[Marxism] The "Adam Smith Problem" and Adam Smith's Utopia

Doğan Göçmen dgn.gcmn at googlemail.com
Mon Dec 3 16:46:44 MST 2012

The Adam Smith Problem concerns the relationship between Smith’s two major
works, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) and An Inquiry into the Nature
and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (WN). Two passages in particular, one
in TMS and the other in WN, triggered off the whole debate some 150 years
ago. In TMS, Smith asserts:

"How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some
principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and
render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it
except the pleasure of seeing it." [TMS, I.i.1]

Yet in WN he observes:

"It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker,
that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their interest. We
address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never
talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages." [WN, I.ii.2]

In these two statements Smith makes two fundamentally different claims
about human nature. In the quotation from TMS, Smith suggests that in human
nature there are some original principles that make us interested in the
happiness of our fellow creatures. If our fellow creatures are unhappy, we
feel sorrow and want to help them to overcome their unhappiness. If they
are happy, we enjoy their happiness without expecting anything except
seeing their happiness. By contrast, in the passage from WN, Smith
describes human beings merely as self-interested or egocentric beings. It
is not the pleasure of seeing others’ happiness that primarily motivates
them but pure self-interest. The conception Smith relies on here is a
conception of pure utilitarian self-interest or self-love. Accordingly, we
have to expect our dinner from the butcher, brewer, or baker not from their
benevolence or humanity, but solely from their regard to their own

It is this seeming paradox in Smith’s anthropological and in effect social
theoretical accounts that gave rise to the whole debate about the “Adam
Smith Problem”.2 The main question in this debate is whether Smith’s work
contains two fundamentally different conceptions of human nature. If it
does, how should this contradiction be explained?

In this paper I make two fundamental claims. First, unlike many scholars, I
claim that Smith has one conception of human nature. But I suggest that his
conception has two complementary aspects—a general and a particular. The
aspect of human nature he develops in TMS I take for his general
conception, and the one in WN I regard as his particular conception of
human nature in the age of commercial society. Second, I claim that all
attempts to explain the contradiction between these two aspects of Smith’s
conceptions of human nature have failed because they approached it merely
as a conceptual problem of Smith’s.3 Unlike these scholars, I suggest that
this is a historical-practical problem arising from social relations in
commercial society. Moreover, I suggest that Smith is very well aware of
this problem and that he develops a solution to it. In this paper, I
endeavor, therefore, to show Smith’s own solution to the Adam Smith
Problem. To do this, I will first reconstruct the problem by working out
Smith’s theory of social individuality in TMS. I move on then, secondly, to
explore Smith’s account of the situation of the individual in commercial
society as is given in WN. And finally, I shall refer to Smith’s utopia of
a sympathetic society as his projected solution to the problem.


Dogan Göcmen

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