Monday, December 15, 2008

An Atheist Quotes Adam Smith for Moral Authority

David Ian Millar (a guid Scot’s name) writes a column in San Francisco Chronicle, ‘Finding My Religion’ and this week’s offering is HERE:

“Mac Geek Mike Lee is a committed atheist living a deeply spiritual life

[David interviews a self-proclaimed atheist, who used to be an evangelical Christian]

David: “You talk and write a lot about radical altruistic capitalism -- what is that, exactly?

Mike: In "Wealth of Nations," Adam Smith explained that people did not have to exploit others to be wealthy. Smith showed that everyone could be wealthy if they each went about their business to their own selfish ends, but within reason, and with an eye toward the common good. The caveat is important, because without it, capitalism fails at its primary goal, which is the betterment of all mankind.

"I call the sustainable form of capitalism that creates profits for all "altruistic capitalism," and the form that creates profits for some to the detriment of others I refer to as "exploitative capitalism." Most businesses ignore the distinction and pursue whichever is most convenient. Our radicalism is in our complete rejection of making money to the detriment of others, to the point where we might be a little too nice. But better we be too nice, rather than just nice enough.

David: It's interesting that you have a focus on social causes in your business, although you're an atheist. Some people feel like the world would run amuck if we didn't believe in God, that morality comes from or is at least enforced by people's spiritual beliefs.

Mike: Adam Smith tackled this exact question in his first book, "Moral Sentiments." What he eventually comes to is that humans, unique among animals, have the power to imagine themselves in another's situation. And Richard Dawkins proves that this aberration, this "empathy," is a net win for natural selection. Empathy leads to altruism, which is the impulse to help others. From this springs a central tenet that is the basis for all morality: Treat people like you want to be treated. Rather than being told (what to do) through some clumsy book addled with arcane rules, my ethics are woven into my very genes.”

[By the way I am not picking on religious subjects at all. This came up in my Giigle alerts service from for today's references to Adam Smith]

Of course, Mike Lee elides ‘self-interest’, which Adam Smith spoke of, into ‘selfishness’, which Smith always opposed, but skip that slip and focus on the message: all are better off from exchange relations.

We should also remember that the full range of human behaviours is available to every person engaging in exchange behaviours and to the full range of alternative actions available to those who want something they have not got. There are many other actions people can take as an alternative to bargaining, such as plunder, fraud, and violence at one extreme and ‘toss-a-coin”, mediate, instruct, and give in, at the other.

Mike Lee expresses his personal moral stance and does so without spiritual beliefs in invisible beings. This supports my contention yesterday that religious-minded people do not have a monopoly on morals.

Interestingly, Mike calls up Adam Smith in support of his atheistic moral stance. I applaud his choice of his authority for his business ethics. Of the moral issues, readers may make their own minds up; you can follows the link to read the rest of the interview.



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