Luxury: Where Beauty and Morality Meet in Adam Smith’s Economic Theory

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What is a luxury face?  A London plastic surgeon speaks about the Beautiful Face, a composite of the requests he gets from clients.[1] The chin most desired by his clients belongs to Selina Gomez and the eyes to Keira Knightley: the nose the Duchess of Cambridge. About that famous nose, the surgeon, Dr. Julian Da Silva, says: the nose is “mathematically almost perfect.” Her nose has something the surgeon describes as a “106 degree tip rotation,” a geometry which research has confirmed people find most attractive in a nose.

It is not accidental that Smith’s teacher at Glasgow University, Francis Hutcheson, begins his influential An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue with examples drawn from geometry.  Obviously, Smith was a diligent student.  He frequently talks about ethical actions as comely, becoming, and proportionate.  Smith writes:

Upon the suitableness or unsuitableness, upon the proportion or disproportion, which the affection seems to bear to the cause or object which excites it, depends the propriety or impropriety, the decency or ungracefulness of the consequent action (The Theory of Moral Sentiments, p. 67).

Striking is the ease with which Smith blends aesthetics and morals but the reason is his moral theory rests upon the idea of symmetry.[2]  Basic to Smith’s account of moral judgement is the role of the spectator. A person is moral if a spectator can role-play her situation and find proportionate the same sentiments she discloses. This harmony of sentiment is sympathy, and this is what it means to be judged ethical.

Business is about finding alignments between consumers and products.  The reason luxury is the driver of the economy – indeed, civilisation[3] — is because luxury products exude geometry.  At the deepest level, this is why we want them (The Theory of Moral Sentiments, p. 183).  It is also for this reason that wealth is moral: bedecked in geometry, a person easily attains to symmetry with the spectator.  To see this, Smith asks us to look at the economy of “the meanest labourer.”  The need of food and clothing is quickly met from wages, and so:

“If we examined his economy with rigour, we should find that he spends a great part of them upon conveniencies, which may be regarded as superfluities, and that, upon extraordinary occasions, he can give something even to vanity and distinction . . . But vanity is always founded upon the belief of our being the object of attention and approbation” (The Theory of Moral Sentiments, p. 50).

Made in 1759, this observation still finds confirmation when looking about our cities, and the reason is unchanged: people want to receive sympathy (and therewith, to be moral).

These claims are controversial.  In the Republic, Plato warns that the consequence of introducing luxury into the city is war.  In medieval moral theology, Aquinas calls lust luxuria.  In contemporary anarchism, poverty – the suspension of exclusive property rights – is actively sought.

In a nutshell, Smith’s rebuttal: “It is because mankind are disposed to sympathize more entirely with our joy than with our sorrow, that we make parade of our riches, and conceal our poverty” (The Theory of Moral Sentiments, p. 50).

If you consider for a moment how people behave, Smith’s observation is hard to resist.  If someone (a Calvinist) were to argue that such behaviour is a consequence of the pervasiveness of sin or someone (a Marxist) were to argue this phenomenon merely reflects false and unjust economic relations, Smith has a powerful example to hand.

A prison (sorrow) will always be a more unpleasant object than a palace (joy).  In no possible world, whether a Marxist utopia, a constellation of anarchist communes, or a federation of Christian shires, is a prison going to be a pleasing object.  The reason is, as Smith explains, a prison connotes unsocial passions.[4]  In contemplating the idea of a prison, one’s mind runs to anger, violence, and resentment.  By contrast, a palace connotes the social passions and one’s mind immediately runs to gaiety, ritual,[5] and festivity (The Theory of Moral Sentiments, p. 35).

It is, argues Smith, extremely difficult to have symmetry with anger or resentment (The Theory of Moral Sentiments, p. 11).  These passions are “discordant” (The Theory of Moral Sentiments, p. 37-38):

“The voice of furious anger, for example, is harsh and discordant; its periods are all irregular, sometimes very long and sometimes very short, and distinguished by no regular pauses.  The obscure and almost inarticulate grumblings of black malice and envy, the screaming outcries of dastardly fear, the hideous growlings of brutal and implacable revenge, are all equally discordant” (“Of the Imitative Arts,” in Essays on Philosophical Subjects, p. 192).

By contrast, the social passions are aptly called the “musical passions,” Smith tells us.  Ethics and art entwined, morals and aesthetics blended.  A fine example of the  “grumblings of black malice” is found in the film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings when the filmmakers seek to render the voice of Sauron.[6]

This blending had been gestating for a while.  The immediate source was Smith’s teacher, Hutcheson.  The remote was Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury.  Shaftesbury writes: “there is a power in numbers, harmony, proportion and beauty of every kind, which naturally captivates the heart and raises the imagination to an opinion or conceit of something majestic and divine” (Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, p. 351-52).[7]

Axiology is the idea that besides natural facts there are moral facts and, in the language of the European school of value theory, these moral facts are phenomenological tones — extra-mental, discrete, self-contained, value tones.

The mind, which is spectator or auditor of other minds, cannot be without its eye and ear so as to discern proportion, distinguish sound and scan each sentiment or thought which comes before it.  It can let nothing escape its censure.  It feels the soft and harsh, the agreeable and disagreeable in the affections, and finds a foul and fair, a harmonious and a dissonant, as really and truly here as in any musical numbers or in the outward forms or representations of sensible things (Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, p. 172-73).

Shaftesbury liked the example of gardens as throughout the world of trees and plants we observe value tones of colour, texture, movement, space, structure, and scent: e.g. if I say ‘peach’ you now have the taste and smell of a peach clear to your mind.  We can replicate this value tone in peach lip balm, fizzy pop, and even gin, once we have distilled it into a chemical formula.

Likewise, Hutcheson speaks of virtue as “a lovely Form.”[8]  He laments: “This moral sense of beauty in actions and affections, may appear strange at first view.  Some of our moralists themselves are offended at in in my Lord Shaftesbury” (An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue [Liberty Fund, 2008], p. 9).  Shaftesbury’s point is readily seen, however: if I tell you a story about how I met a benefactor, or a story about a civil chat I had with a man on a train whose conversation suddenly flashed with malice, you have clear to mind a range of value tones that make these encounters comprehensible.[9]

Indifference to the constellations of value-tones is catastrophic.  In a vivid description of a murder, Smith discerns the value tones:

“To the man who first saw an inhuman murder, committed from avarice, envy, or unjust resentment, and upon one too that loved and trusted the murderer, who beheld the last agonies of the dying person, who heard him, with his expiring breath, complain more of the perfidy and ingratitude of his false friend, than of the violence that had been done to him, there could be no occasion, in order to conceive how horrible such an action was, that he should reflect… His detestation of this crime, it is evident, would arise instantaneously and antecedent to his having formed to himself any such general rule” (The Theory of Moral Sentiments, p. 159).

Value tones play a crucial theoretical role for Smith.  Symmetry of sentiments between the agent of an action and the spectator is a positive moral judgement, asymmetry negative.  Unsurprisingly, Smith dwells on the spectator: Who or what can function as spectators, how many spectators are there typically, do they agree with one another, and, if there are asymmetries between spectators, how to resolve such conflicts?

Here’s how Smith poses the problem:

“Some of the savage nations in North-America tie four boards round the heads of their children, and thus squeeze them, while the bones are tender and gristly, into a form that is almost perfectly square.  Europeans are astonished at the absurd barbarity of this practice . . . But when they condemn those savages, they do not reflect that the ladies in Europe had, till within these very few years, been endeavouring, for near a century past, to squeeze the beautiful roundness of their natural shape into a square form of the same kind” (The Theory of Moral Sentiments, p.199).

Axiology is the theoretical elaboration of the value order underlying this intuitive grasp of the moral character of events, acts, and persons. In Smith’s account, an aesthetic order is shot through nature, the effects of which strike the imagination, itself sensitive and deferential, to this order. Put differently, the spectator is ultimately[10] a sound reflection of the aesthetic-moral order.

Smith develops this value structure as a formatted contrast, arguing that what is beautiful is a combination of: utility or fitness; “certain colours . . .  give more delight to the eye the first time it ever beholds them;” a smooth surface; variety; and coherence. These positive values contrast with objects and acts that exhibit: weak utility; less pleasing hues; rough surfaces; “a tedious undiversified uniformity;” and “a disjointed and disorderly assemblage of unconnected objects” (The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 199-200).

Luxury, palaces, watches and machines, and the Beautiful Face, follow this axiology.  This is why luxury objects and opulence drive the economy and explain buying patterns down to the “meanest labourer.”  Smith might not be an extravagant Platonist like Shaftesbury but he gives to number, and the symmetries supported by number, the same prominence.  Smith observes that missionaries, explorers, and traders are yet to meet peoples who do not have dance and music.  These arts rely on number, he tells us.[11]  Number and symmetry are universally present to human imagination and oftentimes these flourish in the decency and ornament of civilization.[12]




[2] For Smith on art as the crafting of symmetries, see “Of the Imitative Arts” in Essays on Philosophical Subjects (Liberty Fund, 1982), p. 183.

[3] “Tis the introduction of commerce or at least of opulence which is commonly the attendent of commerce which first brings on the improvement of prose.  Opulence and commerce commonly precede the improvement of arts, and refinement of every sort” (Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres [Liberty Fund, 1985], p. 137).

[4] For this distinction between the social and unsocial passions, see also Lord Shaftesbury, Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 185.

[5] For the connection between majesty and religion, see Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, p. 109.

[6] “The very word-form itself, of course, even unassociated with notions, is capable of giving pleasure—a perception of beauty, which if of a minor sort is not more foolish and irrational than being sensitive to the line of a hill, light and shade, or colour” (J. R. R. Tolkien, “A Secret Vice” in The Monsters and the Critics and other Essays, ed. Christopher Tolkien [George Allen & Unwin, 1983], p. 207).  And very in line with Smith: “The human phonetic system is a small-ranged instrument (compared with music as it has now become); yet it is an instrument, and a delicate one” (“A Secret Vice,” pp. 217–8).

[7] Kolnai makes the same point: “Children, though compelled to obey, are kings because they are enticed away, enchanted, into the fairyland of idealized mankind, into the innocent sphere of pure mathematics, into the abstract and leisurely world of eternal forms” (Aurel Kolnai, The War Against the West [London: Victor Gollancz, 1938], p. 318).

[8] I leave to one side whether Hutcheson moderates Shaftesbury’s Platonism: An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, pp. 26-27.

[9] Here is Smith’s successor as professor of moral thought at Glasgow, Thomas Reid: “… an immediate perception of right and wrong, of moral rectitude and depravity, in moral agents, in like manner as we have a perception of black and white in visible objects by the eyes, of harmony and discord by a musical ear, and of other qualities in objects, by means of the several faculties of our nature, which are adapted so by the author of our nature as to give us not only the ideas of such qualities but an immediate perception of their existence in certain subjects” (T. Reid, Practical Ethics [Princeton University Press, 1990], p. 144).

[10] The lived reality, so to say, of the spectator is as a demi-god, as Smith terms it.  The “divine part” is what Smith calls our “natural sense” of propriety or deformity but the spectator is always the concrete experience of people watching us.  It is very possible for this spectator, the “human part,” to be mob-like and partial (The Theory of Moral Sentiments, pp. 159, 154-55).

[11] “Of the Imitative Arts,” p. 187.

[12] “Wherever the inhabitants of a city are rich and opulent, where they enjoy the necessaries and conveniences of life in ease and security, there the arts will be cultivated and refinement of manners a neverfailing attendent” (Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, p. 137).

Graham McAleer

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Graham James McAleerm is a Professor at Loyola University Maryland, with a special interest in the Scottish Enlightenment. He is author of five books, including Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings: A Philosophy of War (2014) and Veneration & Refinement, which is an open-source, interactive website found at