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Rediscovering Adam Smith’s “Three Primary Virtues”

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own inter-esteem. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.”.

It is with this maxim that Adam Smith snatches his Investigation into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, originally launched in 1776 and considered by many to be the founding work of economic science. Undeserved title because it ignores the French physiocrats Anne Robert Jacques Turgot and François Quesnay, their immediate predecessor Richard Cantillón and, especially, the monumental contribution of the scholastics and post-scholastics, who are so numerous, that do not allow me to quote them one by one in this small article.

The fact is, The wealth of nations has such influence and has been so often misunderstood that it has permanently and unfairly characterized Smith as an advocate of selfishness or self-centeredness. Perhaps it could be said that he was an advocate of individualism, but an individualism in its own way, different from the popular meaning and worthy of extensive essays.

The Scottish, in fact, had a unique way of combining the economic growth of countries with the morality of individuals; his thinking cannot be equated with those explicit advocates of selfishness, such as Ayn Rand’s objectivism. Proof of this is his first major work The theory of moral feelings, so often ignored, is a victim of Smith’s own success.

First published in 1759, The theory of moral feelings consists of a series of reflections, derived largely from Smith’s discipline of moral philosophy at Glasgow University, about intrinsically human morality. In it. Smith distinguishes men from animals especially by their sense of solidarity and ability to cultivate what he called the “three primary virtues.”

The formulator of the “invisible hand of the market” understood solidarity as a sensitivity to the suffering of others, arising from the awareness that, at any moment, the individual who observes can go through the same situation. Already the three primary virtues were explicitly defined as: Prudence, justice and benevolence. They all constitute a sine qua non condition for the achievement of “human excellence” and are dependent on each other.

Prudence, for Smith, is defined as a weighted decision, cultivates through the habit of doing good to oneself, one’s close ones, and one’s social surroundings. The habit of doing good demands honest, well-meaning, and accurate actions. Moreover the prudent is an experienced person, who knows how to measure risks. Justice is described as an individual and social commitment to defend individuals, their property, their fundamental rights. The fair man is one who seeks the common good and does not inflict illegitimate harm on others for personal gain. On the other hand, benevolence is tributary to both justice and prudence, it is only possible with reasoned decisions and a strong moral conviction to do the right people right. The virtue of benevolence is described as that which arises from the habit of generosity, which in turn arises from individually disinterested actions aimed at the happiness of others. The benevolent man has enough self-control to do good to others, for the simple reason that he is right to do so, even if it does not bring him instant personal satisfaction.

For Smith, the three fundamental virtues develop in the individual sphere, but also in human relations, and since the market is a large set of human relations motivated by exchange, the virtues must also be developed in the market. It is urgent to rediscover the Smithian fundamental virtues in the context of a market society that erodes social relations, atomizes individuals, and ignores, when it does not neglect, the cultivation of virtues, human dignity, and the pursuit of the highest, nonmaterial goods.

To those who accuse Smith of being a kind of forerunner of utilitarianism, an unfettered advocate of what would be called “capitalism,” it is worth remembering that Joseph Schumpeter accused him of being a “moralist” for never dissociating the economy from ethics or politics.

Smith, with no doubt, was a great supporter of the free market and, in many ways laissez-faire, but he was not automatically sympathetic to the businessman. It defended the deregulation of exchanges and labor relations because it believed that this would achieve the general interest, especially for the poor, who deserved much attention in their writings. He sometimes advocated selfish action, but why it would create, albeit involuntarily, a collective benefit.

The most important lesson to learn from the union of The theory of moral feelings with An investigation under It is the nature and causes of the riches of nations that the benefits of the free market cannot be achieved in a vacuum of moral values; on the contrary, they depend on the cultivation of virtues, solidarity, and strong ethical sentiment. Only a society made up of individuals with good ethical, benevolent, just and prudent judgments is prepared and deserving of freedom.


SMITH, Adam. The theory of moral sentiments. J. Richardson, 1822.

SMITH, Adam; Stewart, Dugald. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Homewood, Ill: Irwin, 1963.

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