Sam Fleischacker: Adam Smith on Empathy and the Free Market

Captains of industry and political pundits who believe the free market economy will save us all love to cite 18th-century social thinker Adam Smith and his book The Wealth of Nations. In it, he championed self-interest and a free market as a catalyst for societal improvement. But he also assumed those with the power and privilege would consider the needs of others within that free market system. Somewhere along the way, his ideas around empathy and moral obligation got stripped away from his economic philosophy. See, back then, the lines were blurred between economists, social thinkers, and philosophers.

Today, I talk with Sam Fleischacker, an expert on Adam Smith, to clarify what Smith really thought about a free market and our responsibilities to society within it. We also talk about what is distinctive about Smith’s conception of empathy in his own time and how it squares with today. Sam shares how empathy affects Smith’s proposals for economic policy, what he had to say about our tendency to empathize more with people we already know and care for than for people very distant from us, and the big question: Should we try to empathize with people we think are evil?

To access the episode transcript, please click on the episode title at

Key Takeaways:

  • Judgment isn’t always negative and, in some cases, it can be used to form connections – such as admiring strength of character or showing sensitivity.
  • Consuming art, literature, documentary and other stories of people that have different lives from you is a way to stretch your brain and think more empathetically.
  • You must empathize with people you don’t agree with, even those who you consider evil. If you want to have any hope of changing them, you need to do that. You don’t have to approve of it, but you have to at least try to understand them. Empathy and criticism are not incompatible.

“Smith is very much about thinking about what everybody wants, from their own perspective, that is to say, empathizing with them. And I think that’s gotten badly lost on both the left and the right in public policy.” —  Sam Fleischacker

About Sam Fleischacker, LAS Distinguished Professor of Philosophy

Sam Fleischacker is LAS Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Illinois in Chicago.  He works on moral and political philosophy, and the philosophy of religion. He is the author of nine books, including Adam Smith, Being Me Being You:  Adam Smith and Empathy, A Third Concept of Liberty:  Judgment and Freedom in Kant and Adam Smith, and On Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations:  A Philosophical Companion.  He was President of the International Adam Smith Society from 2006 to 2010.

References Mentioned:

Edwin Rutsch, The Empathy Edge podcast: How Empathy Circles Can Change the World

David Weissman, The Empathy Edge podcast: From MAGA to Jewish Liberal Progressive


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Connect with Sam Fleischacker

University of Illinois at Chicago:



Adam Smith (Routledge, 2021)

Being Me Being You:  Adam Smith and Empathy (University of Chicago Press, 2019)

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