Adam Smith (1723-1790), Scottish social philosopher and political economist, is often accepted as the founder of the modern understanding of economics. Adam Smith became famous with his masterpiece An Inquiry Into The Nature And Causes Of The Wealth Of Nations in which he analyzed basic economic structure of 18th century world and determined principles of free-market economics. He is also known as the inventor of some economic terms such as the famous “invisible hand”. Adam Smith mostly known as an individualist thinker because of his self-interest concept however, some of his ideas such as the concept of sympathy and the mutual sympathy are accepted close to the concept of “utility” by some authorities.
The notion of utility comes from “utilitarianism”. Utilitarianism is an ethical principle derived from ancient Hedonistic ethical theory and developed in Europe (especially in United Kingdom) with the works of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill during 18th and 19th centuries. Utilitarians basically claim that an action, event or a behavior can be accepted as good and right only if it aims to promote happiness for everyone affected by it. Vice versa, an event that tends to produce unhappiness cannot be accepted as right actions. Utilitarianism is the opposite of “egoism”, the principle, which defends that an individual should always think of his or her self-interest even at the expense of others’ harm. Utilitarians focus on the consequences of events rather than intrinsic natures or motives of the agent. What is important for a utilitarian is to assess to what extent an event can contribute happiness to human race as a whole. Utilitarianism aims maximum degree of happiness, pleasure for maximum amount of people. They distinguish the different types of behavior through the division between pleasure and pain.
Adam Smith in his book talks us about “sympathy”, a tendency to experience certain feelings when we see another person in a certain situation. He also gives examples of this type of feeling: the pity and the compassion. He claims that even selfish people have this kind of feelings and all human beings sometimes put themselves in other people’s places and experience their pain or happiness. According to this view, poor people should sometimes feel happy by thinking themselves at rich people’s situations or by experiencing their happiness “virtually”. Vice versa, rich people should sometimes feel sad and distressed while observing or thinking poor people’s sufferings and difficult life conditions. In other part of his book, Adam Smith tries to clarify that we can have pleasure or pain not only from self-interested considerations but also from others’ situations. Also, he asserts that the correspondence of people’s mutual feelings can be a source of pleasure. Likewise, the lack of this correspondence can make people sad as a source of pain. In addition, he says that we have tendency to want to be worthy of the approval of others. He reveals that we are more likely to discuss with our friends our disagreeable passions rather than agreeable ones. These concepts of sympathy and mutual sympathy make Smith for some people a close thinker to utilitarianism.
When we analyze Smith’s views with regard to the notion of “utility”, we can say that it is our nature to think also other people because we are social livings and no matter how selfish we are; we will still share other people’s emotions due to the effect of the sympathy. So, in his understanding all people are at some degree utilitarian because they think other people’s situations as well as their situations. He can also defend the capitalist system and the free-market as a way to reach utilitarianism. In his understanding of utility, capitalism and free-market economics will make the whole society happy and hopeful, some group of people by providing richness and material power and the rest of the society by giving hope and chance to develop themselves. For example, workers would not be rich on material basis but they will not feel sad due to the effect of sympathy. They will know that they can develop themselves and they will feel happy by looking at rich people’s life standards and possibilities. Rich people also will share the negative feelings of poor people and they will try to help them at the same time they will try to preserve their situation by working hard. Moreover, the very existence of competition in free-market system would allow people to produce maximum amount of goods or happiness in a free environment without any restrictions (laissez-faire laissez-passer). The maximum amount of happiness in his view can be obtained through capitalist system and the use of free market.
Finally, it would not be wrong to assert that Adam Smith’s liberal pro-market stance could also be considered as a version of utilitarianism but there are also many other versions of utilitarianism such as socialism and social democracy. All ideologies present themselves as producing best consequences and maximum amount of happiness for their society but the important is to lift the lid off and to detect social realities.