As James Otteson points out in the introduction to Adam Smiths Market Place of Life, in recent years Adam Smiths work has received a great deal of scholarly attention, including important studies of the specifically philosophical underpinnings of his thought. In Ottesons view, however, the world still lacks a sustained examination of the approach Smith develops in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and a concomitant account of its connections to other parts of his wide-ranging corpus. Otteson aims to remedy this deficiency by focusing on the idea Smith develops famously in his Wealth of Nations: that the unintended order called the market emerges naturally from the free, everyday interactions of people with one another as they strive to satisfy their interests (p. 8). Otteson, however, urges that this market model be interpreted as the unifying theme of Smiths overall system, that it organizes not only his approach to economic relations but informs his view of institutional arrangements in general, be they linguistic, governmental, juridical, legal, or religious (p. 287). In this view, Smith generalized the concept of the market to explain all of human social customs and interactions (p. 7) and to reach a foundational understanding of the overall development and evolution of human social institutions (p. 321).
Otteson defends this bold thesis over the course of seven chapters and a conclusion. The early chapters are devoted to chiseling out, with great care and attention, the four central parts of Smiths moral theory (p. 8) from which Otteson plans to construct the proposed model. Chapter 1 unearths Smiths technical concept of sympathythe correspondence or harmony between the sentiments of the person principally concerned and the spectator (p. 18)and describes the impartial spectator procedure through which agents check their actual, private sentiments against a spectators imagined sentiments. A version of this process, says Otteson in chapter 2, underlies Smiths treatment of conscience, the inner judgment that arises from applying the impartial-spectator procedure to our own actions and sentiments. Otteson shows how, against the backdrop of human nature, especially the desire for mutual sympathy, tempered by love of self, in Smiths view the perspective of a disinterested third party functions to transform private experience into the standards (general rules) that make objective moral judgments possible.
The core of Ottesons argument, however, is contained in chapter 3, where he proceeds to arrange these parts into the market model. Although The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) was composed some years before The Wealth of Nations (1776), Otteson claims that Smiths moral philosophy adheres to a framework that ... has central elements of a system of unintended order modelled on an economic market (p. 124). The elements of making moral judgmentssympathy, the impartial spectator, conscience, and human naturecombine to form one example of large-scale market at work (p. 102), where free exchanges among participating people give rise, over time, to an unintended system of order (p. 101). If Otteson is correct, this parallel is remarkably close: both spheres reveal a motivating desire (to better ones position, achieve mutual sympathy), are governed by rules (justice, propriety, and merit), are sustained by a currency (goods and services, sentiments and moral judgments), and produce an unintended system of order (an economy and a moral order, respectively) (pp. 124, 28687). The same parallel, Otteson urges in chapter 7, applies to Smiths treatment of language (pp. 258ff.) and (a topic for another book) holds the key to understanding the creation, development, and maintenance of human social life generally (p. 287).
This is heady stuff, and one cannot but share the enthusiasm with which Otteson works out the details of his view. Impartiality and the cool head of the disinterested spectator, however, reveal a foundation somewhat less sound than the authors easy prose style might suggest. One major stumbling block for Otteson is that Smith himself never speaks of morals in the language of a market, which no doubt accounts for the dearth of evidence mustered from Theory of Moral Sentiments to support the proposed view. The claims about the four parts of Smiths moral philosophy are sound, but the further claim that Smith intended them to be assembled in the way Otteson suggests involves perhaps more faith in the value of speculation than many students of Smith would accept. The subsequent large claim that the model extends to social life generally appears to be wishful thinking. Furtherand perhaps the reason why Smith himself did not construct the model for usOttesons thesis seems plausible only if the market is defined at the very general level of orderly systems of exchange (p. 277). What, one wonders, does such a model effectively exclude? Something is awry with Ottesons classification here, so that under the guise of motivating desires, rules, currency, and unintended order, otherwise superficial similarities appear as important connections. What is missing from Ottesons discussion is any hint that working at such a level of generality obscures fundamental differences between economic and moral life, a thought that might well have occurred to Smith. Morality, after all, does not involve the formal relations of contract that typify a market economy, and free trade tends toward a homogeneous market (capitalism), whereas ethical life, as Otteson admits at one point (p. 218), produces a wide diversity of moral practices. Being ethical, moreover, for Smith as for many eighteenth-century thinkers, is a matter of character, which depends in turn on reflection and soul-craft developed over the course of a lifetime. The economic system produced through truck, barter, and trade might be extended metaphorically to sharpen the general outlines of moral life, but that possibility does not make the two orders similar in kind.
Such, at least, are questions Otteson might have raised and resolved. He moves, instead, to put his model directly to good interpretative use. In chapter 4, he applies it to that old saw of Smith interpretation, the Adam Smith Problem of why benevolence, which looms so large in Theory of Moral Sentiments, gets barely a mention in Wealth of Nations. After judging various extant solutions inadequate (pp. 156ff.), Otteson concludes that Smiths conflicting pictures of proper human motivation constitute a real problem, but that the market model shows the works to be fundamentally consistent (p. 197). The market provides a single conceptual model underlying both books (p. 171), Otteson contends, and the familiarity principlethat peoples natural benevolence toward others varies directly with their familiarity with them (p. 171)explains why self-interest should be the primary (and morally proper) motivation (p. 188) in economic pursuits, as treated in Wealth of Nations. Similarly, in chapter 6, Otteson draws on his earlier discussion to argue that Smiths moral theory is normative because it conduces to the overall welfare of society and to the general flourishing of individuals (p. 221). Much here depends on the view that the market model is as fundamental to Smiths account as Otteson claims, and if one is unconvinced by that view, its interpretive extension necessarily loses some of its force.
If Otteson is unable to follow through convincingly on his larger project of unifying Smiths thought through the market, however, many of the details of his study recommend it to students of Smith and of eighteenth-century thought more generally. There are interesting discussions of, inter alia, the famous two persons passage from Theory of Moral Sentiments (p. 113) in terms of two streams of consciousness vying for attention (pp. 78ff.) and of the relation between praiseworthiness and the desire for mutual sympathy (p. 89). Otteson also offers an informative discussion of Smiths appeal to both final causes, which reflect utility and general happiness, and efficient causes, which are manifest in individuals pursuing their own interests (pp. 239ff.). There are also engaging moments in Ottesons regular appeals to Humeon sympathy (pp. 30ff.), utility (pp. 50ff.), and the unintended order of morality (pp. 118ff.)to delineate the fine grain of Smiths own philosophical originality. A little too often, perhaps, Ottesons Hume appears more as a whipping boy for a committed Smithian than as a point of comparison for clarifying the issue at hand, and at times his presentation of Humes philosophy is questionable. For example, Otteson makes much of the criticism that Hume focuses exclusively on utility (p. 31 and passim), as if Hume had never spoken of qualities immediately agreeable to ourselves and others, and he defends the rather odd view that Humes treatment of causality commits him to the admittedly hopeless idea that we need to discover the remote consequences of actions before we are able to discover their utility (p. 82). Humes actual point, of course, is that causal reasoning enables us to know things about the future, albeit based on past experience and probabilistic reasoning.
Despite its drawbacks, however, Ottesons study should be read as a genuine and provocative attempt to interpret Smiths thought and as a timely and valuable contribution to the current Smith literature.