Original Research

Commerce, labour and happiness: An Existential reading of Adam Smith’s ‘The poor man’s son’

Mark Rathbone
The Journal for Transdisciplinary Research in Southern Africa | Vol 20, No 1 | a1457 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/td.v20i1.1457 | © 2024 Mark Rathbone | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 11 March 2024 | Published: 20 May 2024

About the author(s)

Mark Rathbone, Department of Management, Faculty of Economic and Management Science, North-West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa


This article highlights the philosophical contribution of an existential reading of Adam Smith’s narrative of ‘The poor man’s son’ that opens transdisciplinary research themes. The narrative in Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments [1759] deals with the issue of labour and happiness in commercial society, an important contemporary topic in meaningful labour research. This field is dominated by research on labour’s personal or moral value, which may lead to personal and workplace conflicts in case of ethical dilemmas. Recent research advocates existentialism, underscoring authenticity in workplace meaningful labour. The problem is that some of these studies limit meaning of employees’ reception of workplace policies and other events, resulting in a dualism between surface and deep existentialism. I will argue that an existential reading of the narrative ‘The poor man’s son’ contributes to transdisciplinary research by advancing research in commerce, specifically existential meaningful labour, by advocating an integrative theory of labour and happiness. The insights from Jean-Paul Sartre concerning anguish, authenticity, freedom, and facticity challenge the assumption that the son’s labour was meaningless because of the misery he experienced during old age, supporting a view that his choices were an expression of his freedom of choice and authenticity, and not determined by circumstances that provide important insights for an integrative theory of meaningful labour that prioritises the anguish of ontological freedom, consciousness as the source of freedom and facticity as hurdles to be surmounted on the path to fulfilment.

Transdisciplinary contribution: The article is an intersection between philosophy and commerce by promoting insights from existentialism to read ‘The poor man’s son’ in Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, providing insights for an integrative theory of meaningful labour and happiness.


Adam Smith; existentialism; meaningful labour; commerce; happiness; Business Ethics; authenticity

JEL Codes

B12: Classical (includes Adam Smith)

Sustainable Development Goal

Goal 8: Decent work and economic growth


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