The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) is the first book that Adam Smith wrote, and for decades it was contrasted to his most famous other book, The Wealth of Nations (1776). Most scholars today do not see the contrast anymore, but Ryan Patrick Hanley resumes this so-called Adam Smith Problem in his Our Great Purpose: Adam Smith on Living a Better Life. For Hanley, the Wealth of Nations is the book about self-interest (but not greed) and wealth accumulation, and Theory of Moral Sentiments is the book about “love” and living a good life. But there is no Problem because the two books complement each other. Wealth of Nations celebrates wealth accumulation and decreased poverty, and Theory of Moral Sentiments warns us against the moral costs of this wealth accumulation (181), helping us stay on the right path in a “capitalist” society.

Hanley achieves his goal of showing that Theory of Moral Sentiments is a normative book offering prescriptions regarding how to live the good life (86), rather than a description of moral development, as it is typically considered, thanks to his usual beautiful prose and narrative.

So the image of Adam Smith that we get from Hanley is the explicit opposite of “Greed is good” (13). Hanley’s Smith promotes a society in which “everyone loved each other and was loved by them in return” (90), a love of others that is so great and complete that our goal in life is “to feel much for others and little for ourselves” (132), a love that drives us to become a “wise and virtuous person, […] serving others and […] always striving for their well-being, [who] lives a life that is good for those who live with her. […] A person who ‘sacrifice[s]’ herself for others, […] for a life of active service, [who] sacrifice[s] promoting her own self-interest in order to promote the interest of others” (148).

But if there is truth in this quest of “always working for others, never promoting herself, all the while knowing that nobody is ever going to recognize her for all this” (151) that for Hanley Smith asks us to have to live a good life, then the implication, which Hanley does not consider, is that Smith would also aspire to see the end of markets, as in a world of “love lover[s]” (88) markets become useless. For his reading to hold, Hanley has to ignore, and indeed does ignore, that for Smith people face binding time constraints:

“In civilized society, [a person] stands at all times in need of the cooperation and assistance of great multitudes, while his whole live is scarce sufficient to gain the friendship of a few persons. […] But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brether, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favor and shew them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires if them.” WN I.ii.2

So the implication of Hanley’s reading of Theory of Moral Sentiments is that the achievement of a good life is actually not a complement, but a substitute for markets.

To achieve this unconventional reading of Smith, Hanley “arranged and ordered (each chapter) in such a way as to tell a story that starts with the first chapter and ends with the last” (10).

Hanley’s Smith thinks that we should not just live, we should “live a better life”, a good life, a meaningful life, a purposeful life: “living a life requires that we be actively engaged in pursuing a trajectory that we can recognize as ‘a life’—that is, a trajectory that not only has a beginning and a middle and end, but also has a unity to it that enables us to see all its different parts as fitting together in a meaningful way” (1). In this journey that is our life, we are torn “in two very different directions. On the one hand, we are naturally led to be concerned with ourselves and our own well-being. On the other hand, we are naturally led to be concerned with the well-being and happiness of others” (10). “These competing demands raise key challenges to the project of living a single and unified life” (11).

So we need to battle against natural tendencies that lure us to be blindly attracted to the “trinkets and baubles” of wealth, we need to fight against our ambition that deludes us into pursing wealth when we would be better off stopping and smelling the roses more often.

The story that Hanley tells us is of a Smith’s “cautionary tale” (43), where we should quest to become perfect “wise and virtuous” people. It is a story that becomes even more powerful when compared to Tyler Cowen’s TedTalk “Be suspicious of stories”. Cowen does not talk about Adam Smith at all, yet he may capture an aspect of Smith that is absent in Hanley’s story. Cowen simply warns us about stories, stories that describe our life as journeys, as battles, as quests. “A story is about intention. A story is not about spontaneous order or complex human institutions which are the product of human action, but not of human design.”

Hanley claims that for Smith “living a life requires more than just the activity of living. … [We are required] to see ourselves as a self, engaged in the project of living a life of virtue and flourishing, of unity and coherence, and thus, hopefully, of purpose and meaning” (12). For Cowen our life is a mess, and it is good that it is a mess: “If I actually had to live those journeys, and quests, and battles, that would be so oppressive to me! It’s like, my goodness, can’t I just have my life in its messy, ordinary – I hesitate to use the word – glory but that it’s fun for me? Do I really have to follow some kind of narrative? Can’t I just live?”

The book is not for specialists and has very limited scholarly references. But it is a challenge for the people who think in terms of spontaneous order and unintended consequences, not only at the macro level but also at the individual level. Hopefully it will induce more people to read The Theory of Moral Sentiments.


*Maria Pia Paganelli is a Professor of Economics at Trinity University. She works on Adam Smith, David Hume, 18th century theories of money, as well as the links between the Scottish Enlightenment and behavioral economics.

For more articles by Maria Pia Paganelli, see the Archive.

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