R. H. Coase Graduate School



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Selected Papers No. 50

Adam Smith’s

View of Man

R. H. Coase

Graduate School

of Business

The University

of Chicago




R. H. Coase was born in 1910 in London, En-

gland. He studied at the London School of Eco-

nomics from which he graduated in 1931. After

holding positions at the Dundee  School of Eco-

nomics and the University of Liverpool, he

joined the faculty of the London School of Eco-

nomics in 1935. Mr. Coase continued at the

London School of Economics and was appointed

Reader in Economics with special reference to

Public Utilities in 1947. In 1951, Professor Coase

migrated to the United States and has held po-

sitions at the Universities of Buffalo, Virginia,

and Chicago. He is the Clifton R. Musser Pro-

fessor of Economics in the University of Chi-

cago Law School, and editor of the  Journal  

of

Law 

and Economics. “Adam Smith’s View of

Man” was presented at a meeting of the Mont

Pelerin Society, St. Andrews, 1976.




Adam Smith’s

View of Man

Adam Smith was a great economist, perhaps

the greatest that there has ever been. Today

I am going to discuss his views on the nature

of man. My reason for doing this is not

because I think that Adam Smith possessed

an understanding of man’s nature superior

to that of his contemporaries. I would judge

that his attitudes were quite widely shared

in the eighteenth century, at any rate, in

Scotland, but no doubt elsewhere in eight-

eenth century Europe. Adam Smith was not

the father of psychology. But I believe his

views on human nature are important to

us because to know them is to deepen our

understanding of his economics. It is some-

times said that Adam Smith assumes that

h u m a n   b e i n g s are motivated solely by

self-interest. Self-interest is certainly, in Adam

Smith’s view, a powerful motive in human

behaviour, but it is by no means the only

motive. I think it is important to  recognise

this since the inclusion of other motives in

his analysis does

n o t   w e a k e n   b u t   r a t h e r

strengthens Adam Smith’s argument for the

use of the market and the limitation of

government action in economic affairs.

Adam Smith does not set down in one

place his views on the nature of man. They

have to be inferred from remarks in The



Theory of 

Moral Sentiments 

and 


The Wealth

of 

Nations. 

Adam Smith deals more exten-

sively with human psychology in 

The Theory

of 

Moral Sentiments, 

the ostensible purpose

of which was to uncover the bases for what

may be termed our feelings and acts of

benevolence : “How selfish  soever  man may

‘ T h i s   p a p e r   a p p e a r e d   i n  



The  Journal  of Law and

Economics 

Vol.  19(3),  October 1976. All rights reserved.




2

Selected Papers No. 50

be supposed, there are evidently some prin-

ciples in his nature, which interest him in

t h e   f o r t u n e   o f   o t h e r s ,   a n d   r e n d e r   t h e i r

happiness necessary to him though he derives

nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing

it. . . . The greatest ruffian, the most hardened

violator of the laws of society, is not altogether

without it.“’

Adam Smith makes sympathy the basis

for our concern for others. We form our idea

of how others feel by considering how we

would feel in like circumstances.

T h e

realisation that something makes our fellows



miserable makes us miserable and when

something makes them happy, we are happy.

This comes about because, by an act of

imagination, we put ourselves in their place,

and, in effect, in our own minds become

those other persons. Our feelings may not

have the same intensity as theirs, but they

are of the same kind.

The propensity to sympathise is strength-

ened because mutual sympathy is itself a

pleasure : “nothing pleases us more than to

observe in other men a fellow-feeling with

all the emotions of our own breast."2

 Because


mutual sympathy is itself pleasurable, it

“enlivens joy and alleviates grief. It enlivens

joy by presenting another source of satis-

faction; and it alleviates grief by insinuating

into the heart almost the only agreeable

sensation which it is at that time capable

of  receiving."3 One consequence is noted by

Adam Smith : “Love is an agreeable, resent-

ment a disagreeable passion: and accordingly

we are not half as anxious that our friends

should adopt our friendships, as that they

should enter into our resentments. . . . The

agreeable passions of love and joy can satisfy

and support the heart without any auxiliary

pleasure. The bitter and painful emotions



R. H. Coase

3

of grief and resentment more strongly require



the healing consolation of  sympathy."4

If the existence of sympathy makes us care

about others, the practice of putting ourselves

in the place of others, of imagining how

they feel, also has as a consequence that we

imagine how they feel about us. This includes

not only those directly affected by our actions,

but those third parties who observe how we

behave towards others. By this means we

are led to see ourselves as others see us.

This reinforces our tendency, when deciding

on a course of action, to take into account

the effects it will have on others.

The way in which Adam Smith develops

this argument affords a very good example

of his general approach. He says:  “ . . . the

loss or gain of a very small interest of our

own appears to be of vastly more importance,

excites a much more passionate joy or sorrow,

a much more ardent desire or aversion, than

the greatest concern of another with whom

we have no particular  connection."5 He

then considers a hypothetical example :

Let us suppose that the great empire

of China, with all its myriads of in-

habitants, was suddenly swallowed up

by an earthquake, and let us consider

how a man of humanity in Europe,

who had no sort of connection with

that part of the world, would be affected

upon receiving intelligence of this

dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine,

first of all express very strongly his

sorrow for the misfortune of that

unhappy people, he would make many

melancholy reflections upon the pre-

cariousness of human life, and the

vanity of all the  labours  of man, which

could thus be annihilated in a moment.

He would, too, perhaps, if he was a





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