Commutative, Distributive, and Estimative Justice In Adam Smith

Adam Smith Review (Vol. 12), Forthcoming

35 Pages Posted: 10 Mar 2017 Last revised: 4 Jul 2018

See all articles by Daniel B. Klein

Daniel B. Klein

George Mason University - Department of Economics; George Mason University - Mercatus Center

Date Written: March 10, 2017


In Smith there is something of a contrariety, or double doctrine, on justice: Much of his writing leaves us with the impression that we should use justice and its cognates to mean commutative justice, and only that. But much also authorizes the conclusion that we should embrace and talk of three different senses of justice. I exposit the three senses of justice, but leave aside Smith’s intentions in leaving us with such diverging impressions. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he distinguishes and describes commutative justice, distributive justice, and a third justice a name for which he does not give but is here called estimative. Smith shows that commutative justice is very special, yet he affirmed and abundantly practiced justice talk beyond commutative justice. On my interpretation, estimative justice looms large in matters determined by the jural “superior,” that is, the governor. I suggest that Smith would denominate such matters, not in terms of distributive justice, but rather in terms of estimative justice (as well as commutative justice).

Keywords: Commutative justice, distributive justice, estimative justice, social justice, Adam Smith

JEL Classification: A13, B12

Suggested Citation

Klein, Daniel B., Commutative, Distributive, and Estimative Justice In Adam Smith (March 10, 2017). Adam Smith Review (Vol. 12), Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: or

Daniel B. Klein (Contact Author)

George Mason University - Department of Economics ( email )

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Fairfax, VA 22030
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George Mason University - Mercatus Center ( email )

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