 Thaler and Sunstein, Nudge, 5.

32 See, for example, Mark D. White, The Manipulation of Choice: Ethics and Libertarian Paternalism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). See also James R. Otteson, “Adam Smith’s Libertarian Paternalism,” in David Schmidtz and Carmen Pavel, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

33 Thaler and Sunstein, Nudge, 5; emphasis in the original.

34 See James R. Otteson, “Adam Smith and the Great Mind Fallacy,” Social Philosophy and Policy 27, no. 1 (2010): 276–304.

35 Singer, The Life You Can Save, 3.

36 Singer, The Life You Can Save, chap. 3.

37 This claim further explains why Smith does not think that the vice of insufficient beneficence should be adjudicated or punished by the state. The instances of proper beneficence all depend on particular details of individuals’ circumstances that are unlikely to be known by third-party human observers; by contrast, God does know them, and that justifies His full or complete judgment of us in the hereafter. So systematically ‘indifferent’ or ‘insensible’ people in this world ultimately get their just deserts.

* This essay has benefitted considerably from helpful comments and suggestions on an earlier draft by the other contributors to this volume, as well as by Carmen Pavel, David Schmidtz, and an exceptional anonymous reviewer. I thank them for their help and advice, on which I have drawn liberally. All remaining errors are mine.

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