Adam Smith’s Approach to Virtue Ethics Had Nothing Whatsoever to Do With the Invisible Hand of the Market

16 Pages Posted: 17 Apr 2018

See all articles by Michael Emmett Brady

Michael Emmett Brady

California State University, Dominguez Hills

Date Written: March 31, 2018


Adam Smith’s version of Virtue Ethics can be traced directly back to Plato (Socrates) and Aristotle. Smith basically skipped Aquinas and Augustine because they were also Catholic theologians, as well as philosophers. Referencing them would not have been looked upon kindly by the Scottish Presbyterian Church, of which Smith was a nominal member.

Virtue Ethics, as a system of ethics, is completely independent of the issue of whether or not there is a personal God or of any religion. However, Virtue ethics is a system of ethics which is completely consistent and compatible with the writings of the ancient Israelite leaders, like David and Solomon, and Confucius, Buddha, Plato (Socrates), Jesus, Mohammed, Ramakrishna, and Gandhi, among others, who had applied some type of Virtue ethics approach.

For Smith, the cement or glue that held any and all societies together was a commitment to implementing the virtue of Justice. At the personal level, the most important virtue for any individual was prudence. However, the virtue of prudence has absolutely nothing to do with self(ish) interest as exemplified in terms like “Laissez Faire”, “Invisible Hand”, or “Maximizing your Utility”. These terms are consistent with a form of ethics called utilitarianism, which Bentham and others put forth as a rival of, and replacement for, virtue ethics. There is no, and there can never be, any overlap between the two different systems.

Keywords: Smith, Virtue Ethics, Benthamite Utilitarianism, Aristotle, Money, Banking, Prodigals, Imprudent Risk Taker, Projectors

JEL Classification: B10, B12, B14, B16, B20, B22

Suggested Citation

Brady, Michael Emmett, Adam Smith’s Approach to Virtue Ethics Had Nothing Whatsoever to Do With the Invisible Hand of the Market (March 31, 2018). Available at SSRN: or

Michael Emmett Brady (Contact Author)

California State University, Dominguez Hills ( email )

1000 E. Victoria Street, Carson, CA
Carson, CA 90747
United States

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