Accepted paper:

Benevolence, empathy and individualism: Adam Smith’s morality then and now


Diane Austin-Broos (University of Sydney)

Paper short abstract:

Commonly anthropologists have taken the view that market society and private property are antithetical to the forms of value with which they are most concerned. Indeed to take an interest in capitalism’s social orders and its intimacies has often been construed as traitorous – not the purpose of ethnography as an enlightening pursuit. The paradox in this position is that, as commercial capitalism has become a universal system, all peoples, not we alone, have been touched by it. We and others struggle with the market’s more hierarchical forms. Yet current critiques are inclined to overlook that even social democracies retain capitalism’s major institutions, while command economies bring their own concerns. The moral dilemmas that capitalism, commerce and private property raise are seldom treated with the seriousness they deserve. This paper makes a start by comparing and contrasting ideas of the moral subject and private property reflected in two very different notions: Macpherson’s ‘possessive individualism’ and Adam Smith’s ‘beneficence’. Both provide accounts of the individual and property though one is negative and the other positive. Both are limited. Discussion will reference aspects of commercial life now and in the past. It will also consider recent discussions of ‘fairness’ as a different way to think about Smith’s ideas of empathy, beneficence, justice and self-interest.

Paper long abstract:

panel Plen06
Moral sentiments: finding again anthropology's moral voice and vision