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The Max U Approach: Prudence Only, or Not Even Prudence? A Smithian Perspective


  • David Lipka


In many works Deirdre McCloskey criticizes professional economics for too readily representing man as a maximizing agent—Mr. Maximum Utility, or Max U. McCloskey says that economic activities are not the machinations of robots or mathematical functions, but rather affairs among human beings. She prefers to approach the human being as a complex of virtues (or lack thereof). In all this, I basically concur. But McCloskey says that the Max U approach represents man in terms of one virtue: prudence. She calls the Max U approach “Prudence Only.” My concern is that associating Max U with prudence does not do justice to prudence. In treating of prudence, I draw exclusively from Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith makes many statements about prudence. It is by no means clear that they add up to a well defined notion of prudence, but it is clear that most of Smith’s important statements about prudence do not fit the Max U approach. My paper aims to correct and avoid any notion that Smithian prudence may be thought of as maximization or optimization.

Suggested Citation

  • David Lipka, 2013. "The Max U Approach: Prudence Only, or Not Even Prudence? A Smithian Perspective," Econ Journal Watch, Econ Journal Watch, vol. 10(1), pages 2-14, January.
  • Handle: RePEc:ejw:journl:v:10:y:2013:i:1:p:2-14

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Deirdre McCloskey, 2008. "Adam Smith, the Last of the Former Virtue Ethicists," History of Political Economy, Duke University Press, vol. 40(1), pages 43-71, Spring.
    2. Deirdre Mccloskey, 2008. "Not by P Alone: A Virtuous Economy," Review of Political Economy, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 20(2), pages 181-197.
    3. Raphael, D. D., 2009. "The Impartial Spectator: Adam Smith's Moral Philosophy," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780199568260.
    4. Sugden, Robert, 1991. "Rational Choice: A Survey of Contributions from Economics and Philosophy," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 101(407), pages 751-785, July.
    5. George J. Stigler, 1971. "Smith's Travels on the Ship of State," History of Political Economy, Duke University Press, vol. 3(2), pages 265-277, Fall.
    6. Klein, Daniel B., 2014. "Knowledge and Coordination: A Liberal Interpretation," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780199355327.
    7. Edward P. Lazear, 2000. "Economic Imperialism," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 115(1), pages 99-146.
    8. Searle, John R., 2005. "What is an institution?," Journal of Institutional Economics, Cambridge University Press, vol. 1(01), pages 1-22, June.
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    Cited by:

    1. David Lipka, 2014. "Do economists need virtues?," ICER Working Papers 06-2014, ICER - International Centre for Economic Research.
    2. Rosanas, Josep Mª & Cugueró-Escofet, Natalia, 2016. "Leadership, Ethics, Prudence and Justice: Prudence Alone Is not Enough for Decision-Makers," IESE Research Papers D/1144, IESE Business School.

    More about this item


    Max U; prudence; Moral Sentiments; Adam Smith; D. N. McCloskey;

    JEL classification:

    • B12 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - History of Economic Thought through 1925 - - - Classical (includes Adam Smith)
    • B40 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - Economic Methodology - - - General
    • D10 - Microeconomics - - Household Behavior - - - General


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