I’ve recently begun the Ethics & Economics Challenge program with students at Merrimack Valley High School in Concord, N.H. We’ve been discussing what Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments can tell us about what types of moral duties may legitimately be enforced. I’m blogging my reflections as we go. Here is a selection from the first installment:
Last week, I talked with the students at Merrimack Valley High School in Concord about Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. According to Smith, you know an act is right when an impartial spectator would sympathize (or empathize) with the emotions motivating your act. Smith says that an impartial spectator will always empathize with both the kindness of someone who acts to benefit others and with the gratitude of the recipients of that kindness. So, as Smith sees it, acts of beneficence are always right. Does it follow that acts of beneficence are moral duties?
Bring me some coffee.
The simplest example we discussed in class is that of a friend who usually brings you coffee in the morning. If he fails to bring you coffee one morning, are you justified in resenting him? Has he acted immorally?
There is a clear answer here using Smith’s logic. An impartial spectator wouldn’t empathize with your resentment against someone who merely failed to be generous one morning. And an impartial spectator would never want to force someone to be kind.
Smith believed that we do have duties to be beneficent toward others, but they’re not duties we should enforce. To go further, duties of beneficence are what philosophers call imperfect duties, that is, they are not owed to specific people in specific circumstances. We have a duty to live beneficent lives, helping others freely and cheerfully, but we don’t have a duty to perform specific beneficent acts to specific people, like bringing coffee to my friend on a specific morning.
Posted in Ethics | Tagged Adam Smith, beneficence, justice | 2 Comments »
The search for a legacy always begins in earnest as presidents approach the final years of their time in office. Josh Kraushaar (National Journal) has an interesting piece on the Obama legacy. A key passage:
By ignoring the electorate and steering the country in an unmistakably progressive direction his final two years in office, he’s ensuring that his presidency will be more of an eight-year mirage for liberals, rather than one known for winning lasting support for policies that would move the country in a leftward direction.
All presidents have legacies, of course, but they are rarely what they might have imagined when they entered office.
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Thomas B. Edsall has an interesting piece in the New York Times on the “Republican Discovery of the Poor,” the embrace of economic populism, and the promotion of reforms, including changes to the tax code. Edsall understands the potential challenge to Democrats as Republicans “plan to bring the fight to the Democrats on their own turf.”
None of this is good news for Hillary Clinton. As Edsall concludes:
The obligation to counter the Republicans falls on Hillary Clinton. Her supporters are aware that she must navigate between the party’s competing constituencies while simultaneously demonstrating that she is not beholden to the Democratic special interest group network. If the 2016 election becomes a Clinton-Bush contest (or Clinton versus someone else who is committed to reformicon principles), its outcome will be determined by the ability of each candidate to surmount the same hurdle, but from opposite directions. How do you speak for the economically insecure without offending the very secure?
Edsall may not fully appreciate the longstanding disdain for corporate welfare and tax expenditures among libertarian elements of the GOP. What he presents as strategic calculations on the part of some Republicans may be more correctly understood as a longstanding commitment among some factions of the GOP. Whether this will constitute a threat to the Democratic candidate will depend on whether the reformist elements can survive the primaries.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged 2016 election | 1 Comment »
Despite candidate Obama’s promises of greater openness and transparency, the last few years have not been good ones with respect to freedom of the press. As Al Hunt observes: “The Obama administration has pursued more journalists than other administrations, secretly looking at phone records and credit card transactions and surreptitiously tracking their movements.”
A new Pew survey reveals that the administration’s policies may have a chilling effect:
About two-thirds of investigative journalists surveyed (64%) believe that the U.S. government has probably collected data about their phone calls, emails or online communications, and eight-in-ten believe that being a journalist increases the likelihood that their data will be collected. Those who report on national security, foreign affairs or the federal government are particularly likely to believe the government has already collected data about their electronic communications (71% say this is the case)
Although only 14 percent say that concerns over government surveillance have kept them from pursuing a story, it has forced 49 percent to change the way they store or share documents.
Following the terrorist attack in Paris, President Obama proclaimed: “Free expression and a free press are core values they are universal values, principles that can be attacked but never eradicated.” Let’s hope he is correct.
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Interest in childhood vaccinations has risen in the past few weeks, with the growing number of cases of measles. As Christopher Ingraham (Washington Post) notes: “Public opinion polling shows that vaccination attitudes don’t differ much by party affiliation. Or by income, or even education. But there is one important demographic factor: age.”
Rand Paul has run into some difficulties in the past few days when responding to questions regarding vaccinations. Perhaps his position is more complicated than can be captured in a sound byte. Alternatively, the ambiguity might be a calculated response to the beliefs of a key demographic that Paul has been courting.
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