Adam Smith’s Account of Justice Between Naturalness and Historicity


Abstract: Adam Smith is often taken be an heir to the natural jurisprudence tradition, to which he explicitly refers in several places in his oeuvre. He combines it with an account of the moral sentiments, in which he sees the origin of morality and justice. The moral sentiments, as explored in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, are the basis for justice, which, embodied in positive law, is the framework for commercial society, the economy of which Smith explores in the Wealth of Nations. In this sense, Smith is seen by many scholars as a being a moral philosopher in the first place, and an economist in the second place. The challenge that remains, and which Smith addresses by a number of rhetorical strategies, is to bring existing institutions closer to the ideal of justice as derived from the moral sentiments.The aim of this paper is to challenge this picture and to show that Smith’s position on justice and the law is more complex. Moral philosophy, moral psychology, economics and history are much more intertwined in Smith’s thought than this picture assumes. In particular, they are intertwined in his historical account.