Adam Smith’s Cosmopolitan Liberalism

Taste, Political Economy, and Objectification

Originally published in Polity

The cosmopolitan character of liberalism has been debated since its beginnings. The status of mercantilism, colonialism, and market relations is central to this debate. While most scholars agree that among eighteenth-century thinkers in the liberal tradition, Adam Smith is remarkably anti-colonial on both moral and economic grounds, they do not engage his theory of taste as part of his normative critique of the mercantilist and colonial projects and argument for free trade. Smith’s theory of taste, largely developed in Theory of Moral Sentiments and History of Astronomy, highlights the importance he placed on connecting with distant others despite the limitations of sympathy. I argue that for Smith, aesthetic judgment acts as an impetus to moral judgment because taste can overcome barriers to sympathy. However, taste has a dual-nature in Smith’s political economy. Bad taste widens the sympathetic gap. I show that the framework of taste in Smith’s moral theory applied to mercantilism and colonization demonstrates that substituting poor aesthetic judgment—love of order instead of true beauty—for sympathy objectifies distant others and prevents them from developing moral judgment through freely engaging in the market and sympathetic interaction.

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