Posts Tagged ‘Adam Smith’

I was recently with a longtime friend who revealed that he does not believe in morality. He thinks the only ultimate good is his own happiness. Now, he tries to act in a way that others see as moral because he believes that that is conducive to his own happiness, and he acknowledges having emotions about what other people do (learning about mass murder would make him unhappy for instance), but he refuses to connect these emotions to any propositional knowledge. For him, words like “wrong,” “right,” “ought,” and “should” have no meaning apart from an instrumental one (“If you want to be happy, you shouldn’t go around murdering people – unless you really really enjoy murdering people”).

I agreed with him that there is no way to prove that morality exists, but I maintained that it’s a properly basic assumption. Morality is like causality. The mere fact that A has followed B 1000000 times doesn’t mean it will do so the next time unless we assume causality (see Hume). We can’t prove causality from anything else; it is a fundamental category of our understanding — just the way our brains organize our sensations of the world (see Kant). In the same way, for most of us, moral judgments are inescapable. When we see someone torture an innocent person to death, we judge that act as wrong, indeed evil. My friend does not apparently judge that act as evil; he says knowing about the act would simply cause him negative emotions.

I didn’t ask him what those negative emotions would be, but my guess is that anger would play the predominant role. If the perpetrator “got away with it,” that anger would mixed with indignation or resentment. But why would you experience indignation or resentment at a criminal’s getting away with murder? Why not fear, which is presumably what asocial animals would experience if they witnessed something like this? Why not melancholy?

We are angry because we believe that the act is wrong and unjust, and should be stopped or punished with force or even violence, if necessary. If the act goes unpunished, we are indignant or resentful; the criminal “owes” something that has not been paid. Our moral judgments cause our emotions; they don’t spring from nowhere, purposeless.

Recently, psychologists have been learning more about how emotion and moral intuition are connected, something Adam Smith knew 250 years ago. Sensitivity to moral concerns is not associated with study of moral philosophy or reasoning capabilities, but with strong empathetic abilities (see Haidt, who is wrong on moral philosophy but right on moral psychology, and Margolis).

With no intended disrespect to my friend, I suspect he scores very low on the empathy spectrum. He fails to see that other human beings have legitimate interests of their own and deserve to be able to pursue happiness just as much as he is. He needs treatment in becoming empathetic — in fact, we all need that treatment from time to time.

Here’s where literature comes in. Literary fiction’s central social function is to train our empathetic organ. When we read fiction, especially with complex, nuanced characters, we put ourselves in the place of some of the characters. We see the world through their eyes and come to understand and value them. We can witness an infinite variety of events, characters, and actions that have never actually existed, so allowing us to fine-tune and to extend our empathy to situations that challenge our intuitions, typically by bringing them into conflict, or that make us think of possibilities we have never previously considered. Literature has other, more personal functions as art and entertainment, but its central social function is training us to empathize. That’s the reason why children should read literary fiction, and why it should be taught in schools, not just considered a private hobby. (more…)

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A colleague of mine pointed me to this anti-Romney ad, adding that he thought it was “effective” because of its focus on one compelling story. Have a watch:

I did not find it effective. It does focus on one story, and it does make it sound like this person was made worse off by Romney. But capitalism is about creative destruction—and you cannot have creation without destruction. The computer I am writing on now (and that my colleague wrote on to send me that link), for example, came into being in part by destroying the manual typewriter manufacturing sector. How many plaintive stories were there about displaced manual typewriter workers? How many people lost jobs when their companies went out of business because of the success of the phone on which I first viewed the ad? Similar stories could be told about countless other cases.

That is not to say that the person (the people) whose story is told in this ad did not suffer displacement, disappointment, anxiety, or frustration. But they are much, much better off overall for living in a place where capitalism’s creative destruction is allowed to continue. What car does he drive? What medical care does he receive? What medicines does he take? How is his home heated and cooled? How fast is his home internet connection, and how many channels does he have on his high-definition television? Do we suppose he, or we, would be able to enjoy such things if we did not allow capitalism’s creative destruction?

As Bastiat pointed out in the nineteenth century (and Adam Smith pointed out in the eighteenth century), production of wealth is not only about the “seen,” but also about the “unseen.” So we see that this man and his co-workers lose their jobs. But what is done with the wealth that is thereby saved, and put to other uses? If Romney and Bain Capital made a profit in this transaction, what did they do with that money? Put it in a coffee can and bury it in the backyard? Carry it around in great big fanny packs? No, they reinvested it elsewhere, in places where it was put to better use, where it was more highly valued.

We could create a lot of jobs by outlawing farm machinery. Just think of how many people would have to be employed by farms, doing with their hands what far fewer people can do today with machines. If you think that would be a good idea, then you are not taking a full view of the situation. You are focusing only on the seen, the jobs people will have working on the farms; you are not considering the unseen, all the things those people would have been doing if they did not now have to work with their hands—all the productive labor in which they would otherwise have engaged, all the wealthy they would otherwise have created.

We should not discount the pain and suffering of people who lose their jobs. It is real, and those of us who can help them, should. But condemning the system that has given rise to the greatest increase in prosperity in human history because it involves displacements and disappointments would be like condemning modern medicine because many treatments hurt.

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I’m sorry, but what does Michael Boskin’s WSJ op-ed entitled “Obama and ‘The Wealth of Nations’” have to do with Adam Smith? The first sentence of the op-ed is “President Obama should put Adam Smith’s ‘The Wealth of Nations’ at the top of his summer reading list.” Perhaps he should—but then again, lots of people should, including, one might even suggest, Michael Boskin.

Boskin quotes the famous line from The Wealth of Nations in which Smith says “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest” (bk. 1, chap. 2, para. 2). But there are two problems with Boskin’s use of this passage. First, he misquotes it. I have rendered it correctly here, but Boskin forgets a comma and inserts the word “can” between “we” and “expect.” Not a major blunder, perhaps, but if that is the only line one quotes from the book that ostensibly forms the background for your entire op-ed argument, you should get it right.

Second, and much more important, that line from Smith does not make the point Boskin apparently wants it to. Boskin wishes to criticize President Obama for holding, in Boskin’s words, “that the profit motive is somehow ignoble.” Boskin counters that “every student learns in introductory economics class that the pursuit of profits is essential to a successful economy, allocating resources to the use consumers value most.” (That might be taught in every micro course, but I am not so sure every student learns it; but that is by the by.) Note, however, that both Obama’s and Boskin’s positions, as stated, might be true: they do not contradict one another. Let me explain.

Smith’s claim about how we “address ourselves” to potential partners in market or commercial transactions—namely, “not to their humanity but to their self-love” (ibid.)—would seem to be a descriptive, not a prescriptive, statement. In other words, it describes what people actually do in such situations, leaving the question of whether they should or should not behave that way out of the discussion. Smith is here describing the way markets work, on the assumption—correct then, as it is now—that most people do not know how they work. Now Smith will indeed go on to argue that individuals acting in their own self-interest tend to engage in behaviors and transactions that benefit not only themselves (their intention) but also other people in the society as well (not part of their intention). This gives us a reason, Smith believes, to wish to encourage such transactions. This is Smith’s famous “invisible hand” argument (Wealth of Nations, bk. 4, chap. 2, para. 9).

Hence Smith does develop a prescriptive argument in The Wealth of Nations, but the gains from trade, which he thinks are both real and underappreciated, are nevertheless not decisive. Smith acknowledges other matters that he thinks we should also consider as we evaluate commercial society. Smith worried about the deleterious effects that extreme division of labor might have on the minds and psyches of the laboring class (WN, bk. 5, chap. 1, art. 2, paras. 50 and 61), and he proposed some small measures—like partially subsidized primary schooling for all (ibid., para. 55)—to address them. He also worried about the effects that business–government “partnerships” would have: he thought they would almost inevitably benefit the protected and privileged businesses at the expense of both other businesses and the public generally, so he opposed such partnerships (WN, bk 1, chap. 10, part 2, para. 27 and passim). And he worried about the poor. Indeed, almost all of the policy recommendations Smith comes to make could arguably be seen as motivated by his concern for raising the status of the least among us (here is but one example).

Now, concern for the poor, support for education, and opposition to monopoly privileges for favored businesses are hardly the exclusive provenance of the political left, as some contemporary scholars claim, but neither are they the exclusive provenance of the right. They arise instead from an understanding of how markets work and a genuine desire for people to have the chance, as Smith puts it, to better their conditions. Hence a person who wants to present Smith’s argument the way Smith intended it has to spend time defending him against people on the left, as well as on the right.

But Boskin, who is on the right, offers no discussion of any of this. Instead he wishes merely to criticize President Obama and at the same time make his own policy prescriptions, but from under the protective mantle of Adam Smith. I pass no judgment here on whether Boskin’s policy recommendations are good or bad. But they are a long way from the general claims Smith makes. If Boskin wants to suggest that Smith would endorse them, he has a lot more work to do. But why bother? Why not merely state them as his own recommendations, and argue for them on the merits?

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Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi have a thought-provoking piece entitled, “A Bleeding Heart History of Libertarianism,” in the latest Cato Unbound. They criticize postwar libertarians (specifically mentioning Mises, Rand, and Rothbard) for seeing property rights as absolute and, in their view, regarding the welfare of the working poor as irrelevant to moral justifications for capitalism:

In the remainder of this essay, we will discuss one particular way that neoclassical liberalism has a better grounding in the libertarian intellectual tradition than the libertarianism of Mises, Rand, and Rothbard. It is not the only contrast, but one of the clearest and most important differences between these two schools of libertarian thought has to do with the proper nature of concern for, and obligation to, the working poor. On this issue, the neoclassical liberal position is that the fate of the class who labor at the lowest end of the pay scale under capitalism is an essential element in the moral justification of that system. And this position, we will argue, has a far more solid grounding in the libertarian intellectual tradition than the justificatory indifference to which the postwar libertarians are committed.

They go on to cite John Locke, Adam Smith, and Herbert Spencer (yes, Spencer!) as classical liberals who would be more sympathetic to the neoclassical-liberal project of justifying markets partly on the basis of their consequences for the welfare of the least well off. However, they also argue, plausibly, that Rand and Rothbard in particular were not indifferent to the fate of the poor, simply that they viewed the coincidence of respect for individual property rights and a better life for all as a happy fortuity. (Mises was more of a consequentialist and perhaps after all a comfortable fit within neoclassical liberalism.)

I would stress that (more…)

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One reason I support the “virtue” approach to morality is that, attractive as some moral rules are in the abstract, there are almost always cases in which good judgment requires either appropriate interpretation or even suspension of them.

Take the moral rule that one should always be honest. Honesty is clearly a virtue, but it can also be used as a weapon or as a cover for viciousness. I have on many, many occasions heard people say rude, mean, or insensitive things to others, and then defended their behavior by saying something like, “I’m just being honest.” I’m sure you have heard such things too. The fact that one is really thinking something does not by itself justify uttering or making public what one is thinking. Having followed the moral rule does not absolve one from the judgment of having behaved badly.

Thus honesty is a virtue in the way, for example, courage is. We should all strive to be courageous, but, as Aristotle argued, being courageous does not mean fighting every battle. It means, instead, fighting all and only those battles that good judgment—or “right reason”—indicates should be fought. By contrast, fighting every battle leads not only to a captious and truculent (and hence unpleasant) personality, but it also dissipates one’s effectiveness. Once others become aware that one is the sort of person who fights everything, they begin discounting what one says and does. One becomes The Guy Who argues About Everything, and it is all too easy to ignore such a person—even when he is right.

Such a person displays not courage, but rashness. That is just as much a vice as when one fails to fight battles that should be fought; such a person too is not courageous, but cowardly.

Similarly with honesty. The person who always speaks his mind is not honest but callous (cruel, meanspirited, etc.). This person probably also has an inflated sense of self-importance, thinking that speaking his mind is more important than whatever psychological damage he might inflict on others. That is not acting virtuously; it is just as morally blameworthy as the person who does not speak the truth when he should.

The difficulty, of course, is knowing when one should fight a battle or speak the truth. There are no short cuts to this; there is, alas, no finite set of rules that can uniquely determine in advance what one should do. Instead, good judgment is required, and good judgment is a hard-won skill based on experience, practice, comparison of cases, delicacy of perception, and plain good sense (to borrow from Hume’s description of what it takes to have good judgment in artistic matters). 

Perhaps there are some virtues that are simpler, more straightforward, and therefore less requiring of judgment in application. Adam Smith argues that justice is such a virtue, which he contrasts on this criterion with beneficence. Argues Smith:

The rules of justice may be compared to the rules of grammar; the rules of the other virtues, to the rules which critics lay down for the attainment of what is sublime and elegant in composition. The one, are precise, accurate, and indispensable. The other, are loose, vague, and indeterminate, and present us rather with a general idea of the perfection we ought to aim at, than afford us any certain and infallible directions for acquiring it.

He has a point, but judgment will still be required in both kinds of cases. That leads me to believe that judgment is always necessary, which I think indicates that the key to morally proper behavior always lies first and foremost in the possession of good judgment. (Liberty might also be a necessary prerequisite, but that is the subject of a different conversation.)

That brings me back to honesty. Perhaps the proper rule is something like this: No matter how hard it is, when you should be honest, be honest; but do not be honest when you should not be honest, no matter how enticing it might seem. Not as intellectually satisfying, perhaps, as a single, universal rule, but truer to the complex and multifaceted reality of human social life.

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There is an interesting review in the New Republic of one of the new Adam Smith biographies (no, not Jim Otteson’s new one, which I’m looking forward to reading).  I quite appreciated this part of the review:

By turning the logic of mercantilist economics on its head and establishing a market designed for the good of the common citizen, Smith believed governments could both unleash immense productivity and wealth and create economic institutions that encouraged discipline, moderation, and order in an open society. This would mean drawing a clear distinction between “pro-market” economic policy and “pro-business” economic policy, and Smith believed there were few threats to the moral order of a liberal society greater than the entanglement of the government with the nation’s largest producers.

That distinction has been lost in our time. In recent decades, the federal government has too often sought to advance the nation’s economic interests by tying itself to our largest corporations. What the left derides as crony capitalism and the right derides as state capitalism has been the policy of Republican and Democratic administrations alike, particularly since the economic crisis of 2008. The Bush administration’s bailouts of large Wall Street firms and the joint Bush-Obama bailouts of the nation’s largest automakers were the epitome of such entanglement. And the Obama administration’s economic reforms—empowering the largest health insurers over smaller competitors in last year’s health-care reform and the largest financial companies over smaller competitors in last year’s financial regulation reform—have taken this approach to new heights.

It was no surprise that those large insurers and financial firms supported those reforms, even though they increased the government’s power over the companies’ operations. As Smith understood, the wealthy and powerful will always look for exemptions from the rigors of competition. Though he was a champion of free markets, Smith was no fan of big business. Large merchants and principals of “joint stock companies” (or corporations), Smith wrote, are “an order of men whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.” And they are more than happy to use the government as their instrument.

However, without having read the book itself (and I’d love to find the time to read two biographies of Smith), I’m not sure how much is new on key questions like “The Adam Smith Problem” given Jim’s excellent treatment of it in Adam Smith’s Marketplace of Life (published by Cambridge University Press).  Unfortunately, Levin shows no sign of familiarity with Jim’s book despite his praise of Phillipson’s argument that The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiment are connected rather than at odds (something Jim handled skillfully more than a decade before Phillipson’s book [and strangely Jim's well-known work on Smith doesn't merit an inclusion in Phillipson's index, though I can't tell on Amazon if Jim's work is cited in the text]).

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Economist Daniel Klein of George Mason University has been doing a lot of interesting work recently.

Klein is an Adam Smith scholar in his own right, but he has also been encouraging his students to work on Smith as well. He has recently supervised two PhD dissertations on Smith:

1. Brandon Lucas recently defended his dissertation entitled “The Influence of Adam Smith: The Invisible Hand, Hayekian Narrative, and Honest Profit.” Here is the abstract:

Adam Smith’s contributions to the world and to the field of economics cannot be overstated. College level economics students and even most lay people likely know Smith for his Invisible Hand metaphor, division of labor examples, or promotion of earning honest profit. Though such subjects are over 200 years old and often outwardly accepted as straightforward, debate remains active and divided regarding several of Smith’s ideas.The main chapters of my dissertation address three related, but separate, issues to further advance the broad frames of Smith scholarship. The first paper, “Seeking Honest Profit as Smithian Distributive Justice,” investigates whether seeking honest profit can be viewed as Smithian distributive justice. Before, and certainly since, the industrial revolution scores of writers and scholars have considered profit seeking to be an unbecoming trait. The paper uses Smith’s ideas about justice and honest profit to develop a framework showing how the search for honest profits can be seen as meeting the goals of distributive justice and establish a presumption of innocence rather than guilt.

The second paper, “Adam Smith’s Congruence with the Hayekian Narrative,” searches for congruence between Smith’s ideas and the epic socio-political story that Professor Daniel Klein dubs “The Hayekian narrative.” Several elements comprise the Hayekian narrative, with evolution and atavisms being prominent actors. The paper explains the narrative, discussing how humanity’s instincts, which are carried over from the primeval band, often conflict with the extended order, and how social-democratic worldviews may be interpreted as atavisms. The paper compares several of Smith and Hayek’s ideas to illustrate Smith’s similarities with the narrative.

The third paper, “In a Word or Two, Placed in the Middle: The Invisible Hand in Smith’s Tomes,” is co-authored with Dr. Daniel Klein. The paper evaluates Smith’s use of the Invisible Hand in his two major works, The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations. Although many scholars debate Smith’s attributed importance and purpose of the phrase, the paper shows physical centrality of word placement was well understood by Smith and that location of the Invisible Hand metaphor corresponds to such an understanding.

2. A second Klein student, Michael J. Clark, recently defended his dissertation entitled, “The Virtuous Discourse of Adam Smith: The Political Economist’s Measured Words on Public Policy.” Here is the abstract:

When Adam Smith advocated a specific approach for political discussion, he recommended and utilized strategic yielding and caution when necessary. The approach involves a willingness to mull through and respect the surrounding views and can lead one to moderation or fudging of extreme views or simple non-disclosure of extreme views. According to Smith, one needed to consider accommodating his more extreme views given the prejudice of the public. Beliefs and attitudes that would cause uproar or conflict were carefully treated and not brashly put forth. Prudence called for political figures or philosophers to obscure, hedge, conceal, or temper their radical beliefs. Smith related the approach to that of the Athenian official Solon who put forth laws that attempted to be “the best that the people can bear.” However, the cautious approach of Smith’s approach has gone overlooked in modern literature. Smith’s caution is being taken for mild to moderate interventionist support and thus many are claiming the father of economics has many ideas aligned with established modern policies of the welfare state and the regulatory state. While the works and ideas of Adam Smith remain foundational to modern economics the interpretation of Smith is changing. This dissertation examines Smith’s measured words and cautious approach to public policy and defends the interpretation of Adam Smith as a strong proponent of liberty.

But Klein has also been doing his own interesting work. For example, he recently published a provocative essay at Cato Unbound entitled “Against Overlordship.” Klein argues that the reigning background assumption in today’s America is that the government owns all property, and possibly indeed owns us as well, and that it provisionally grants rights to us to use our property and ourselves at its discretion and pleasure. Unsurprisingly, he argues that this is an unacceptable way to understand our relation to our government, and that it is an equally unacceptable way to understand government’s relation to property. What is perhaps more surprising is his claim that the position he opposes is in fact what most people in America have.

Cato Unbound has now also published three responses to Klein’s essay, by Matthias Matthijs, David Friedman, and Ilya Somin. All are worth reading—even Matthijs’s essay, which, unlike the other essays, is a model of bad argument.

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A couple items today on Adam Smith that I recommend:

1. A lecture from Daniel Klein, an economics professor at George Mason University, given at The Institute for Liberal Studies in Canada. Professor Klein’s lecture is entitled, “Adam Smith: A Broad Interpretation of His Work and Vision.”

2. A Russ Roberts podcast interview of distinguished scholar Nicholas Phillipson, on the occasion of Phillipson’s new book, Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life. (I am currently reading Phillipson’s book and will review it when I have completed it.) (H/T: Victor Claar.)

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A principal tenet of libertarianism—perhaps even the first principle of libertarianism—is an injunction against initiating violence. Whatever else you do, you may not harm unwilling others. John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, Robert Nozick, and many others—I as wellhave all subscribed to some version of this principle as a starting point. 

Yet Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments raises an interesting case that might suggest limited exceptions to the principle. Smith argues that resentment is the sentiment that underlies the proper condemnation of injustice: An injustice arouses resentment, and can properly lead one to take action against the injustice. At one point during his discussion of justified resentment, Smith writes:

Upon some occasions we are sensible that this passion [i.e., resentment], which is generally too strong, may likewise be too weak. We sometimes complain that a particular person shows too little spirit, and has too little sense of the injuries that have been done to him; and we are as ready to despise him for the defect, as to hate him for the excess of this passion. (TMS II.i.5.8)

Smith’s claim that people sometimes show “too little spirit” seems right to me. There are many occasions on which we might reasonably think that a person should have faced a challenge, should have confronted a bully, or should have risen to someone’s defense, and we judged the person negatively when he did not. Indeed, numerous sitcoms and movies have been built on this premise. One of my favorite classic movies, My Bodyguard, takes this lesson as its central theme, and we all cheer when the bullies are finally confronted. (Here is the climactic scene. I bet your heart swells too when Linderman finally takes on Mike and Clifford gives Moody what’s been long coming to him.)

This indicates the possible libertarian conundrum I have in mind: Sometimes people should confront bullies, and sometimes that requires, well, a punch in the nose. Proper resentment, in other words, can justify taking action against others. And this sometimes holds even when the “injustice” against which one is acting has not included physical violence. Sometimes just threats can justify a punch in the nose, and sometimes—under just the right circumstances—even mere words can.

President Andrew Jackson, for example, fought many duels to defend his wife’s honor. He had married Rachel before her prior marriage to an abusive man was finally complete, which meant that for a time their marriage was bigamous. Although the president and Rachel re-married after her divorce was completed, the fact that she was for a time technically married to two men was raised and used against President Jackson again and again. He would not stand for it when it was. If someone suggested that his wife was less than noble, he would ask the person to take it back—or meet him outside to settle the issue in the time-honored, gentlemanly way. President Jackson almost lost his life more than once defending his wife’s honor.

In these cases, President Jackson was acting in response only to words, not phyiscal violence or even the threat of physical violence. But wasn’t he right to do so? Wouldn’t we have judged him harshly had he not acted to defend his wife’s honor? This is a special case, but I think there might be a more general principle at work: Sometimes one should rise to defend another’s honor.

The news program “20/20″ has been airing a series of “What Would You Do?” segments in which they stage scenarios with actors in front of unsuspecting random people to see what they would do. In one segment, they have a man publicly and loudly berating a woman (both are actors). The man does not assault her, but he gets in her face and shouts derogatory and demeaning things. What do passersby do? What should they do? Some act and some do not, but everyone seems to believe that one should do something. Exactly what one should do depends on a lot of factors, but I suggest that there are easily-imagined scenarios in which what a passerby should do is punch the man in the nose.

One more thought, this one even more speculative. In most places in America today, physical violence of any kind is frowned upon as indicative of an earlier, unenlightened, more barbaric age. Yet I wonder whether the fact that people know with a high degree of certainty that they will get no punch in the nose no matter what they say has not contributed to the general coarsening of manners. People today may say the vilest things with relative impunity, and so increasingly more of them do. If, by contrast, they knew they ran a real risk of the punch in the nose if they used coarse language or manners publicly, might that not act as a disincentive to do so—and a greater disincentive than the mere risk of having another use vile language aimed at oneself?

I am not suggesting, then, we should all begin punching one another in the nose. But I am suggesting that showing “too little spirit” can indeed be a vice, and moreover that there are times when a punch in the nose might be just what a situation calls for.


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When I speak to people outside of academia about some of the things that go on inside it, they often don’t believe me. But I never lie about such things. Here is one of the stories people find hard to believe.

I defended my dissertation in the philosophy department of the University of Chicago in the spring of 1997. The title of my dissertation was “The Unintended Order of Morality in Adam Smith and David Hume.” I had wanted to write the dissertation on only Smith’s moral theory, and I had wanted to call the dissertation “Adam Smith’s Marketplace of Morality”—what I thought was a catchy title.

My dissertation director tried to talk me out of writing a dissertation on Adam Smith on the grounds that it could be career suicide. I appreciated his concern, but in my naivete I thought his worries were exaggerated; so I decided to write on Smith anyway. He then warned me, however, that I would never get a job having written a dissertation that had the word “marketplace” in the title. He also strongly cautioned me against writing on only Adam Smith, even if it was on his moral theory and not his economics. I was, I confess, puzzled by his cautions. Wouldn’t my dissertation be judged on its quality? What exactly did he think people might think? Still, out of deference to my director, who was—is—after all an eminent scholar, I decided to add a discussion of Hume to the dissertation, and I changed the title.

When it came time for my public defense of the dissertation, one of the members of my committee, about two-thirds the way through the defense, asked asked me this:

Reader: “Mr. Otteson, even historians of philosophy must eventually ask what, in what they’re studying, is true—not just exegetical questions, but what we should believe today. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Me [with a sense of foreboding]: “Yes, I would agree.” 

Reader: “Well, then, should I infer from the fact that you chose to write your dissertation on Adam Smith that you endorse multinational corporations selling tainted baby milk in third-world countries?”

I was, as one might imagine, shocked at the question. I hadn’t discussed multinational or any other corporations in my dissertation; I hadn’t discussed tainted baby milk or any other product or good; I hadn’t discussed globalism or third-world countries. I had discussed what I think is Smith’s spontaneous-order conception of human morality, and I had even discussed how I think Smith makes an “invisible-hand” argument in his Theory of Moral Sentiments that parallels his invisible-hand argument in The Wealth of Nations.

But how does one go from there to inferring that I want companies selling tainted baby milk? The connecting chain of ideas I imagined might be taking place was: Adam Smith is the father of capitalism; capitalism leads to evil things; someone writing about Adam Smith must endorse Smithian capitalism; therefore Mr. Otteson must endorse the evil things capitalism allows; prehaps Mr. Otteson is himself evil. How else, I wondered, would one arrive at thinking that one should ask me that question?

Perhaps my dissertation director, who had tried to warn me, had a point after all.

I did not manage to come up with much by way of an answer. I asked whether the company in question knew that the milk was tainted, and then tried to muddle my way forward from there. Thankfully, however, I was rescued by another member of my committee—my lone outside reader, distinguished Adam Smith scholar Knud Haakonssen—who interrupted me and said that he didn’t think the question was fair to Mr. Otteson since he hadn’t addressed any of those issues in the dissertation. I will forever be thankful to Professor Haakonssen for that.

That exchange has stuck with me ever since. The person who posed that question has now retired, after a long and distinguished scholarly career. I had even served as a teaching assistant to him during my time at Chicago; I learned a great deal from him and developed a deep respect for his scholarship. But that question was not fair, not fair at all; yet I fear the fact that it was asked is telling.

Imagine this analogous exchange in a hypothetical dissertation defense:

Reader: “Mr. ——, even historians of philosophy must eventually ask what, in what they’re studying, is true—not just exegetical questions, but what we should believe today. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Mr. ——: “Yes, I would agree.”

Reader: “Well, then, should I infer from the fact that you chose to write your dissertation on Karl Marx that you endorse the slaughter of tens of millions of innocent noncombatants that took place during the twentieth century in the name of Marxian ideals?”

Though I have no evidence for it, I suspect that an exchange like the one I had is not all that uncommon; by contrast, I would be quite surprised if an exchange like the hypothetical one I describe has ever happened. Am I wrong?

In a future post I may recount some other bizarre or shocking things that I have heard in my years as an academic. In the meantime, I invite readers to share their own.

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A few years ago I was attending an academic conference in New Hampshire. At one of the dinners my pride overcame me: I told the attendees at my table that my wife had just recently given birth to our fourth child. He was an unexpected blessing—and I was beaming with happiness about it.

One of the attendees was apparently not so happy. “How many kids do you have?” he asked. “This is our fourth.” He rolled his eyes. “Haven’t you heard of something called ‘abortion’?” he laughed. “Excuse me?” I said, taken aback. He continued: “Don’t you think there are enough people on this planet already?” I was, as the Scots say, gobsmacked. “If you really think that,” I said, gesturing to the Atlantic ocean, which was visible from where we were sitting in the restaurant, “there’s the ocean; go throw yourself in it.”

He laughed awkwardly, but my stare indicated to him—and, I fear, to the other people at the table—that I was not kidding. And indeed I wasn’t. It was not just the egregiously bad taste in saying something like that to a brand new parent. Even worse was the posture of claiming that because lots of people have done something he doesn’t like, therefore I need to atone for it.

That is not part of my moral code. I am not “people,” or “mankind,” or “the species”; I am me and me alone. I take responsibility for my actions, and I take those responsibilities seriously; others should take responsibility for their actions. There is no collective “we” that acts, no leviathan of humanity that is collectively responsible for things that all humanity does.

That does not mean that the results of lots of people’s individual actions cannot lead to results that no one of them intended. That indeed is the central insight behind Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” metaphor: individuals pursuing mostly their own, localized self-interest are led, by the dynamics of markets, to pursue activities that turn out to benefit others as well. We all benefit, Smith argued, from the existence of markets, even those of us who disdain or misunderstand markets.

So Peter Singer argues recently that we should consider being the “last generation” of humans on earth. I remember—it does not seem so long ago—when Singer’s claim that the argument for abortion should be extended to license selective infanticide seemed outrageous. Then Singer made some ripples when he discussed with approval “mutually satisfying [sexual] activities” between humans and non-human animals—so long, of course (of course!), as there is no cruelty toward the animal.

Now Singer wonders whether we might not have some obligation to sterilize ourselves to ensure that there is no future generation of humans. And why? Singer is worried about the number of humans on the planet already and the ‘stresses’ this creates. These stresses may well bear on other animals, but he’s primarily interested in future humans.

“Most thoughtful people,” Singer writes, “are extremely concerned about climate change,” and since the effects of our carbon production today will bear primarily on future generations, perhaps one way to avoid harming our progeny is not to have any progeny. If harming a child is wrong, then perhaps bringing a child into a world in which it is likely he or she will be harmed is wrong too.  “Are the interests of a future child a reason for bringing that child into existence? And is the continuance of our species justifiable in the face of our knowledge that it will certainly bring suffering to innocent future human beings?”

Put aside for the moment that Singer leaves out of his discussion any mention of God or of any of the obligations that the world’s major religions believe their billions of faithful have to be fruitful and multiply. Also put aside the projections of many demographers that world population will peak and plateau during this century, as well as the fact that many countries—including most of Europe, for example—are not reproducing themselves at all and thus might not survive this century; so this is probably a non-issue already.

Consider instead Singer’s lack of intellectual humility. He uses words like “likely” and even “certainly,” but let’s be honest: He has no way whatsoever of knowing. This is crucially important because this lack of knowledge is not peculiar to him: It applies to almost everyone else regarding almost everyone else’s children. I don’t know what kind of life your child will have, and neither does Singer; even you can only make guesses—and if you have children, you know just how bad our guesses about how our children will turn out can be.

The scenarios Singer poses involving decisions of whether to sterilize ourselves to prevent the creation of future generations also assume collective decision-making and collective responsibility. But you and I do not decide how many children “we” should have, and you and I are not jointly responsible for the children “we” have. Instead, I make my decisions, you yours; I am responsible for mine, you yours. If each of us tries to take these responsibilities for his or her own decisions seriously, then, the worrisome aggregate effects that Singer highlights diminish dramatically.

So although it may be true that the continuance of our species will bring suffering to some  future human beings, it is also true that it will bring tremendous joy and happiness as well. Since no one of us can tip the global balance in either direction, the prudent thing to do is to examine our own situations and make decisions for ourselves. If there are cases in which some potential parents ought, all things considered, not to have children, then there are similarly some in which some potential parents ought, all things considered, to have children.

This latter camp is the one I believe my family and I are in, and thus another reason why Singer and I seem to occupy different moral universes.


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1.  Matt Ridley.  The Origins of Virtue (and Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments)

2.  Robert Nozick.  “The Genealogy of Ethics” in his book Invariances

I would enjoy hearing Sven’s thoughts on these three pieces, not to mention anyone else tuning in to Pileus.

Invariances is among the most difficult books I have ever read.  Fortunately, the chapter I recommended is not difficult to understand.  Some of the other chapters are very tough and very high powered philosophy.  But one is well-served to read, reread, and keep reading Nozick.  My favorite Nozick work is his classic book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia.  The last section on Utopia is very much underappreciated and had a huge influence on my view of the world.

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Even though I’m in the office working on a Saturday, I had a colleague (and fellow Jazz fan, incidentally) come by and berate me for comparing the great Bill Russell to Paul Millsap. Now, I’m a huge fan of Millsap—look at Game 2 of this series; he was the most valuable player on the floor—so I don’t consider this an insult to Russell.  But I realize some people get upset by not giving the greats of the past their due.

My colleague characterized the Millsap/Russell comparison as saying that Adam Smith was not a great economist because he couldn’t compete with economists if he were alive today (at least not without a lot of new training).  Certainly one could make the case that Smith, the “father” of the discipline, was a great economist.  But what are we to do with him today?  My fellow blogger, Jim, is a Smith expert and has written extensively on him, so I have to be careful.

PhD students in economics these days rarely read Smith.  In fact a philosopher or political scientist, I would conjecture, is much more likely to have read Smith than an economist .  In economics, “history” is anything published more than 20 years ago, and anything published before the great general equilibrium papers (Arrow-Debreu, etc.) in the 1950s is just “history of thought,” and there are like 2 people in the nation that are writing dissertations on the history of thought and probably fewer economics departments who want to hire them.

For better or worse, economics is a cumulative discipline.  A big premium exists for being well-schooled in the state of the art, but not much career value in saying, “Jones is really just arguing what Adam Smith said in a less technical way.”  Those comments just elicit a collective yawn from the discipline.  Paul Samuelson gave a coherent mathematical structure to Marshall and other predecessors, and we have all moved on with that structure .  Smith, actually, can still be read today by economists because of the clarity of his writing, but people like Ricardo—immensely influential historically—are impenetrable and a waste of time.  Understanding Ricardian Equivalence is key if you are macro guy, but reading Ricardo is not.  There are great economists today (though very few under 60, I would guess) who are conversant with the old masters, but most of just fake it.  Give us an Adam Smith cheat sheet, and we are good to go.  From time to time I have read parts of the classics.  But every time I do, I conclude afresh that this is not a good use of my time.

Our philosopher friends and others look at us disdainfully for our ahistorical discipline.  But I say, give us some useful answers, or shut up.  Some disciplines are not cumulative, and I conjecture that is a mark of the immaturity and lack of progress in those disciplines (though sometimes lack of progress is a function of the inherent difficulty of the field).  Economics is a relatively young discipline, but a mature one because we don’t have to start at the beginning all the time.  The discipline itself has sifted through the past research and preserves what has utility (though I’m not saying some out-of-fashion ideas don’t deserve being resurrected).   The more a discipline looks to its history, the less it has to say of value in today’s world.  I don’t think any of the hard scientists are focused on the past.

Now sometimes we look to the past because disciplines have declined.  Who can argue that symphonic music, for instance, has improved in the last century?  We still listen to the classics not because we are awaiting for good music to be discovered, but because there was so little that was really good in the 20th century.

In social science and the NBA, this is not the case.   I’d still take Paul Millsap.

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In his recent column, Michael Medved raises the interesting question of whether America’s increasing rotundity implies, given the ethic that our political leaders should “look like us,” that more of them should be obese. Indeed, Medved suggests the amusing implication that in that case some 30 senators would have to be obese, and most of the rest would have to be visibly overweight.

But Medved also broaches the touchier issue of whether obesity is a mere harmless preference, and thus properly within any individual’s range of free choice, or whether it is an effect of immoral choices, and thus properly the object of moral condemnation. Some will argue that as state governments and the federal government assume responsibility for more of their citizens’ health care, bad health care choices on the part of citizens therefore become the business of the government; being obese would then be an imposition on the state as well as an imposition on one’s fellow citizens. Hence being eating cheeseburgers would be both unpatriotic and possibly criminal.

The easy and obvious way to deal with that problem is for the state to stop assuming responsibility for its citizens’ health care, to let people assume responsibility for it themselves and thus themselves bear the costs and enjoy the benefits of their choices as the case may be. But that ship has sailed. So I understand that that is coming–the “food police” are most certainly on their way, just as the “green police” are.

But the growing sense that obesity is immoral suggests the interesting phenomenon of what Steven Pinker has called “moralization.” The idea is that we have a range of moral sensibilities that can switch on and off, in a process of “moralization” and “amoralization,” so that what at one time was considered a matter of moral weight becomes considered a mere preference, and vice-versa. In his book The Blank Slate, Pinker gives several examples of behaviors that were once in America considered immoral but no longer are, including “divorce, illegitimacy, working motherhood, marijuana use, homosexuality, masturbation, sodomy, oral sex, atheism, and any practice of a non-Western culture” (p. 275). In contrast to those newly “amoralized” behaviors, we have also recently “moralized” a whole range of things that were once a matter of indifferent preference, including everything from disposable baby diapers to Barbie dolls to fur to IQ tests to spanking to . . . fast food (p. 276).

Pinker argues that whether these things affect others is not the issue; everything affects someone else somehow or other. Whether they have bad consequences is similarly irrelevant; many or most of them might. The question, rather, is whether they are best understood as moral issues, instead of matters of good or bad taste, of reasonable or unreasonable risk, of cost vs. benefit, and so on.

I think these examples show how surprisingly sensitive our moral sensibilities are to our local culture, and how changes in our peers’ assessments can so quickly and so deeply change our own assessments. This might, on the one hand, cause us to reconsider the origin of our moral sentiments. Perhaps instead of deductions from first principles or intuitions of the Divine will, many of them are the result of interactive negotiations with those around us about what we like or don’t like, giving rise, unintentionally, to a larger, emergent orders or patterns of moral sensibilities. (Maybe Adam Smith was right about that.)

In addition, however, I think this should also cause us to reconsider our rush to enact current sensibilities into laws and regulations. “Live and let live” is not just an attractively humble motto: It might also constitute a recognition that many of our own moral intuitions and sensibilities are far more subject to fashion and peer pressure than we might like to suppose, and that they may well change over time.

To return, then, to the issue of obesity, my recommendation would be to resist the urge to ‘moralize’ it. People’s dietary choices may be imprudent (for them), they may be costly (to them), and they may not be what you or I would choose. In a free society, however, we should allow people to make choices about things like that even when their choices are not what you or I would make.

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I’ve always found this to be one of Adam Smith’s most powerful quotations:

Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice: all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things.

But is Smith right?  Well, not exactly.  These policies or “institutions” are certainly a good start.  But I’d argue that certain types of virtue, mores, character, and values are also vital preconditions for opulence.  Indeed, one might argue that these variables are prior conditions for the peace, easy taxes, and administration consistent with both a long-lasting free society and the opulence that flows from it.  And they are hardly natural but things that take a lot of effort, education, and wisdom to develop/build.  Individuals, families, churches, and other civic associations are the forges of these things.  Unfortunately, the state often acts in ways destructive of them – an unintended consequence of the smothering love of the leviathan.

I tread in dangerous waters here given that Jim Otteson, my fellow blogger here at Pileus, has clearly spent a few more moments thinking about Smith than I have!  Perhaps a signed copy will enlighten me if I’m wrong. ;-)

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ShaftesburyMarkets are frequently derided for causing greedy or other loathesome behaviors.  I’m more prone to believe that the problem isn’t with markets per se but with human nature or bad character – unfettered markets, just like other freedoms, allow some of our worst side to play out rather than being the cause of this behavior (in terms of other freedoms, consider how free speech allows ignorant racists to spew hate-filled rants).  Moreover, as Adam Smith and Bernard de Mandeville long ago pointed out, even our less praiseworthy side can cause lots of positive consequences even though our intentions are anything but good.   In other words, private vice can have public benefits. 

But I digress… 

What I’m trying to argue is that we should appreciate markets not merely for their efficient provision of goods and service but also because freedom, including the freedom to engage in commerce on consensual terms, can improve market participants themselves.  As the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury nicely argued, “All Politeness is owing to Liberty. We polish one another, and rub off our Corners and rough Sides by a sort of amicable Collision.”  And our engagement in the marketplace is just the sort of “amicable collision” that has a polishing effect.  More on how later!

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What kind of adults do we want our children to become? Responsible parents ask themselves this question, and their answers provide principles that guide their parenting. 

The federal government, however, is making it very difficult to be a good parent, because it systematically undermines so many of the lessons one wants to teach. 

I want my children to become respectable, independent adults—able, like the blacksmith in Longfellow’s poem, to look “the whole world in the face,/For he owes not any man.” There is a nobility and a dignity in standing on one’s own two feet, in expecting to be held accountable for what one does with one’s liberty, and in not imposing on others to handle one’s own affairs. 

Now, children are all for liberty, but they sure don’t want accountability. They want the freedom to decide whether to do homework or watch American Idol, but they don’t want privileges taken away if their grades suffer because they opted for the latter. They want the freedom to spend all their money on candy and sodas at the movies, but then they want mom and dad to pay the registration fee for the school trip they were supposed to use that money for. 

If you’re a parent you understand this all too well. How many times have you spoken with your children about the importance of planning ahead? About remembering longer-term goals and arranging priorities accordingly? About how becoming an adult means saving for a rainy day, keeping your promises, and not expecting others to do things for you when you should take responsibility for yourself? 

These things go into making a responsible adult. Liberty, yes, but accountability too; and using good judgment about how to allocate resources so that long-term goals are served, not just the pleasures of the moment. One has to develop the discipline to abide by one’s principles all on one’s own, even when nobody is looking. 

Yet all of these sound moral habits are violated today by the federal government, and with increasing flagrancy. Take just one spectacular example: the mounting national debt. 

The federal government’s national debt is currently over $12 trillion—some $40,000 for every man, woman, and child in America. That’s not including unfunded obligations to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, whose present value is approximately $41 trillion, or another $137,000 per American. For a family of four, this means over $700,000 in total current federal government debt. Our national debt will soon approach, and then exceed, 100% of our Gross National Product

Putting economics aside, consider the moral message this conveys. Nearly every conceivable problem people might face in life constitutes an obligation on someone else’s part to resolve. President Obama’s proposed 2010 budget funds hundreds of government programs designed to reduce or eliminate the negative consequences of people’s own bad decisions—giving them, in essence, liberty without responsibility. Do not fret about standing on your own two feet, it tells Americans: spend recklessly today, for tomorrow we will bail you out. 

Who is the “we” who will bail you out? Well, don’t fret about that either: future Americans may be servants to the debt, but that is years from now, and for now we’ll pretend that by then someone will have figured out how to deal with the problem. 

But why should our children take responsibility for themselves when the adults will not? Why should our children undergo the arduous process of becoming accountable adults when those currently in charge take every opportunity to shirk their own responsibilities, closing their eyes to the economic tsunami that their decisions will unleash on future generations? 

Once upon a time, people like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Adam Smith railed against public debt, believing it an immoral imposition on our children. It is indeed an egregious form of “taxation without representation,” since those who will have to pay it—future citizens—have no opportunity to say no. That alone should awaken us from our moral slumbers: It is wrong to do this to our own children. 

But it is also a terrible moral lesson to teach them. The virtuous adult is free and independent, yet also responsible and accountable. Our public institutions should not only encourage that virtue but also manifest it. Is it too much to ask that our representatives behave as we would have our children behave?

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