Research Article

Laughter in the economic philosophy of Adam Smith

Published in: South African Journal of Philosophy
Volume 40, issue 3, 2021 , pages: 242–253
DOI: 10.1080/02580136.2021.1949557
Author(s): Mark Rathbone, South Africa


Laughter is relatively unexplored in Adam Smith’s economic philosophy. In this article, laughter in Smith’s two major works The theory of moral sentiments and An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations will be surveyed to assess the role it possibly played in his work, and whether there is a link between laughter and economics. It will be argued that although it is not a major theme in Smith’s work, there is a link between laughter and economics. Laughter is understood from the perspective of the instincts of self-interest and sympathy with the corresponding socio-ethical assessment in which the impartial spectator plays a central role. Hence, Smith understood laughter as a social deliberated phenomenon, and not an individual response to an event. This social dimension is where the assessment of laughter takes place to gauge propriety. It will be highlighted that the assessment in many of the references that Smith makes to laughter are mostly embedded in a disjunction or binary connective that consists of self-interest and sympathy. This disjunction is cross-categorical and often of the weak type which results in a tension between self-interest and sympathy. It will be argued that disjunction resists reduction of self-interest that is seen in the excess and narcissism of contemporary capitalism.

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