Adam Smith’s Sixth Edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1790 was specifically devised to refute Jeremy Bentham’s 1787 attacks on Virtue Ethics and The Wealth of Nations as contained in his Utilitarian tracts The Principles of Morals and Legislation and In Defense of Usury
22 Pages Posted: 13 Mar 2020
Date Written: February 16, 2020
Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarian tracts The Principles of Morals and Legislation and In Defense of Usury contains an explicit attack on Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations on pages 8-23 in chapter Two of The Principles of Morals and Legislation, as well as on pages 167-168 and 187-188.Bentham argues repeatedly on these pages that all systems of moral philosophy based on sympathy and antipathy are flawed. Bentham’s conclusion is that ethics can only be based on the principle of utility alone and nothing else.
Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments is based on sympathy ,but not antipathy. However, the major foundation for The Theory of Moral Sentiments is the virtue of prudence, since ,without prudence, sympathy can’t be backed up with actions and none of the later virtues can be successfully implemented. Bentham’s Utilitarian maximizing utility concept has nothing whatsoever to do with the virtue of prudence and is intended to replace virtue ethics completely .If Utility maximization were related to,or a form of, prudence alone, then it would have been subject to Smith’s withering attacks in The Theory of Moral Sentiments on all ancient philosophies that were based on Prudence alone, such as those expressed by the Stoics, Cynics, and Skeptics. That would mean that Bentham’s Utilitarianism was merely a variation on a theme that argued Prudence alone was the only virtue and mean that there was nothing original or innovative in Bentham’s utilitarian ethics. Smith realized that Bentham’s position had nothing to do with prudence at all and was a system of thought that sought to ink psychological egoism explicitly to the possession of money alone as the only criterion for ethical consideration and action.
Bentham’s major innovation,then, was to claim that money alone was the best measure of ,or proxy for,the successful maximization of utility since all men loved money for money’s sake alone all the time. This entails that all actions always lead to results that lead to an increase in one’s monetary, pecuniary or financial position or situation in life. Happiness and success in life are then functions of the capability of a decision maker to accumulate more money over time. .
Smith successfully decimated Bentham’s attack on virtue ethics and repelled his attempt to undermine the virtue of prudence in the Sixth edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments .Unfortunately, Smith’s metaphorical and incidental use of the term, Invisible Hand , one time in both books allowed Benthamite Utilitarian economists to seek to transform the self interest (shrewdness, frugality, parsimony, saving) of the virtue of prudence, expressed in the The Theory of Moral Sentiments by the example of an athlete using maximum and sustained effort( practice, training ,preparation, intensity, concentration, etc.) to win a racing competition and in The Wealth of Nations by the brewer,baker ,and butcher using maximum ,sustained effort to win an economic competition,as being a rejection of the virtues of benevolence and magnanimity .Nothing could be further from the truth, as winning both the racing and economic competition first, by winning the prize or making an economic profit or gain, is a necessary condition that must take place before one can engage in the virtues of benevolence and magnanimity second.
Just as there is a division of labor and specialization of function in the economic realm,the application of the different virtues also is divided up and specialized in actual application. Adam Smith’s example of running a race emphasized the fact that, when preparing and training and running the race, the only virtue that could be applied was the virtue of prudence. It is simply impossible to train for and run a race to win if the racer is considering the interests of the other competitors in the race besides his own. In fact ,it is an oxymoron to argue that the racer needs to be simultaneously concerned about how he finishes the race and how others may finish the race .It is only after he has finished the race and won(lost) that the virtues of temperance, justice(fairness),benevolence and magnanimity can come into play. So it is also in the economic competition in the market place. It is the virtue of prudence that is especially applicable in the economic competition in the same manner that it was applicable in the racing competition .However, after the competition in the market place has been won(lost),the other virtues are to be deployed .
It is a very severe error is to assume that Smith’s prudence is Jeremy Bentham’s maximizing utility. They are not the same and there is no connection between the two .Economists err because they have confused and conflated Smith’s virtue ethics conception of self interest with Jeremy Bentham’s conflicting utilitarian conception of self interest.
Keywords: Smith, Bentham, Prudence, Utility, Sympathy, Virtue Ethics, Utilitarian Ethics
JEL Classification: B10, B12, B14, B18, B20, B22
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation