Money, Banks and Finance in Economic Thought

Crime and Punishment: Adam Smith’s Theory of Sentiments

Paganelli Maria Pia , Trinity University
Simon Fabrizio, Universita' di Palermo

For Adam Smith a crime is not the result of a rational calculation of loss and gain, but the consequence of a vain desire to parade wealth to attract the approbation of others combined with a natural systematic bias in overestimating the probability of success. Similarly, Smith does not conceive legal sanctions as a rational deterrent, but as deriving from the feeling of resentment. While the prevailing approach of the eighteenth century is a rational explanation of crime and a utilitarian use of punishment, Adam Smith builds his theory of criminal behavior and legal prosecution consistently on sentiments instead. A well-functioning legal system is thus an unintended consequence of our desire to bring justice to the individual, not the result of a rational calculation to promote the public good, just like a well-functioning economic system is the unintended consequence of our desire to better our condition, not the result of a rational calculation to promote public good.

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Keywords: Adam Smith, Legal Enlightenment, Law&Economics, Sentiments, Crime, Punishment