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"Moral Sentiments" isn't conducive to make work academic formal pile it higher and deeper publications.

And "Wealth of Nations" wasn't read, it was used as a punching bag of the German haters of liberalism and Britain. It then became a cliche touchstone of can histories of economic thought. Did I mention that economic professors
and Ph.D students are ignorant of it's content?

In a web search of Say's "A Treatise on Political Economy" I find 40 paragraphs with "Wealth of Nations" and none with "Moral Sentiments."

Similarly searches of Ricardo's "On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation" and James Mill's "Elements of Political Economy" does not find "Moral Sentiments."

In Capital, Marx quotes one Dr. Horne, Bishop of Norwich: Adam Smith "had the atrocious wickedness to propagate atheism through the land (viz., by his 'Theory of Moral Sentiments')." Chapter 25

I think many people see that TMS predated WON and infer that the one is foundational to the other. They try to discount the harsh edges of rationality in WON with the soft cuddly moral philosophy of TMS. Lots of people say this after reading the two texts, "I think TMS is the better book." I think the opposite is true. TMS is not as good of a book without WON and the rest of Smith's research program. Reading across Smith shows a consistent theme of rational choice action resulting in patterned institutional outcomes. TMS is Smith's first and perhaps most difficult setting in which he tries to treat moral topics (inherently normative) as an object for positive social science. When I read TMS I don't hear Smith describing the actions of "good" people in order to better understand what is "good" he just wants to understand people.

I studies WN in Paul Heyne's history of econ thought couse at UofW -- almost no one took the class, and Heyne was untenured.

This simply wasn't somethin an educated person was expected to know -- even among economists.


I am not quite clear why you are engaging in these generalizations about who has read or misread TMS. Of course it is true that it was not read by many for a very long time. However, there has been a big revival of interest recently for a variety of reasons, almost to the point of faddishness. However competently or not they are doing so, lots of people are reading it now quite seriously.

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I don't know the answer to your questions. But I do know that TMS is a great book. In some ways it is better than the Wealth of Nations.


I'm looking at course syllabi at Harvard, MIT, and the U. of Chicago and I'm just not feeling the "Adam Smith" love from the econ departments there ...

This "fad" must have missed the grad schools filtering out the tastes and skill set of the next generation of economics professors.

Colander has surveyed and interviewed grad students for decades and he's consistently found that they aren't taught and they don't read Adam Smith.

I'm not seeing the evidence that this has changed.

When Pete asks us to answer the this question, I'm wondering why Pete and other economists wouldn't naturally look to find the answer in the same place they look to explain other patterns of human cooperation -- public choice theory and institutional analysis, including public choice tied to institutional genealogy.

Pete asks:

"What reasons would you postulate as to why The Theory of Moral Sentiments came to be under-appreciated in ethics and philosophy, and the interpretation of The Wealth of Nations came to be constrained and distorted in economics and political economy?"

Incentives, costs, enforcement mechanisms, divisions of knowledge, and reward structures matter as much for academics as they do for anyone else. Why shouldn't we look here first to explain the institutional structures and outcomes of the academic environment.

It's that 1776 date WON shares with some other celebrated and romanticized event- can't recall exactly what it is at the moment- that represents a first obstacle to be unbundled.


I am sure you are right about those syllabi. It is not in grad programs but among research economists in a number of areas where there is now a full-on fad for TMS. I see lots of papers in behavioral econ, and there is definitely a fad for starting papers with some juicy quote from TMS, just to show how esoterically scholarly the author(s) is(are). It is not quite to this point yet, but it is beginning to resemble how in the old USSR one had to begin (or have very early on in it) a paper in economics with some quote from Lenin.

You're asking a few different questions, Pete. One is why TMS's influence faded and was eclipsed by WN. Another is what the connection between the two books is. A third is why people thought--and some still think--that there is a tension between the books.

Several things combined to explain the phenomenon addressed in the first question. I'll mention two: one philosophical, one psychological.

The philosophical explanation is that philosophers came to see TMS as lacking in a serious way, namely in providing a bona fide source of moral normativity. TMS looks for all the world like an empirical investigation into the mechanisms that give rise to moral judgments and into the factors that account for three phenomena: (1) the fact that all (or almost all) human beings transition during their lives from amoral infants to highly moralized adults; (2) the fact that all (or almost all) human societies generate a rough consensus about wherein morality consists; and (3) there is a significant overlap among the respective moral consensuses various human societies adopt.

The problem is that, irrespective of whether Smith's proposed explanations of these phenomena are correct, it's not clear that Smith provides any way for people to critize moral orders. If our moral judgments arise the way Smith describes, as the unintentional results of people attempting to serve their ends in the company of others, then that seems to reduce moral judgments to the status of mere strategems. It makes them hypothetical, rather than categorical, imperatives. And moral philosophers like their categorical imperatives. (Remember, too, that Kant was about to come onto the scene, and his attempt to ground categorical moral imperatives--partly in response to Smith's (and Hume's) challenges--came to dominate moral thought. Smith's program is very different from Kant's in its aims and methods, and thus Smith's program came to be seen as alien, not really moral philosophy at all. It was thus relegated to other disciplines like psychology or anthropology, or to the dustbin of history.)

The psychological reason, at least for the latter half of the 20th century in the British and American world, is that Smith is associated with a political and economic order that the vast majority of academics find distasteful, even morally repellant. It is psychologically very hard to separate the two. It's like asking people to consider whether Mein Kampf has any redeeming literary virtues. As a result, most people will not even read, let alone seriously consider, anything Smith wrote. Moral philosophers who are interested in the "Smithian" program would rather read Hume than Smith, since Hume is not associated with capitalism. (Humanities scholars who work on Smith must constantly combat the initial "why on earth would you work on HIM?" question, before getting people even to consider any substantive issues.)

A quick thought on why people might think there is a tension between TMS and WN. WN does not mention TMS; it does not discuss the "desire for mutual sympathy of sentiments" or the "impartial spectator"; it does not mention any of the cardinal virtues TMS described; and in the Index Smith prepared for WN, it identifies "self-love" as "the governing principle in the intercourse of human society." Moreover, there is none of the theological language in WN that was present in TMS. It's almost as if two different people wrote the books--a curious fact since Smith was revising them side by side throughout most of his adult life.

In a book of over 1000 pages, one would think there might be some discussion of the connection between Smith's only two books. Indeed, one might expect that there would be a deep and extended "conversation" between the two books. Alas, there is none of that.

That doesn't mean the two books don't go together or can't be reconciled. But it does mean, I think, that it's not simply foolish (as some claim) to suggest there might be an interesting tension here.

Just for the record, since I have been commenting on this, just over 40 years ago I wrote a paper on the "Adam Smith problem" of how TMS relates to WoN in a history of economic thought class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, taught by Nathan Rosenberg. So, while most people ignored TMS during much of the 20th century, it was not completely ignored, and there were pockets of interest in the question, which continued to burble along.

I would also agree with Jim O. (as someone who wrote ever-so-long ago on it) that the problem is not all that simple. Yes, people like Vernon Smith have provided possible reconciliations, which have been pronounced by many here and in similar locations to suffice to solve everything. However, the points made by Jim O. are valid, and it does take some fancy footwork and stretching to pull it off.

The Theory of Moral Sentiments is one of three classics that I believe are in the tradition of "The Science of Success" and capable of understanding business failure such as Enron.

I have tried to cull out TMS's insights for business success/failure in chapter 1 of Capitalism at Work, the Internet appendices of which can be found here: http://www.politicalcapitalism.org/book1/appendix-b1c1.shtml

I will send a pdf. of the chapter, "The Soul of Commerce,' upon request: rbradley@iertx.org

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