Social Philosophy and Policy

Research Article


James R. Ottesona1

a1 Philosophy and Economics, Yeshiva University


Adam Smith raised a series of obstacles to effective large-scale social planning. In this paper, I draw these Smithian obstacles together to construct what I call the “Great Mind Fallacy,” or the belief that there exists some person or persons who can overcome the obstacles Smith raises. The putative scope of the Great Mind Fallacy is larger than one might initially suppose, which I demonstrate by reviewing several contemporary thinkers who would seem to commit it. I then address two ways the fallacy might be overcome, finding both wanting. I close the paper by suggesting that Smith's Great Mind Fallacy sheds interesting light on his “impartial spectator” standard of morality, including with respect to the specific issues of property and ownership.

James R. Otteson is Professor of Philosophy and Economics at Yeshiva University in New York. He earned a B.A. from the Program of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame, an M.A. in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, and an A.M. and Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Chicago. He is the author of Adam Smith's Marketplace of Life (2002) and Actual Ethics (2006), the latter of which won the 2007 Templeton Enterprise Award. He is also the editor of The Levellers: Overton, Walwyn, and Lilburne (5 vols., 2003) and Adam Smith: Selected Philosophical Writings (2004). He is currently working on a book titled Adam Smith, which will be part of Continuum Press's series Major Conservative and Libertarian Thinkers.


I would like to thank Harry Dolan, Kyle Erickson, Max Hocutt, Chani Kovacs, Mark LeBar, Fred Miller, Ellen Frankel Paul, David C. Rose, the other contributors to this volume, and the participants at a workshop hosted by Loren Lomasky at the University of Virginia for comments on earlier, substantially different drafts of this essay. Remaining errors are mine.