Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Philosophy of 'Outrage'

Josh Cohen is quoted by John Perry for Philosophy talk: the Blog (HERE):

For much of the past century, the idea of a political philosophy devoted
to both liberty and equality seemed to many people a contradiction in terms. Outraged by vast differences between the lives of rich and poor, egalitarians condemned the classical liberalism of John Locke and Adam Smith for giving undue attention to legal rights and liberties, while remaining indifferent to the fate of ordinary people. Traditional liberalism, they complained, prized equality before the law, but showed complacency in the face of profound and grim inequalities of fortune on earth.

Classical liberals, in contrast, embraced personal liberty, and condemned egalitarians for their paternalism and willingness to sacrifice human freedom in the name of some possible future utopia
(From "The Importance of Philosophy: Reflections on John Rawls
S. Afr. J, Philos. 2004, 23(2))

John Perry reports the views of Josh Cohen and prefaces the quotation with his own statement:

Rawls changed all that with A Theory of Justice. The importance of this book in starting a new era of political thought and re-invigorating the whole ethical side of philosophy in America cannot be overestimated.”

It is not my brief to dispute the assertions of modern-day moral philosophers but it is to challenge the things they say about Adam Smith (I am not concerned with the views of John Locke on this occasion).

egalitarians condemned the classical liberalism of …. Adam Smith for giving undue attention to legal rights and liberties, while remaining indifferent to the fate of ordinary people.”

This is a curious sentence. It signifies a profound difference between 18th-century moral philosophers and their modern equivalents, living in secular democracies without the non-trivial tyrannies of an Established Church, and with a Bill of Rights protecting their freedoms to be ‘outraged’ and inform anybody who listens to their views about the world as it is and how they would have it changed. These freedoms were not available to Adam Smith and he was not protected from the long-reach of the powers of the sovereign state that decided what was permissible and what was punishable.

Brave souls sitting in the comforts of 21st-century affluence and Human Rights laws should, perhaps, be humble when condemning their predecessors who didn’t even have a right to vote under the existing franchise, let alone the freedom to be ‘outraged’. Adam Smith observed and wrote about the problems of society within the ‘rules’ of discourse prevalent in his day, and any reading of Wealth Of Nations cannot fail to impress just how much he highlighted the problems of the poverty of the majority of people in British society.

Adam Smith openly stated his role as a philosopher was to ‘do nothing and observe everything’, which he did in all his Works, often resorting to a device that exposed the many flaws in human conduct by appending them to historical figures, not their contemporary examples, which allowed him to condemn ‘vile rulers’ in the past, but who were also clearly present in his day, and at the same time to comment upon would-be radical reformers who conceived of ‘schemes’, ‘plans’, ‘utopias’, and fully worked-out futures to relieve humanity from its manifest burdens.

Egalitarians who were ‘Outraged by vast differences between the lives of rich and poor’ (in which particular and unique age are we thinking of’? Is it in the 18th-19th-20th or 21st century?) wanted Adam Smith to do what?

Smith’s task as he saw it was to observe how society arrived at where it was in 18th-century Britain and point out where and why it was deficient. If the measures he painstakingly analysed were ‘slowly and gradually’ changed, he believed there would be a spread of opulence to the poorest ranks of society, which arguably was the right thing to do in mid-18th-century Scotland.

Coming from Scotland, which for centuries embroiled itself in bloody dynastic turmoil and, recently in his lifetime (1745-6), had rebelled in pursuit of its last dynastic war with disastrous consequences for all concerned, he was ever mindful of the price paid by the ordinary folk for instant solutions to ancient problems proposed by the ‘outraged’ prophets touting future remedies.

He summed up his rejection of what he called ‘the man of system’ and prefaced his remarks with his own philosophy for “slow and gradual change” to ameliorate the poverty of the many from the spread of that necessary opulence so beyond the reaches of those who lived without it as things stood:

“The man whose public spirit is prompted altogether by humanity and benevolence, will respect the established powers and privileges even of individuals, and still more those of the great orders and societies, into which the state is divided. Though he should consider some of them as in some measure abusive, he will content himself with moderating, what he often cannot annihilate without great violence.

When he cannot conquer the rooted prejudices of the people by reason and persuasion, he will not attempt to subdue them by force; but will religiously observe what, by Cicero, is justly called the divine maxim of Plato, never to use violence to his country no more than to his parents. He will accommodate, as well as he can, his public arrangements to the confirmed habits and prejudices of the people; and will remedy as well as he can, the inconveniencies which may flow from the want of those regulations which the people are averse to submit to. When he cannot establish the right, he will not disdain to ameliorate the wrong; but like Solon, when he cannot establish the best system of laws, he will endeavour to establish the best that the people can bear.

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

Some general, and even systematical, idea of the perfection of policy and law, may no doubt be necessary for directing the views of the statesman. But to insist upon establishing, and upon establishing all at once, and in spite of all opposition, every thing which that idea may seem to require, must often be the highest degree of arrogance. It is to erect his own judgment into the supreme standard of right and wrong. It is to fancy himself the only wise and worthy man in the commonwealth, and that his fellow-citizens should accommodate themselves to him and not he to them. It is upon this account, that of all political speculators, sovereign princes are by far the most dangerous. This arrogance is perfectly familiar to them. They entertain no doubt of the immense superiority of their own judgment. When such imperial and royal reformers, therefore, condescend to contemplate the constitution of the country which is committed to their government, they seldom see any thing so wrong in it as the obstructions which it may sometimes oppose to the execution of their own will. They hold in contempt the divine maxim of Plato, and consider the state as made for themselves, not themselves for the state. The great object of their reformation, therefore, is to remove those obstructions; to reduce the authority of the nobility; to take away the privileges of cities and provinces, and to render both the greatest individuals and the greatest orders of the state, as incapable of opposing their commands, as the weakest and most insignificant” TMS VI.ii.2: pp 233-34; 1872 ed. Kessinger Rare Reprints, pp 207-08).

John Perry and Josh Cohen may differ vigorously with Adam Smith on the appropriate actions that should be taken in face of society’s manifest ills and outrages, but they are woefully unfair, inaccurate and unjust in accusing Adam Smith of “remaining indifferent to the fate of ordinary people”.

He lived in a society with far deeper poverty, broken hearts, and shorter, miserable lives than anything that graduates of Harvard are ever likely to experience. But he was never indifferent to what he observed.

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Blogger michael webster said...


Perry was quoting Josh, not John, Cohen. Both John and Josh, in my opinion, are pretty bright guys.

You are right to post what Adam Smith actually described, but I had a different reaction to Perry's post.

I was recently re-reading some of Vernon Smith's experimental economics and realized the big challenge that Smith has posed.

How do we arrange market auctions to get results which are fair, and not the equilibrium?

I wrote a short piece about it here:

12:26 am  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...


Thanks for your contribution. I read your article (and I recommend readers to do so too).

I am currently grading the December MBA and MSc exams for my old day job (3 courses) and confess not to reading much of the Jones and Josh article besides the reference to Adam Smith.

If I get a chance I shall come back to your paper.

It was my pleasure to meet Vernon Smith this year at the unveiling of the Adam Smith statue in Edinburgh.

10:16 am  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...


Brief comments.

Lawyers tend to look for 'fairness' and 'equity' in their theoiries of a Just society.
Neoclassical conomists tend to look to explanations of society from their assumptions about motives and rationality.

Smithian economists seek to explain society as it is against a belief in practical (not utopian) improvements that could be made 'slowly and gradually' to spread opulence among the 'inferior' orders (i.e., the majority of the population).

Predicating these gradual reforms on 'just' or 'fair' prices in not part of the Smithian agenda; perfection is utopian.

Practical change is possible when there is a growing product to make reforms practical (few lose) and this means accepting society's imperfections, and, like Solon, accepting 'progress' to the extent only to which the people will bear.

2:12 pm  

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