Adam Smith on Beneficence & Justice

I’ve recently begun the Ethics & Economics Challenge program with students at Merrimack Valley High School in Concord, N.H. We’ve been discussing what Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments can tell us about what types of moral duties may legitimately be enforced. I’m blogging my reflections as we go. Here is a selection from the first installment:

Last week, I talked with the students at Merrimack Valley High School in Concord about Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. According to Smith, you know an act is right when an impartial spectator would sympathize (or empathize) with the emotions motivating your act. Smith says that an impartial spectator will always empathize with both the kindness of someone who acts to benefit others and with the gratitude of the recipients of that kindness. So, as Smith sees it, acts of beneficence are always right. Does it follow that acts of beneficence are moral duties?

Bring me some coffee.
The simplest example we discussed in class is that of a friend who usually brings you coffee in the morning. If he fails to bring you coffee one morning, are you justified in resenting him? Has he acted immorally?

There is a clear answer here using Smith’s logic. An impartial spectator wouldn’t empathize with your resentment against someone who merely failed to be generous one morning. And an impartial spectator would never want to force someone to be kind.

Smith believed that we do have duties to be beneficent toward others, but they’re not duties we should enforce. To go further, duties of beneficence are what philosophers call imperfect duties, that is, they are not owed to specific people in specific circumstances. We have a duty to live beneficent lives, helping others freely and cheerfully, but we don’t have a duty to perform specific beneficent acts to specific people, like bringing coffee to my friend on a specific morning.

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2 thoughts on “Adam Smith on Beneficence & Justice

    1. We teach political philosophy, with a hefty dose of ethics, in many political science departments, and I’ve taught it myself to undergrads. One of my specialties in grad school was normative theory (not incentive-compatible, by the way).

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