Adam Smith’s “Collateral” Inquiry: Fashion and Morality in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations

CRAIG SMITH
HISTORY OF POLITICAL ECONOMY 45.3 (2013): 505-522

Abstract: In his Life of Adam Smith, Dugald Stewart notes that Smith was “always disposed to ascribe to custom and fashion their full share in regulating the opinions of mankind with respect to beauty.” Indeed, Stewart refers to this as a “collateral” inquiry within The Theory of Moral Sentiments. This article examines what Smith has to say about fashion and attempts to identify in what sense it is “collateral” to the main inquiry of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. It is claimed that Smith does indeed advance a well-developed analysis of fashion as a social and economic phenomenon, and that this analysis fits neatly within the boundaries set by his examination of morality in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and the political economy of The Wealth of Nations and Lectures on Jurisprudence. Moreover, the article argues that an examination of this aspect of Smith’s thought reveals a key step in his attempt to distance his moral theory from crude forms of conventionalism.