Carola Freiin von Villiez

From social conventions to moral norms: Adam Smiths Story of Moral Progress

Torsdag 5. februar, 14.15 - 16.00,
Sted: Grupperom 7, Georg Sverdrups hus



Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments is usually recognized as a fine work in moral sociology and, according to the predominant view, must be confined to being just that. Smith clearly considers morality and communal moral standards a natural side-effect of the interactions between individuals within confined social contexts. Yet, throughout TMS one can find evidence to substantiate the claim that he not only describes the moral practices of 18th century Scottish society but also formulates criteria for appropriate moral practice. TMS is a treatise on the justification of moral norms just as much as it is a sociological enterprise. Smith does not himself reflect upon his motivation for (a fortiori method of) combining descriptive and prescriptive elements in his theory. But his emphasis on the social origins of morality might be taken to reveal the conviction that normative moral theory must always also be a candidate for validation through empirical findings and common sense – it must not only justify, but also explain. This incidentally leads to striking similarities between his ethical theory and Rawls political theory. Smith has often been portrayed as a proponent of cultural relativism. Against this view I argue that – despite the considerable weight put on custom and convention in his social theory of morality – he can be said to actually advocate a normatively legitimized, i.e., reasonable pluralism. The deep theory underlying TMS points to a supra-communal standard of justification. This standard allows us to assess moral norms from the internal perspective of our own moral culture without simply reflecting the moral status quo. It is essential to his story of moral progress, which is a story about moving from social conventions to moral norms.  


Professor Carola Freiin von Villiez er leder av Etikkprogrammet. Hun kommer fra stilling som professor og instituttleder for filosofi-instituttet ved universitetet i Duisburg-Essen, Tyskland.