Sunday, October 15, 2006

Good Start But Keep Reading

There is a growing trend for commentators, politicians and even economists, to take an interest in Adam Smith’s moral philosophy. For some it is a revelation that Adam Smith wrote two books, not one, and was known in his day far more for his philosophy than for his economics. It also surprises some people to learn that he preferred his book on Moral sentiments to his book on Wealth of Nations.

So far, it is politicians from the left (Gordon Brown, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer) rather than from the right who extol his moral sentiments. The Right tend to draw their approach to moral philosophy from either divine revelation or a conservative admiration for traditional norms of behaviour and a desire to see them imposed on the wayward. The left see Smith as a useful hammer with which to bash the Right who tend to revere their (mis)interpretation of his economics (laissez-faire and all that).

The New York Times (15 October) carries an Op-Ed from David Brooks which reports on Smith’s moral philosophy in the context for the future of the Republican Party.

A Moral Philosophy for Middle-Class America, by DAVID BROOKS New York Times 15 October 2006:

"All of this was anticipated by Adam Smith nearly 250 years ago. In “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” Smith based his theory of morals on the intense sociability of human beings (rather than on divine law or the idea of maximum individual autonomy). His approach is a starting point for social traditionalists today.

Smith argued that more than just about everything else, people hunger for approval. We feel intense pleasure when we experience the sympathy of others. In a well-structured society, he continues, our desire for sympathy leads us to restrain our selfish or egotistical behaviours. Furthermore, Smith continues, we not only want to feel praise, we want to feel praiseworthy. We want to act in ways that would deserve praise, if a wise, impartial spectator happened to be watching us. In our best moments, we want to live up to the ideals our society has gradually engraved upon us.

So for Smith, the crucial policy question was: How do you embed people in relationships that will discourage selfish behaviour and emotionally reward virtue and self-control?

In the 1980’s, Smith was known as the apostle of free-market capitalism. But these days attention has shifted over to his social philosophy. The culture war has become self-parodic, so people are hungry for a morality that is neither absolutist nor nihilistic. As the economy has opened up opportunities, it’s become clear many people lack the cultural capital to take advantage of them.”

This moral theory saw socialization as a learned process for children within the family grouping in which they were brought up. Their interaction with school fellows (‘the great school of self command’) also played a major role in their moral development.

He did not require a ‘well structured society’ (hints of the Right’s and the totalitarian nanny-state Left's need to control others?) because his theory was general to all societies – as they were, so would the next generation become.

Changes in social norms were likely to be gradual, slowly evolving and not subject to the imperatives of ‘men of system’.

For Smith there was no ‘crucial question’ of ‘how to embed people in relationships’; he wrote: ‘the present inquiry is not concerning a matter of right, if I may so, but concerning a matter of fact’. He explained what happened in his society and others could use the same method to analyse other societies; he outlined the consequences for moral behaviour if certain conditions were not met, primarily among these conditions was ‘justice’.

So, while David Brooks, is on the right lines he has some ways to go before he fully appreciates what Smith was getting at in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (as does Gordon Brown). However, I welcome these tentative steps in the right (and even the left) direction to widen the focus on to his theory of moral behaviour.


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