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Adam Smith: what is the role of honour in society?

This year marks the tercentenary of Adam Smith’s birth. While widely regarded as the father of economics for his book The Wealth of Nations, Smith was also a moral philosopher – author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments and profound thinker about ethics, society and wellbeing.

Adam Smith lived in the 18th century, a time when honour played a significant role in the ethical and social lives of Scots. He paid a great deal of attention to people’s relationships with social opinion, and how this affects both personal and social wellbeing. To him, defending one’s honour is more than a matter of personal choice: it is one of justice.

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, his most systematic work on moral philosophy, he claimed approvingly that ‘we often esteem a young man the more, when he resents… any unjust reproach that may have been thrown upon his character or his honour’. Correspondingly, he harshly criticised the ‘mean-spirited’ who tamely suffer others’ abuse. To give up one’s honour is to give in to injustice.

But Smith painted no rosy picture of honour. To him, people desire the tranquillity of mind that is achieved by being understood and recognised by others.

This acknowledgement can come through the fame of being virtuous and wise – or the renown of being rich and powerful. But as Smith lamented, too many people abandon the former and choose the latter. This motivates them to value wealth and power so much as even to celebrate the ‘vices and follies’ of rich and powerful people.

These people then turn to despise the poor and weak, and even to commit injustices on those who stand in their way. The fame of being rich and powerful can be accompanied by the moral corruption of its pursuers. This is why Smith called it ‘honour very ill understood’.

How then can we avoid the condemnable pursuit of honour without abandoning the commendable defence of it? Smith’s response was that we must find the middle way between caring too much and caring too little about what others think of us.

Three centuries after his birth, we may no longer care about honour as much as Smith did. But if we still value the recognition of our peers, and if we are still appalled by shameless, corrupt politicians and business people despite the huge numbers of their apologists and followers, we will realise that this virtue remains relevant to us.

As long as we must live in a society, Smith’s profound analysis of honour will always help us to think about how we should live with others.

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  • Maria Pia Paganelli
  • Paul Sagar
  • Antong Liu
  • Emma Rothschild
  • Craig Smith
Author: Antong Liu
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