Adam Smith on Instincts and Appetites

Anna Markwart



The paper is aiming to present and analyse the notions used by Adam Smith: ‘instinct’ and ‘appetites’. They appear in two of the Scottish philosopher’s works: in ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’ and in an essay ‘Of the External Senses’. Smith noticed that there are certain inborn mechanisms that suggest the existence of crucial needs and means leading to satisfy those needs. That concerns, mostly, hunger and thirst, but also sex drive (author’s remarks concerning that issue turn out to be quite innovative). He regarded the need of self-preservation and of caring for one’s own well-being as crucial for a man’s behaviour (Smith thought that the drive towards self-destruction is unhealthy, he considered it rather as the effect of melancholy). The essay ‘Of the External Senses’ mentions instinctive correlation of the objects of sight with the objects of touch as crucial for the human survival, basing on George Berkeley’s theory of vision. Smith’s remarks on appetites give a new perspective on how the mechanisms given us by Nature influence moral and social individuals, at the same time completing the philosopher’s theory. The need to care for self ’s prosperity and survival can be regarded not only as an instinct, but also as actions leading to realisation of the virtue of prudence. Moreover, we learn how to fulfil our instinctive needs and appetites within the society, searching for acceptable means. In the paper Smith’s view of instincts and appetites is also being briefly confronted with David Hume’s and Thomas Hobbes’ remarks on the subject.


Adam Smith; instinct; appetites; self-preservation; Nature

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