Alphacrucis College

The Theology of Adam Smith - Part II

#businessforgood series

In part II of The Theology of Adam Smith, Professor Paul Oslington continues his study of the widely unknown theological underpinnings of the father of modern economics. Professor Oslington is author of Adam Smith as Theologian (2011) and is soon to release The Oxford Handbook of Christianity and Economics (2014).

Adam Smith 2

Eternal life in Adam Smith

There is a key passage that Adam Smith modified through different editions of Theory of Moral Sentiments before settling on the following:

For it well deserves to be taken notice of, that we are so far from imagining that injustice ought to be punished in this life, merely on account of the order of society, which cannot otherwise be maintained, that Nature teaches us to hope, and religion, we suppose, authorises us to expect, that it will be punished, even in a life to come … in every religion, and in every superstition that the world has ever beheld, accordingly, there has been a Tartarus as well as an Elysium; a place provided for the punishment of the wicked, as well as one for the reward of the just.”

Smith suggests that belief in justice in the life to come is taught by nature, reinforced by religion. If nature teaches largely by analogy then Smith is departing from Hume's position that such analogies are philosophically illegitimate, or at least suggesting that the fact that we learn about the afterlife by analogy is more important than a philosophical argument about the legitimacy of analogy. He also departs from Hume's view that the laws of justice arise from the need to maintain order in society.

The importance of the naturally formed sense of justice leading us to a future hope comes out in another passage where Smith discusses the famous case of Calas who was broken on the wheel in France for supposed murder of his son:

To persons in such unfortunate circumstances, that humble philosophy which confines its views to this life, can afford, perhaps, but little consolation. Every thing that could render either life or death respectable is taken from them. They are condemned to death and to everlasting infamy. Religion can alone afford them any effectual comfort. She alone can tell them, that it is of little importance what man may think of their conduct, while the all-seeing Judge of the world approves of it. She alone can present to them the view of another world; a world of more candour, humanity, and justice, than the present; where their innocence is in due time to be declared, and their virtue to be finally rewarded: and the same great principle which can alone strike terror into triumphant vice, affords the only effectual consolation to disgraced and insulted innocence.”

In a similar vein, Smith writes:

When we thus despair of finding any force upon earth which can check the triumph of injustice, we naturally appeal to heaven, and hope, that the great Author of our nature will himself execute hereafter, what all the principles which he has given us for the direction of our conduct, prompt us to attempt even here; that he will complete the plan which he himself has thus taught us to begin; and will, in a life to come, render to every one according to the works which he has performed in this world. And thus we are led to the belief of a future state, not only by the weaknesses, by the hopes and fears of human nature, but by the noblest and best principles which belong to it, by the love of virtue, and by the abhorrence of vice and injustice.”

And further:

When the general rules which determine the merit and demerit of actions, come thus to be regarded as the laws of an All-powerful Being, who watches over our conduct, and who, in a life to come, will reward the observance, and punish the breach of them; they necessarily acquire a new sacredness from this consideration.”

While Smith does not ground belief in future rewards and punishment in any calculation that individual or society benefits from such a belief, he is interested in the consequences of such a belief. Following the passage just quoted, he comments:

It is in this manner that religion enforces the natural sense of duty and hence it is, that mankind are generally disposed to place great confidence in the probity of those who seem deeply impressed with religious sentiments.”

The afterlife is important in Smith's system because the administration of justice in this present life is defective, and even if correct judgments are made, rewards and punishments in this life fall short of what justice demands. It is not just a philosophical or theological point, because Smith in both Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations sees justice is necessary to the proper functioning of economic system.

If there is any society among robbers and murderers, they must at least, according to the trite observation, abstain from robbing and murdering one another. Beneficence, therefore, is less essential to the existence of society than justice. Society may subsist, though not in the most comfortable state, without beneficence; but the prevalence of injustice must utterly destroy it … Justice … is the main pillar that upholds the whole edifice.”

We know that the imagination is important in Smith's account or scientific progress, and the spectator mechanisms of morality. For Smith, the future state also operates as an imaginative space where morality can be negotiated under the gaze of the author of nature. An example is Smith's recommendation of the active life and public engagement, as against quiet monkish life recommended by some of his religious contemporaries. Smith takes particular exception to the recommendation of monkish virtues by the French Catholic Bishop of Clermont, and his objection is developed in the imaginative space of the afterlife:

To compare, in this manner, the futile mortifications of a monastery, to the ennobling hardships and hazards of war; to suppose that one day, or one hour, employed in the former should, in the eye of the great Judge of the world, have more merit than a whole life spent honourably in the latter, is surely contrary to all our moral sentiments; to all the principles by which nature has taught us to regulate our contempt or admiration. It is this spirit, however, which, while it has reserved the celestial regions for monks and friars, or for those whose conduct and conversation resembled those of monks and friars, has condemned to the infernal all the heroes, all the statesmen and lawgivers, all the poets and philosophers of former ages; all those who have invented, improved, or excelled in the arts which contribute to the subsistence, to the conveniency, or to the ornament of human life; all the great protectors, instructors, and benefactors of mankind; all those to whom our natural sense of praise-worthiness forces us to ascribe the highest merit and most exalted virtue. Can we wonder that so strange an application of this most respectable doctrine should sometimes have exposed it to contempt and derision; with those at least who had themselves, perhaps, no great taste or turn for the devout and contemplative virtues.”

Overall, for Smith, the judgment and future hope operate as a court of appeal where wrongs of this world are righted and persons receive their just deserts. The justice of this divine court of appeal is continuous with and reinforces the natural sense of justice we have in this present life. There is no conflict between the two because for Smith the “great Director of nature” is providentially at work in both.

The continuity between the present and future life might suggest that Smith adheres to a version of eighteenth-century “cosmic utilitarianism,” or is even a precursor of models in the contemporary economics of religion literature where heavenly and earthly utility are traded off against each other. While there doubtless are utilitarian elements in Smith - especially when he is giving policy advice, and he sometimes notes that behaviour driven by other forces promotes utility - his moral philosophy overall cannot be described as utilitarian.

For instance, he criticises utilitarian accounts of justice, and more generally accounts of justice which ground it in reason. There is a great distance between Smith and his utilitarian contemporaries Paley and Bentham. Furthermore, no passage in Smith's writings describes such tradeoffs an individual makes between earthly and heavenly utility.

Smith's teleology: The “end” of economics

If Smith resists the utilitarian flattening of moral discourse, and the equating of the present and future lives that make trading them off possible, then what sort of framework should we place Smith's eschatology in as we seek to understand its place in his system? I suggest that there is a teleological relationship between justice in the present life and justice in the future life. What happens in the future life is continuous with and completes the present life. That Smith operates in a teleological framework is perfectly consistent with his theological roots in the British tradition of scientific natural theology and the moderate Calvinism of the Scottish Enlightenment.

The teleological elements in his work have been emphasised in recent years by Smith scholars against a number of prominent detractors who made Smith part of their larger narratives bout the banishment of teleology from modern science: for instance, in the work of Alasdair MacIntyre (who located the abandonment of teleology in the eighteenth century) and Charles Taylor (who regarded the providential deism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as an intermediate stage between the old and modern worlds, as the idea that God was needed to achieve mutual beneficial ends was lost).

Examining Smith's writings closely it is pretty clear teleology is important, though final causes are separated carefully from efficient causes. Here is a key passage:

In every part of the universe we observe means adjusted with the nicest artifice to the ends which they are intended to produce; and in the mechanism of a plant, or animal body, we admire how everything is contrived for advancing the two great purposes of nature, the support of the individual, and the propagation of the species. But in these, and in all such objects, we still distinguish the efficient from the final cause of their several motions and organizations. The digestion of the food, the circulation of the blood, and the secretion of the several juices which are drawn from it, are operations all of them necessary for the great purposes of animal life. Yet we never endeavour to account for them from those purposes as from their efficient causes, nor imagine that the blood circulates, or that the food digests of its own accord, and with a view or intention to the purposes of circulation or digestion. The wheels of the watch are all admirably adjusted to the end for which it was made, the pointing of the hour. All their various motions conspire in the nicest manner to produce this effect. If they were endowed with a desire and intention to produce it, they could not do it better. Yet we never ascribe any such desire or intention to them, but to the watch-maker, and we know that they are put into motion by a spring, which intends the effect it produces as little as they do. But though, in accounting for the operations of bodies, we never fail to distinguish in this manner the efficient from the final cause, in accounting for those of the mind we are very apt to confound these two different things with one another. When by natural principles we are led to advance those ends, which a refined and enlightened reason would recommend to us, we are very apt to impute to that reason, as to their efficient cause, the sentiments and actions by which we advance those ends, and to imagine that to be the wisdom of man, which in reality is the wisdom of God. Upon a superficial view, this cause seems sufficient to produce the effects which are ascribed to it; and the system of human nature seems to be more simple and agreeable when all its different operations are in this manner deduced from a single principle.”

Here for Smith, ends such as the propagation of the species clearly move the system, and the open question is the relationship between divine and human agency.

Contemporary economics is a long way from Adam Smith. MacIntyre and Taylor may have placed Smith wrongly on the modern side of the line dividing modern from older teleological approaches to scientific explanation and moral philosophy. This line for economics, in my view, runs through the middle of the nineteenth century in Britain, and the early decades of the twentieth century in America, although it is difficult to be precise. Contemporary economics is clearly on the modern side of the dividing line and has no place for teleology.

Banishing teleology (together with any meaningful discussion of eschatology) and narrowing the focus to efficient causes and has arguably assisted theoretical and empirical advance in economics over the past two centuries. But it has hindered capacity of economics to engage with the really big policy questions, those touch our deepest hopes and sense of justice. Hence, the future that economists take to their fellow human beings is the same as the present, just with further growth of income and consumption. As Paul Fiddes has recently put it, there is a “hopelessness of a future that is an inexorable extension of the present.”

Smith could engage with these issues because his system had an end that was not just an extension of the present, and an imaginative space in which to re-conceive present possibilities.



Alphacrucis College offers two new business degrees in 2014.

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Paul Oslington is Professor of Economics and Dean of Business at Alphacrucis College in Sydney. Email:

This article originally featured on ABC Religion and Ethics, Economics from the perspective of eternity: The theology of Adam Smith”, 21 Feb 2013.


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