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Smith's theory of actions and the moral significance of unintended consequences


  • Amos Witztum


An important clue to the ambiguity in Smith's attitudes towards commercial society may lie in his disaffection with natural distributions; with distributions based on unintended consequences. The absence of proportionality between motives and outcomes dooms the morality of commercial society, not the mere absence of an ethical dimension to human character. Through the analysis of actions, we find correspondence between the three economic states of the Wealth of Nations and the three social states of the Theory of Moral Sentiments. Thus, re-distribution is important in the moral evaluation of commercial systems. Unintended consequences are neither a source of moral strength nor a safeguard against injustice.

Suggested Citation

  • Amos Witztum, 2008. "Smith's theory of actions and the moral significance of unintended consequences," The European Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 15(3), pages 401-432.
  • Handle: RePEc:taf:eujhet:v:15:y:2008:i:3:p:401-432
    DOI: 10.1080/09672560802252297

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    Cited by:

    1. Menudo, Jose M., 2011. "Market Stability in Adam Smith: Competitive Process and Institutions," MPRA Paper 15361, University Library of Munich, Germany.


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