Friday, June 29, 2007

Thought For Friday: the pursuit of happiness by Adam Smith

Darrin M. McMahon, a professor of history at Florida State University, is the author of "Happiness: A History", writes here in, 28 June:

Don't feel too bad about lusting after Apple's next product

Political economist Adam Smith was wiser about such things than today's scolds. He knew that "frivolous objects" could never secure our happiness, which was above all a matter of the soul. But he also knew that our longing for what he called "baubles" and "gewgaws" was a productive force that tapped deep into the wellsprings of human nature. It was natural, he thought, to aspire to such things, and natural for us to imagine that having them would bring us happiness.

Mr. Smith also understood that humans innately overestimate the amount of pleasure that gewgaws and iPhones would bring. And yet he thought that the impulse to acquire them was precisely the force that "rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind," prompting us to build cities, invent and improve the arts and sciences. The key to all human progress, Mr. Smith knew, was the pursuit of happiness

Darrin M. McMahon is absolutely right, which is a pleasure to see at Lost Legacy.

Adam Smith covered this subject in Moral Sentiments (1759) when he linked ‘beauty’ to ‘utility’ (TMS IV.1.11: pp 179-87: the same chapter that mentions the metaphor of ‘an invisible hand’). The gist of which is that people desire objects not for their utility so much as for their ‘beauty’ in the purpose they are made for.

From this idea (which Smith considered to be original; though he acknowledges David Hume’s contribution), Smith attributes to an item the quality of it being more valued than the end for which it was designed.

In consequence people ‘ruin themselves by laying out money on trinkets of frivolous utility’. He goes on to recount the parable of the ‘poor man’s son, whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition’ (p 181) and states clearly that the rich with their ‘numberless artificial and elegant contrivances for promoting their ease and pleasure’ are not really ‘happier than other people’, but poorer people imagine that ‘they possess more means of happiness’ (p 182). In their pursuit for what the richer people have (and what we would call today, 'keeping up with the Jones's next door'), they engage in activity to earn more to afford more.

It is this illusion that drives the economy and the ambition of all those who wish to ‘better themselves’ and it is ‘well that nature imposes upon us in the manner’ because ‘it is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motions the industry of mankind’ (p 183).

It is the pursuit of happiness, and not necessarily its attainment that is the motive force of the commercial economy and whatever came or will come after it.

Worth thinking about, I think.


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