A Dialectical Reading of Adam Smith on Wealth and Happiness

41 Pages Posted: 5 Nov 2018 Last revised: 28 Feb 2019

See all articles by Erik Matson

Erik Matson

New York University - Department of Economics

Date Written: February 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 present Smith as constructing a dialectic between two views of wealth and happiness with the goal of contributing to his readers’ moral education. Within the dialectic Smith places some important descriptive social, political, and economic analysis, which he then uses to stimulate reflection and synthesis in the reader. 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 that (1) people tend to be deceived into thinking that pursuing and acquiring wealth will make them happy, but (2) their deception has beneficial unintended consequences, how should one proceed? Using Smith’s moral framework and conception of happiness, I speculate about a resolution.

Keywords: Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, happiness, wealth

JEL Classification: B12, B31

Suggested Citation

Matson, Erik, A Dialectical Reading of Adam Smith on Wealth and Happiness (February 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3266115 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3266115

Erik Matson (Contact Author)

New York University - Department of Economics ( email )

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