A Dialectical Reading of Adam Smith on Wealth and Happiness

37 Pages Posted: 5 Nov 2018 Last revised: 20 Nov 2020

See all articles by Erik W. Matson

Erik W. Matson

Mercatus Center at George Mason University

Date Written: October 25, 2019


In this essay I consider the relationship between wealth and happiness in Adam Smith by a close reading of a famous section of The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS IV.i.8-10). I interpret Smith as presenting an open-ended dialectic between the pursuit of wealth and the pursuit of happiness with the goal of contributing to his readers’ moral education. Within the dialectic Smith places some important social-scientific analysis, which he uses to stimulate reflection and synthesis. Upon reflection and observation of the tensions within the passages and the larger scope of his works, Smith pushes the reader to confront a question: given the knowledge—knowledge that one acquires upon reading TMS IV.i.8-10—that (1) people tend to be deceived into thinking that pursuing and acquiring wealth will make them happy, and that (2) acting on their deception has beneficial unintended consequences, how should one proceed in one’s own pursuit of wealth and happiness?

Keywords: Adam Smith, happiness, wealth, moral education, prudence

JEL Classification: B12, B31, D01

Suggested Citation

Matson, Erik W., A Dialectical Reading of Adam Smith on Wealth and Happiness (October 25, 2019). Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3266115 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3266115

Erik W. Matson (Contact Author)

Mercatus Center at George Mason University ( email )

3434 Washington Blvd., 4th Floor
Arlington, VA 22201
United States

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics