Adam Smith on organic change in moral beliefs

Smith, C. (2021) Adam Smith on organic change in moral beliefs. In: Bíró, G. (ed.) Humanity and Nature in Economic Thought: Searching for the Organic Origins of the Economy. Series: Routledge Studies in the History of Economics. Routledge: London, pp. 24-40. ISBN 9780367686956

Full text not currently available from Enlighten.

Publisher's URL:


Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments contains one of the most sophisticated naturalistic accounts of the evolution of shared moral beliefs to be found in the history of philosophy. One of Smith’s achievements is his subtle contrasting of the act of philosophy, understood as the rational explanation of the origin and operation of moral beliefs and rational reflection on the content of these beliefs, with the experience of everyday moral judgment. Smith’s naturalistic, evolutionary, and organic understanding of the development of shared beliefs highlights the distinction between philosophical arguments about how we ought to live and the lived experience of making actual moral decisions about what we ought to do. This is nowhere more apparent than in his account of how moral beliefs evolve over time from actual instances of moral judgment in a process that is organic and endogenous. Smith’s account of how moral beliefs change without the intentional intervention of philosophical reflection invites us to reconsider how Smith explains the institutional and cultural embeddedness of his political economy. The example of his views on infanticide provides a direct link between his organic theory of moral change and the normative justification of commercial society in the Wealth of Nations.

Item Type:Book Sections
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:Smith, Dr Craig
Authors: Smith, C.
College/School:College of Social Sciences > School of Social and Political Sciences > Politics

University Staff: Request a correction | Enlighten Editors: Update this record