Adam Smith on the legitimacy of using force to ensure justice (1759)

Adam Smith

Found in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and on the Origins of Languages (Stewart ed.)

Adam Smith (1723-1790) argues that justice is the only virtue which may be imposed by force:

There is, however, another virtue, of which the observance is not left to the freedom of our own wills, which may be extorted by force, and of which the violation exposes to resentment, and consequently to punishment. This virtue is justice: the violation of justice is injury: it does real and positive hurt to some particular persons, from motives which are naturally disapproved of. It is, therefore, the proper object of resentment, and of punishment, which is the natural consequence of resentment.

This passage from Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments is the companion piece to the quote on not using force to promote beneficence. Because justice is “the pillar” which holds up the edifice of society, and because its violation causes “real and positive hurt” to individuals, Smith believes it is the only “social virtue” which can be imposed by the use of force. Furthermore, the violence can be used by the individual whose “justice” is being violated, as well as by others (who are not specified but might include that individual’s friends and neighbors), since Smith argues in the following passage that “among equals each individual is naturally, and antecedent to the institution of civil government, regarded as having a right both to defend himself from injuries, and to exact a certain degree of punishment for those which have been done to him.” Smith’s dislike of the use of force to enforce any other social virtue other than justice is intense and concludes that “upon all such occasions, for equals to use force against one another, would be thought the highest degree of insolence and presumption.”

Visit our sister site, AdamSmithWorks for a classroom bellringer based on this quote.