Adam Smith's Moral Philosophy: A Historical and Contemporary Perspective on Markets, Law, Ethics, and Culture.

Author:Henry, John F.
Position:Book review

Adam Smith's Moral Philosophy: A Historical and Contemporary Perspective on Markets, Law, Ethics, and Culture, by Jerry Evensky. New York: Cambridge University Press. 2005. Cloth, ISBN 0521852471, $75.00. 331 pages.

It is unlikely that any other book written on Adam Smith begins with a quote by Albert Einstein and ends with one by John Lennon, both expressing the same theme--"imagination." For noted Smithian scholar Jerry Evensky, imagination is the key that unlocks several doors in interpreting "the real" Adam Smith. Evensky's examination is one of several recent works that treat Smith's opus as a (generally) seamless whole. Rather than focusing solely on The Wealth of Nations with periodic forays into The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Evensky argues that all Smith's writings were aspects of a unified theory that attempted to unravel the mysteries of a grand design. And, to undertake such a project required Smith to imagine what was in the mind of the designer.

At the outset, let me say that I found Evensky's work intriguing, thoughtful (and thought-provoking), and insightful, though not always compelling. I'd suggest coupling a reading of this book with the recent work of Samuel Fleischacker, On Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (who takes the same general tack as Evensky but from a philosopher's perspective) and possibly James Alvey, Adam Smith: Optimist or Pessimist (who raises more questions than does Evensky on Smith's position on the long-term prospects for capitalist society). Nonetheless, this is a provocative work that is at times dense but still accessible. Evensky is a fluid writer who effectively guides the reader through his argument (though I do find the heavy use of bullets objectionable).

Evensky's position is that Smith's project was to discover the workings of a world that is a complex of connecting principles unfolding as the creation of a grand design (and he holds that Smith's designer was a deity, though in the old Newtonian sense--set the world in motion, then stand aside). What we have to imagine is how this world would evolve if perfect order prevailed. However, contra Newton, Smith is investigating a social world in which "humans imagine, they reason and they suffer 'human frailty'" (p. 8). Hence, human motivations and actions, institutions, matter: moral philosophy matters. The grand design can either be advanced or retarded by human activity and the institutional arrangements humans create. In this, the fundamental...

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