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Edited by Jan Peil and Irene van Staveren
Chapter 48: Positive-Normative Distinction in British History of Economic Thought
Samuel Weston Economics has more often than not been motivated by moral concerns. Broadly, economics is a product of the revolution in thinking that followed in the wake of Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum, which, among other things, decreed that the purpose of knowledge is to improve human lives.1 More specifically, Adam Smith held increasing national wealth to be morally important, because much behaviour that we regard as evil results from harsh material circumstances. In his ‘Introduction and Plan of the Work’ to The Wealth of Nations ( 1937), Smith describes ‘savage nations of hunters and fishers’ who are so miserably poor, that from mere want, they are frequently reduced, or, at least, think themselves reduced, to the necessity sometimes of directly destroying and sometimes of abandoning their infants, their old people and those affected with lingering diseases, to perish with hunger, or to be devoured by wild beasts. (pp. lvii–lviii) This idea comes directly from Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments ( 1790). In this earlier work he presents his idea that people make moral judgements according to whether they think an ‘impartial spectator’ would be in sympathy with an act. The specific content of one’s impartial spectator is culturally determined. Section V of Chapter 2 of Theory of Moral Sentiments provides numerous examples similar to the one above from The Wealth of Nations. In addition to its account of why some nations are materially richer than others, The Wealth of Nations makes an important contribution to classical liberal political...
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