Skip to main content

Adam Smith Cared, So Why Can’t Modern Economics?: The Foundations for Care Ethics in Early Economic Theory

Part of the Issues in Business Ethics book series (IBET,volume 34)


In Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments Smith lays out a moral theory that has a number of points of connection with care ethics. Among them, he founds his moral theory on sentiment and “sympathy” (what we might nowadays call “empathy”) plays a large role in his theory of moral judgment. The first half of the chapter works how Smith’s moral theory can be viewed as a form of care ethics. It will be demonstrated that not only is it possible to see Smith as a care ethicist, but also the reasons for discounting him would be based on positions he took out of concern for certain possible consequences of his view (for example that it support ethics as objective in the way he thought it needed to be). Those consequences are not ones that would necessarily be shared by a contemporary care ethicist. Moreover, the positions he takes are not central to the overall theory. One could create a care ethics out of the core tenets of Smith’s moral psychology and ethical theory. The second half of the chapter demonstrates that the care ethic derived from Smith’s moral philosophy is relevant to modern economics. A close examination of the Wealth of Nations shows that Smith did not see economic theory as inseparable from moral theory. His discussions of public works show that Smith was very comfortable appealing to normative principles when discussing economic behavior and setting economic policy. Plus, his discussion of self-interest shows that he recognizes that caring cannot be separated from the economic sphere. In fact, many of the issues that have recently been raised about the nature of capitalism are the result of having abandoned the intermingling of economics and ethics that Smith recognized as a necessary part of human existence.


  • Adam Smith
  • Sympathy
  • Economics
  • Capitalism

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Buying options

USD   29.95
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • DOI: 10.1007/978-90-481-9307-3_3
  • Chapter length: 18 pages
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
USD   149.00
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • ISBN: 978-90-481-9307-3
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
Softcover Book
USD   199.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Hardcover Book
USD   199.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)


  1. 1.

    Unfortunately, Smith died before the book on law was completed and he instructed his executors to destroy it along with all of his other papers and correspondence. All that survives are some lecture notes by his students in his Jurisprudence class at the University of Glasgow published as his Lectures on Jurisprudence (Smith 2009).

  2. 2.

    Gavin Kennedy calls into question the idea that Smith really held a labor theory of value. If Kennedy is right, then Smith would be closer to modern economic theory. However, Kennedy admits that Smith’s presentation of his ideas in the Wealth of Nations is muddled, so there is as much reason to think that Smith held to a labor theory of value and was ambivalent about it as there is to think he didn’t hold one at all. For more on Kennedy’s interpretation of Smith see his Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy (Kennedy 2005).

  3. 3.

    Two works that deal with a caring approach to economics (and reference the connections Smith has to Care Ethics) are Nancy Folbre, The Invisible Heart: Economics and Family Values (Folbre 2001) and Riana Eisler, The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics (Eisler 2007).

  4. 4.

    Held (2006).

  5. 5.

    Smith (2009b).

  6. 6.

    Although both “sympathy” and “empathy” are words with Greek roots, neither of them was very common in the ancient world. Sympatheia was mainly used to describe the mysterious causal relationship between the body and soul in NeoPlatonic thought. In fact, the first usage of “sympathy” the OED records is in the context of discussing Plato’s notion of the soul. Consequently, “sympathy” has often been a placeholder for causal relationships that we don’t quite understand. “Empathy” enters the lexicon in the twentieth century as a translation of a word coined by Theodore Lipps to describe how we can project ourselves into a visual illusion. The crossover between the two terms and varied ways in which they are defined in relation to each other makes this author wary of committing to a particular usage as the “correct” one for either term.

  7. 7.

    This particular facet of Smith’s usage of sympathy was brought to light for me in Robert Sugden’s “Beyond empathy and sympathy: Adam Smith’s concept of fellow-feeling.” Economics and Philosophy (2002).

  8. 8.

    Fleischacker (2004).

  9. 9.

    Admittedly while Smith’s theory seems more open to the influence of society on us, many of his comments about character and virtue lean towards a standard Hobbesian view of human nature as being fundamentally atomistic which would not be as compatible with the notion of a relational self deployed by many Care Ethicists. Nonetheless, I will argue that Smith’s view of the self is not as starkly individualistic as it has been stereotypically portrayed in the narrative of eighteenth century thought. The fact that Smith’s economic theory depends on a somewhat connected notion of self opens up the possibility that a more connected and relational notion of self could provide a moral foundation for a form of capitalism.

  10. 10.

    I must thank an anonymous reviewer for Springer Press for encouraging me to be more explicit in addressing these concerns, especially Tronto’s critique which is found in Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care (Tronto 1993).

  11. 11.

    The quote also exhibits a very problematic bit of reasoning, based upon social practice, that seems to essentialize a lack of charity in women. Regardless of whether Smith himself was an essentialist about masculinity it should be possible to re-contextualize his ideas about self-command and humanity without being committed to theses that might be viewed as problematic from a feminist perspective. (Much as has been done with Kant’s unenlightened views about gender.)

  12. 12.

    For one influential relativistic (although empirically based) interpretation of Smith, see Campbell ( 1971). The author’s inclination is to regard Campbell’s work as an interesting extension of Smith, but not as an accurate interpretation of the text given Smith’s expressed goals for a moral theory. However, just because it is not what Smith intended does not mean it could not form the basis of a NeoSmithian theory.

  13. 13.

    TMS II, i, 2, 2; TMS III, iii, 21; TMS III, iii, 38; TMS III, iv, 4.

  14. 14.

    It is also not a strategy I would recommend for care ethics as it seems to simply ignore one of criticism of care ethics—that a theory based on individual sentiment will lead to a form of relativism that is counterproductive to moral discourse.

  15. 15.

    Noddings (1984).

  16. 16.

    Rachels (1999).

  17. 17.

    Smith (2009a).

  18. 18.

    An excellent analysis of the shift away from sympathy in nineteenth century economics can be found in Peart and Levy (2005). Peart and Levy argue that the loss of sympathy is one of the causes of the growing inequalities in economic markets in the industrial age and an unfortunate departure from Smith’s original vision.

  19. 19.

    Friedman (1970).

  20. 20.

    And again, his appeal to morality serves to mitigate another aspect of capitalism that is often criticized. In this case, it is the division of labor that many see as dehumanizing.

  21. 21.

    For a defense of this particular interpretation see Brown (1994).

  22. 22.

    Especially pages 48–55. Among the goals of that section is to refute Brown’s take on Smith’s approach to the Wealth of Nations.

  23. 23.

    Space does not permit me to make the full argument, but I hope to have sown the seeds for the idea that an adequate defense of capitalism relies upon a moral theory like Smith’s. The theory would be untenable without these moral presuppositions.


  • Brown, V. 1994. Adam Smith’s discourse: Canonicity Commerce and Conscience. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Campbell, T.D. 1971. Adam Smith’s science of morals. London: Allen & Unwin, Ltd.

    Google Scholar 

  • Eisler, R. 2007. The real wealth of nations: Creating a caring economics. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fleischacker, S. 2004. On Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations”: A philosophical companion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Folbre, N. 2001. The invisible heart: Economics and family values. New York, NY: New Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Friedman, M. 1970. The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits. New York Times Magazine September 13.

    Google Scholar 

  • Held, V. 2006. The ethics of care: Personal, political and global. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kennedy, G. 2005. Adam Smith’s lost legacy. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Noddings, N. 1984. Caring: A feminine approach to ethics & moral education. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Peart, S., and D. Levy. 2005. The “Vanity of the philosopher”: From equality to hierarchy in post-classical economics. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rachels, J. 1999. The elements of moral philosophy. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

    Google Scholar 

  • Smith, A. 2009a. Inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations, 2 volumes. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund.

    Google Scholar 

  • Smith, A. 2009b. The theory of moral sentiments. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sugden, R. 2002. Beyond empathy and sympathy: Adam Smith’s concept of fellow-feeling. Economics and Philosophy 18: 63–87.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tronto, J. 1993. Moral boundaries: A political argument for an ethic of care. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Andrew Terjesen .

Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

Copyright information

© 2011 Springer Science+Business Media B.V.

About this chapter

Cite this chapter

Terjesen, A. (2011). Adam Smith Cared, So Why Can’t Modern Economics?: The Foundations for Care Ethics in Early Economic Theory. In: Hamington, M., Sander-Staudt, M. (eds) Applying Care Ethics to Business. Issues in Business Ethics, vol 34. Springer, Dordrecht.

Download citation