Scholars at the Jepson Summer Institute for the Preservation the History of Economics finished their 2009 conference June 22 with a day dedicated to the study of Adam Smith, moral philosopher and the father of modern economics.

Smith, born in the early 18th century, was a scholar during the time of the Scottish Enlightenment and produced several books, including The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations, which many consider to be his greatest work. As the father of modern economics, Smith remains one of the most world-renowned economists and his writing serves as a reference for many economic scholars.

Conferees considered the lesser-known “Adam Smith, a Celebration of Theory of Moral Sentiments,” through presentations by Leonidas Montes, Gavin Kennedy, Michael Thomas and Maria Pia Paganelli and a wrap- up by Jepson Dean Sandra J. Peart and David M. Levy. While Smith’s Wealth of Nations is his most popular economic work, Theory of Moral Sentiments is one of Smith’s earlier works and focuses on morality and human personality.

Discussion topics  included Smith’s ideas about sympathy and what Montes called “self-command;” Smith’s religious views; Smith compared with British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who often contradicted Smith’s ideas; and how Smith’s ideas about human nature explain behaviors.

Montes, a professor at Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez presented research about the place of sympathy and self-command within Smith’s evaluation of human morality. The role of sympathy within Smith’s philosophy (commonly associated with Stoicism, a philosophy originating with the ancient Greeks) is often underestimated and the role of self-command is often overestimated, Montes said.

“Sympathy, propriety and the chief virtue of self-command are a trilogy that sheds new light on our understanding of Smith’s ethics,” he said.
The second presenter of the day, Kennedy, spoke about Smith’s religious views, as seen through Theory of Moral Sentiments.  Although Smith was a life-long member of the Presbyterian Church, Kennedy argued that Smith underwent a “secular epiphany,” leaving behind his Christian upbringing, but maintaining church membership to further his academic career.

The second two presentations focused on the application of Smith’s ideas in other contexts. Thomas’ presentation sought to find similarities between Bentham’s philosophies and Smith’s. Paganelli presented her in-progress research to explain the results of behavioral science experiments through Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, as suggested by Vernon Smith, founder of the International Foundation for Research in Experimental Economics and a 2002 Nobel Prize winner.

To end the day, Peart and Levy, who have collaborated in planning the annual Summer Institute for the past 10 years, but have also coauthored 30 academic works, presented notes and video from a series of interviews with Richard Ware. Ware was a member of White House staff during the Nixon administration and former president of the Earhart Foundation, which has provided financial support to hundreds of scholars, particularly economics scholars, since its founding in 1929, and plays a crucial role in the study of American economics.

Papers, speaker biographers and videos of presentations

  •     Leonidas Montes, “Adam Smith’s Stoicism, on Sympathy and Self-Command”
  •     Gavin Kennedy, “The Alleged Religiosity of Adam Smith: Evidence from the History of Astronomy and Moral Sentiment.”
  •     Michael Thomas, “Smith in the Context of Order.”
  •     Maria Pia Paganelli, “The Same Face of two Smiths.”
  •     David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart, “A Conversation with Richard Ware.”

The Summer Institute was sponsored in part by the The Jack Miller Center for Teaching America's Founding Principles and History, a nonprofit, nonsectarian, nonpartisan, educational organization, based outside Philadelphia.

Posted:June 22, 2009