The Moralizing Role of Distance in Adam Smith: The Theory of Moral Sentiments as a Possible Praise of Commerce
History of Political Economy. Vol. 42, No. 3, pp. 425-441, 2010
Posted: 24 Sep 2010
Date Written: September 23, 2010
The Theory of Moral Sentiments can be read as a book praising commerce. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith claims that viewing oneself from a distance decreases the natural tendency toward self-deception and increases the propriety of one’s behavior. In front of strangers and distant acquaintances, an individual would generally restrain the more self-indulgent and excessive passions and be more composed than in front of family and close friends. Frequent exposure to strangers fosters the habit of propriety - the base of moral behavior. Commerce enlarges one’s opportunities to interact with strangers and introduces distance in interpersonal relationships. Commercial societies are therefore the environments most amenable to facilitate proper and moral behavior. With this reading of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, for Smith, commerce facilitates not just material prosperity but also moral development.
Keywords: Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, Distance, Moral Development, Commerce, Commercial Societies
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