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Das Adam Smith Problem and Faculty Psychology in the Antebellum North


  • Stewart Davenport


This essay addresses the question of what happened when the Adam Smith problem of industrializing Europe met the faculty psychology of antebellum America. Although it was not called the Adam Smith problem until the late nineteenth century, the fact that Smith wrote two books instead of one has always posed difficulties for those seeking integrity between the ethical and the economical. For two groups of antebellum Protestants—the “clerical economists” and the “pastoral moralists”—this is where faculty psychology came in. Employing the tripartite scheme of conscience, self-interest, and passions, both of these groups nevertheless sought a moral order that was binary. In other words, they wanted to understand the world in terms of good and evil—of what kind of commercial behavior was permissible and what was not. The difference, unsurprisingly, was over what each group thought about self-interest, the faculty that occupied the middle position. For their part, the clerical economists lumped self-interest in with conscience as partners in the noble republican struggle to keep the passions of individuals in check. The two were not the same, but they were close enough to serve this same utilitarian purpose. The pastoral moralists, on the other hand, wanted to divide faculty psychology's tripartite scheme in half. In their collective understanding, self-interest could go in either direction. The pastoral moralists therefore sought the point at which an individual's healthy and natural self-interest crossed the line and, as one of them put it, passed “without heeding it, the boundary which separates virtue from vice.”

Suggested Citation

  • Stewart Davenport, 2008. "Das Adam Smith Problem and Faculty Psychology in the Antebellum North," History of Political Economy, Duke University Press, vol. 40(5), pages 243-264, Supplemen.
  • Handle: RePEc:hop:hopeec:v:40:y:2008:i:5:p:243-264

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Bénédicte Vidaillet & V. D'Estaintot & P. Abécassis, 2005. "Introduction," Post-Print hal-00287137, HAL.
    2. Alberto Baccini, 2004. "High pressure and black clouds: Keynes and the frequentist theory of probability," Cambridge Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 28(5), pages 653-666, September.
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    Adam Smith; protestant;


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