The Rehabilitation of Adam Smith for Catholic Social Teaching
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Catholic Social Teaching (CST) takes a rather cautious view toward the value of the ideas of Adam Smith, due to his emphasis on negative political and economic liberty. Detractors of Smith within CST point to what they consider to be deficiencies within his works: an impoverished moral anthropology, a lack of concern for the common good, and markets untethered to human needs. Defenders of Smith within CST tend to emphasize the material benefits that derive from Smithian institutions, such as economic growth, improvements in standards of living, and the new opportunities that arise from cultures focused on innovation. This paper argues that Smith’s ideas have real value for CST. However, this value primarily lies in his moral psychology. While not denying the dangers of business activity for our moral lives, Smith also helps us to understand the possibility of the moral corruption of those who wield political power, thus providing an indirect defense of political and economic liberty that coheres with important Christian ethical notions found in CST. This is the case even though CST does not consistently recognize concerns surrounding the dangers of wielding political power—and thus Smith’s arguments offer real challenges to CST as well. This paper further suggests that these basic insights are relevant regardless of one’s favored institutional arrangements.
KeywordsCatholic Social Teaching Adam Smith Virtue Politics Government Free markets
Many thanks to the very helpful and astute comments and suggestions by anonymous reviewers selected by the editors of the Journal of Business Ethics. Their ideas have prompted me to make many important clarifications and amplifications through the entire text of this paper. I presented earlier versions of this paper at the 2015 Society for Business Ethics Annual Conference and at the 4th Annual Colloquium on Christian Humanism in Economics and Business. Many thanks to audience members, co-presenters, and panel moderators for helpful questions and conversations. As always, all remaining errors are my own.
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