Adam Smith Problem

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The Adam Smith problem is the question of whether the two main works of Adam Smith : The theory of ethical feelings (original title: The Theory of Moral Sentiments ) and the prosperity of nations - An investigation of its nature and its causes (original title: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations ) form a unit or must be seen separately.

If you look at the work Wealth of Nations in isolation, Adam Smith presents himself as the founder of political economy and economic liberalism .

Reversal theory

The reversal theory plays a role in the discussion about the Adam Smith problem, especially in Germany. She suspects that between the creation of both works, Adam Smith shifted his opinion on the central motive of human action from sympathy to self-interest . At first this seemed difficult to understand, because Adam Smith revised the theory of ethical feelings until shortly before his death in 1790 without making any major changes to the motive of sympathy. The historian Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger provides an explanation for this , according to which Smith's stay in Enlightenment -influenced France lies between the two publications. Denis Diderot's publication of the Encyclopédie also fell during this period . In it Diderot overcame the old canon of knowledge and values ​​and also allowed contradicting statements on certain topics. Today's interpretation also assumes that even in the theory of ethical feelings, the importance of sympathy as a motive for action was minor, but not its function as a moral judge.

Category error theory

Many more modern Smith interpretations are of the opinion that both works are essentially consistent components of a comprehensively conceived complete work of social philosophy , so The Wealth of Nations should not be understood exclusively as a work of economic theory. Conversely, Wilhelm Meyer points out that The Wealth of Nations cannot be considered an ethical work. Both considerations are aimed at the fact that the Adam Smith problem must be a category error, since Smith published in different fields. In this more complex context, Smith appears as a key figure in the emergence of other social sciences , such as Michael Heinrich. He characterizes the Smithian concept of sympathy as the basis for the legitimation of the existence of the self-interested unsocial producer. Acceptance by the “impartial spectator” only takes place if the feelings (and the resulting actions) of those involved coincide. However, this only happens if the effort (i.e. the developed forces and means) to achieve a desired thing is compensated by the "usefulness".

Private use theory

Another possible interpretation is the distinction according to the use of reason. It goes back to Immanuel Kant's enlightenment paper from 1784. In this Kant distinguishes between the public and private use of reason. Kant explains it using the example of a soldier who, as a soldier, should obey, but as a person should use his reason and as a scholar should enlighten.

Individual evidence

  1. Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger: The Enlightenment, Reclam, Ditzingen 2011, 189
  2. ^ So Raphael / Macfie, 20–25, or Karl Ballestrem: Adam Smith, Beck, Munich 2001, 198
  3. ^ Wilhelm Meyer: Prosperity, Market and Moral: The Adam Smith Problem, in Nutzinger, Hans G. (Hg): To the problem of social order, Metropolis, Marburg 2001, 64
  4. ^ Immanuel Kant: Answering the question: What is Enlightenment ?, Berlin Monthly December 1784, 487


  • David D. Raphael / Alexander L. Macfie: Introduction 2 (b) Relation of TMS to WN . In: Adam Smith : Theory of moral sentiments ("The theory of moral sentiments"). Verlag Meiner, Hamburg 2004, ISBN 3-7873-1671-X .
  • Michael Heinrich: "The Science of Value - The Marxian Critique of Political Economy between Scientific Revolution and Classical Tradition", 2006, ISBN 3-89691-454-5