PHI 981: The Moral Philosophy of Adam Smith

Course Description:  Adam Smith is renowned as a pre-eminent enlightenment philosopher, author of The Wealth of Nations (pub. 1776) and the father of modern capitalism.  He is less well known for his distinctive contribution to moral philosophy, principally articulated in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1st edition pub. 1759; 6th edition pub. 1790). This classic text deserves more contemporary attention.  In keeping with Hume and Hutcheson, Smith defends a broadly sentimentalist virtue ethics; but his moral philosophy is distinctive so far as it is rooted in a richer and more sophisticated theory of sympathy than other enlightenment figures provide. His moral philosophy is interesting in itself, both substantively and methodologically, providing an important counterpoint to the systematic approaches of later thinkers (Kantian and non-Kantian).  But it also provides a critical context for his economic views, without which those views are subject to egregious (though popular) mischaracterization.  Finally, Smith’s novel theory of sympathy is highly relevant to contemporary work in experimental psychology, philosophy of mind and moral psychology. As there are many seams of thought to explore in Smith’s work, students will be encouraged to pursue topics most relevant to their own interests as we work our way through the text.