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The Moralizing Role of Distance in Adam Smith: The Theory of Moral Sentiments as Possible Praise of Commerce

  • Maria Pia Paganelli
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    The Theory of Moral Sentiments can be read as a book praising commerce. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith claims that viewing oneself from a distance decreases the natural tendency toward self-deception and increases the propriety of one's behavior. In front of strangers and distant acquaintances, an individual would generally restrain the more self-indulgent and excessive passions and be more composed than in front of family and close friends. Frequent exposure to strangers fosters the habit of propriety—the basis of moral behavior. Commerce increases one's opportunities to interact with strangers and introduces distance in interpersonal relationships. Commercial societies are therefore the environments that most facilitate and are amenable to proper and moral behavior. According to this reading of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, for Smith, commerce facilitates not just material prosperity but also moral development.

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    Article provided by Duke University Press in its journal History of Political Economy.

    Volume (Year): 42 (2010)
    Issue (Month): 3 (Fall)
    Pages: 425-441

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    Handle: RePEc:hop:hopeec:v:42:y:2010:i:3:p:425-441
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