Empathy and Competition: a 21st Century View on Adam Smith

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8th Max Weber Programme Classics Revisited Conference
7 May 2014, 9:00-19:00, Conference Room, Villa La Fonte
San Domenico di Fiesole


Every year the Max Weber Programme holds a ‘Classics Revisited’ conference, bringing together researchers, postdoctoral fellows and established academics to study the life and work of a defining figure in the history of ideas. Reflecting the values of the Max Weber Programme the conference is always interdisciplinary in nature, inviting contributions from the political and social sciences, history, law and economics. Past conferences have focused on David Hume, Thomas Hobbes, and Niccolò Machiavelli. This year’s conference turns to the great Scottish Enlightenment figure, Adam Smith.

As well as taking on the perennial question of the compatibility between Smith’s moral and economic ideas, the conference will consider Smith’s standing in relation to current economic thought. The Wealth of Nations is sometimes described as the first systematic attempt to explain the mechanics of capitalism, but how closely does it fit in with modern theories of economic behaviour? Are the specific benefits from trade and competition that Smith envisaged compatible with today’s models? More broadly, could today’s economists benefit from paying closer attention to moral sentiments beyond self-interest?

We will likewise consider the relevance of Smith as a normative theorist. His famous ‘impartial spectator’ was intended as a guide to morality and legal adjudication, but it presupposes a spectator with a particular moral code. Does this imply too relativistic a criterion? Put differently, is empathy too much in the eye of the beholder to be the basis for morality? It is also unclear that the impartial spectator could be a sound basis for legal and political decision-making. In this regard, a lingering puzzle among commentators is why Smith never produced a full account of justice, as he had promised in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Does this failure reveal something about Smith’s views on the nature of just political rule, or about the compatibility of his economic and moral ideas? What substantive conclusions about the proper scope and design of state institutions may be drawn from Smith’s account of institutional development in his ‘historical jurisprudence’?

9:00 – 9:10        Opening remarks: Richard Bellamy (Director, Max Weber Programme)

9:10 – 10:10     Introductory lecture: ‘Rethinking Smith’Nicholas Phillipson (Edinburgh)

10:10 – 11:25   Panel discussion: ‘Adam Smith and Sympathy’Vivienne Brown (Open University), Christel Fricke (Oslo)

11:45 – 13:00   Keynote lecture: ‘Adam Smith for a Global Age’Fonna Forman (UC San Diego)

14:00 – 15:15   Panel discussion: ‘Adam Smith and Justice’Lisa Herzog (Institut für Sozialforschung, Frankfurt), Lauri Tähtinen (Brown)

15:35 – 16:50   Panel discussion: ‘Adam Smith and Economics’Paul David (Stanford), Tom Cooley (NYU)

16:50 – 18:00   Concluding lecture: ‘Price, Exchange, and the Solidarity of the Market’Daniel Markovits (Yale)

All welcome but please register with [email protected]