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Adam Smith and RousseauEthics, Politics, Economics$
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Maria Pia Paganelli, Dennis C. Rasmussen, and Craig Smith

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9781474422857

Published to University Press Scholarship Online: September 2018

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9781474422857.001.0001

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date: 29 May 2020

Actors and Spectators: Rousseau’s Contribution to the Eighteenth-century Debate on Self-interest

Actors and Spectators: Rousseau’s Contribution to the Eighteenth-century Debate on Self-interest

Chapter:
(p.80) 5 Actors and Spectators: Rousseau’s Contribution to the Eighteenth-century Debate on Self-interest
Source:
Adam Smith and Rousseau
Author(s):

Mark J. Hill

Publisher:
Edinburgh University Press
DOI:10.3366/edinburgh/9781474422857.003.0005

A debate between virtuous self-interest and social morality emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The historical narrative of these ideas has been touched on by others – such as Albert O. Hirschman, Pierre Force, and Eric MacGilvray – with nuance and detail, but broadly one can recognize two camps: those who saw public utility in self-interest through the positive externalities of commerce, and those who had serious concerns over the political outcomes of the entanglement of commerce and virtue. This chapter follows these studies and attempts to locate Rousseau (primarily) and Smith (secondarily) within this debate. By looking at how their particular moral philosophies interact with their political thought it is argued that Rousseau is distinct from Smith in an important, but often confused, way: while some have argued that Rousseau is a moralist and Smith a philosopher of the political and social value of self-interest, it will be argued here that the opposite may be true. That is, despite Rousseau's “general will” and Smith's “impartial spectator” having been identified as similar moral tools used to overcome the negative aspects of self-interest through externalized self-reflection, it is argued that Rousseau is a moral rationalist who is skeptical of reason as a moral motivator, and thus dismisses the general will as a tool which can encourage personal moral action, while Smith is a moral realist, but a particularly soft one in regard to the motivational force of morality, and instead turns to rationality – through the impartial spectator – as a source of moral action. The upshot of this distinction being, Rousseau does not deny the power of commerce and self-interest as motivational forces, simply their social utility; social institutions like English coffeehouses – centres of politeness and doux commerce – should exist, and self-interest should motivate, but both need to be cleansed of the vice of commerce. That is, this chapter argues that Smith is moral realist who relies on reason – specifically that one must be a spectator who can impartially and rationally reflect on situations in order to will moral ends – and Rousseau is a moral rationalist who relies on sentiment – one must have an interest in situations if they are to be a moral actor.

Keywords:   Adam Smith, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, general will, impartial spectator, commerce, morality, politeness

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