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Sep 22, 2015

Adam Smith’s Ethics: Justice vs. Virtue

Commutative justice has some peculiar features not shared by the other virtues in Adam Smith’s moral system.

I concluded my last post by considering the tension between reason and sentiment in Adam Smith’s moral theory. On the one hand, we exercise reason as we deliberate between the man in the breast’s recommendations and our own passions and desires. Yet sympathy involves emotions and tastes too. Sometimes we are moved by the plight of others without reflection. Sometimes our emotional reactions to certain situations or behaviors reveal tacitly known moral standards and expectations. And sometimes simple reflection can change our sentiments.

Smith’s analogy of writing, and his use of it to contrast justice with the rest of the virtues, is one of the most important and intriguing parts of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. He considers how precision and vagueness, clear rules and ambiguous ideals, both have important roles to play in moral judgment:

The rules of justice may be compared to the rules of grammar; the rules of the other virtues, to the rules which critics lay down for the attainment of what is sublime and elegant in composition. The one, are precise, accurate, and indispensable. The other, are loose, vague, and indeterminate, and present us rather with a general idea of the perfection we ought to aim at, than afford us any certain and infallible directions for acquiring it. A man may learn to write grammatically by rule, with the most absolute infallibility; and so, perhaps, he may be taught to act justly. But there are no rules whose observance will infallibly lead us to the attainment of elegance or sublimity in writing; though there are some which may help us, in some measure, to correct and ascertain the vague ideas which we might otherwise have entertained of those perfections. And there are no rules by the knowledge of which we can infallibly be taught to act upon all occasions with prudence, with just magnanimity, or proper beneficence: though there are some which may enable us to correct and ascertain, in several respects, the imperfect ideas which we might otherwise have entertained of those virtues.

We find a great deal of clarity and specificity in the rules of justice. That is not to say that there are no difficult or gray cases. Rather it means that we can usually reason about whether actions are just or unjust—as we could discuss whether someone is following or violating the rules of grammar. But when it comes to other virtues, we have a different problem. Assessing the merits of behavior requires more than reason. It also requires certain moral sensibilities and aesthetics.

Determining what constitutes the sublime or elegant in composition is tricky. In many ways those qualities of writing are determined by those who write well. The standards themselves can evolve or can be disputed by multiple experts. But despite the “I know it when I see it” quality of judging the “loose, vague, and indeterminate” rules, we can still make better and worse cases for an action being moral or not. The fact that we cannot all come to a single agreed upon answer does not mean we cannot have a productive conversation about the issue—just as we can have a productive conversation about how good a movie is.

Interestingly, thinking in terms of commutative justice involves making judgments of blame, but not of praise. One can act justly, as they should, and not be praised for it, just as, beyond grammar school, one does not earn praise for merely getting one’s grammar right. But it is difficult to imagine someone being exceedingly or profusely just, as they could be profusely grateful or generous. Commutative justice has a primarily negative requirement to not harm others, as opposed to a requirement to do them positive good:

The man who barely abstains from violating either the person, or the estate, or the reputation of his neighbours, has surely very little positive merit. He fulfils, however, all the rules of what is peculiarly called justice, and does every thing which his equals can with propriety force him to do, or which they can punish him for not doing. We may often fulfil all the rules of justice by sitting still and doing nothing.

But there are other senses of justice under which one can be deemed praiseworthy or blameworthy for acting, respectively, above or below propriety: “distributive justice” and “estimative justice.” These two terms take justice into different contexts. Distributive justice means making a becoming use of what is one’s own. Equals cannot coerce you into using your resources and talents well. Estimative justice means esteeming other people and objects properly, giving them their due. But like the other virtues, these two forms of justice do not have clear and precise rules. Questions of distributive and estimative justice depend on the opinions and taste of moral authorities.

Smith claims that assessing other virtues is quite different than assessing commutative justice. One of the important questions in The Theory of Moral Sentiments is why Smith treats commutative justice as special. My own opinion is that the distinction between commutative justice and the other virtues matters because in equal-to-equal relationships only violations of commutative justice warrant resentment, retribution, and coercion to punish the transgression or prevent a future one—hence my arguments about Smith’s views of liberty, politics, government, and justice. But Smith thought virtue, not simply freedom from coercion or maximizing consumption, was essential to happiness.

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