The Ethics and Economics of Middle Class Romance: Wollstonecraft and Smith on Love in Commercial Society

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This article shows the philosophical kinship between Adam Smith and Mary Wollstonecraft on the subject of love. Though the two major 18th century thinkers are not traditionally brought into conversation with each other, Wollstonecraft and Smith share deep moral concerns about the emerging commercial society. As the new middle class continues to grow along with commerce, vanity becomes an ever more common vice among its members. But a vain person is preoccupied with appearance, status, and flattery—things that get in the way of what Smith and Wollstonecraft regard as the deep human connection they variously describe as love, sympathy, and esteem. Commercial society encourages inequality, Smith argues, and Wollstonecraft points out that this inequality is particularly obvious in the relationships between men and women. Men are vain about their wealth, power and status; women about their appearance. Added to this is the fact that most middle class women are both uneducated and encouraged by the conduct literature of their day to be sentimental and irrational. The combined economic and moral considerations of Wollstonecraft and Smith show that there is very little room for love in commercial society as they conceived it.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)525-542
Number of pages18
JournalThe Journal of Ethics
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2021


  • Adam Smith
  • Commercial society
  • Conduct literature
  • Love
  • Mary Wollstonecraft
  • Sentimentality


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