It is hard to overestimate the importance of the eighteenth century in the genesis of modern conceptions of social life. It was in this century that a large number of thinkers came to believe that a fundamentally new kind of society was coming into existence in Western Europe, and undertook the project of making sense of the changes that were taking place. The enterprise was immensely productive, not only of an understanding of the modern world, but also of how that understanding was to be gained. Almost all the disciplines which today define the various areas of social enquiry can trace their origins to the disputes, debates and discoveries of the eighteenth century: economics, sociology, ethnography, history, aesthetics, even philosophy, were all born in this period. The fixity of the divisions between the disciplines was, however, a later development. Though most of the great theorists of the eighteenth century-Hume, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, Mandeville, Montesquieu, Diderot, Voltaire-celebrated the division of labour, they did not practise it. (Significantly enough, it was Kant who called for a more intensive application of the division of labour in intellectual life: in practising what he preached, he invented modern philosophy.2) In particular, they did not draw a sharp distinction between social understanding and moral debate. They were aware that the issue between tradition and modernity was a choice between different ways of life and the different conceptions of morality associated with those ways of life. Their project was not just to understand but also to participate in the moral debates which accompanied the transition to the modern world. It is necessary for us to understand their enterprise-as they understood it-as ‘moral science’. That this term has become, not just an archaism, but a

near oxymoron, is a consequence of their work; but it is also a barrier to understanding it. My concern in this chapter is with one major theme in eighteenth century moral science: the characterisation of modern society as ‘commercial society’, or-as we would say now-as ‘market society’. This concept was given its canonical formulation by Adam Smith, but it can reasonably be considered a collective product. It was one of the great intellectual achievements of the eighteenth century, and it continues to dominate mainstream economic thought. It also, I will argue, informs the dominant conceptions of morality in the modern world. Initially I will present it without some of the nuances and qualifications with which it was presented by Adam Smith and others. Some-though not all-of these will emerge later in the chapter.