Theory of Moral Sentiments


The headlines blame greed for the worldwide economic crisis, but greed is nothing new. The real failure lies deeper, in our growing disconnect between moral and economic concerns.

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Theory of Moral Sentiments

Many people know Adam Smith as the economic genius whose 1776 Wealth of Nations helped us see the potential of the free market system. But his famous “invisible hand” actually appears first in A Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759, 1790), which Smith considered his best and most important work. Here he lays out the personal moral foundations necessary for a free market economy and a free society.

Society, he argues, is not held together just by rules and regulations. It is connected by sympathy, by a principled and empathetic regard for the interest of others. The “invisible hand” of the market economy may direct our self-interest to produce economic good, but it is not intended to replace the virtuous conduct necessary for a healthy society. As we have seen in recent years, without something like Smith’s “impartial spectator” guiding our conscience, firms, markets, and even governments themselves will collapse under the weight of unfettered self-interest.

This Reading introduces selections from this classic text. In his Foreword, C. William Pollard, Chairman Emeritus of The ServiceMaster Company, draws on his extensive experience confronting these issues at a public company. He helps us ask the critical questions that connect Smith’s ideas to the issues confronting responsible leaders of business and other enterprises in the twenty-first century.

Discussion guide included.

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