Adam Smith on Justice, Social Justice, and Ultimate Justice

JAMES R. OTTESON

SOCIAL PHILOSOPHY AND POLICY, Volume 34, Issue 1

Abstract: Adam Smith argues that virtue falls into two broad categories: “justice,” which he calls a “negative” virtue because it principally comprises restraint from harming or injuring others; and “beneficence,” which he calls “positive” because it comprises the actions we ought to take to improve others’ situations. Smith’s conception of justice is thus quite “thin,” and some critics argue that it is indeed too thin, since it fails to incorporate substantive concerns for the well-being of others. In this essay, I lay out Smith’s conception of justice and offer a way to understand it that attempts to comprehend the various things he says about it. I then offer a cluster of objections drawing on criticisms that might fall under the heading of “social justice.” Finally, I suggest how Smith might respond to the criticisms by outlining a Smithian conception of what I call “ultimate justice.”