Monday, December 22, 2008

Tim Duy on The Pursuit of Wealth

Tim Duy writes “The Pursuit of Wealth” and it is posted on the Economist’s View Blog by Mark Thoma (HERE):

In it he quotes the famous parable of the ‘poor man’s son, whom heaven in its anger has visited him with ambition’ (TMS IV.1.8: p 181; 1872 edition, Kessinger Rare Reprints, pp 159-160). This provokes a lively correspondence, some of which appears to take Smith’s parable as a assault on enterprise. In response I posted the following contribution to the discussion:

Tim Duy deserves to be congratulated for drawing wider attention to Adam Smith's writings in "The Theory of Moral Sentiments".

Some of the above commentators should turn to the chapter Tim quotes from (TMS IV.i.8: p 181). If they do so and turn over the page they will find on page 183 a typical Adam Smith admonition to counter the rather depressing parable of the 'poor man's son', which should answer some commentators who may have missed Smith's main point in the chapter.

He wasn't downgrading the pursuit of wealth (the "annual output of the necessaries, conveniences, and amusements of life") at all. He was simply putting the individual motivations that drives such (few) people to get up in the morning. He was putting them in context:

"And it is well that nature imposes upon us in this manner. It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind. It is this which first prompted them to cultivate the ground, to build houses, to found cities and commonwealths, and to invent and improve all the sciences and arts, which ennoble and embellish human life; which have entirely changed the whole face of the globe, have turned the rude forests of nature into agreeable and fertile plains, and made the trackless and barren ocean a new fund of subsistence, and the great high road of communication to the different nations of the earth. The earth by these labours of mankind has been obliged to redouble her natural fertility, and to maintain a greater multitude of inhabitants." (TMS IV.1.10: p 183)

Isolated quotations from Adam Smith often smother his great subtlety of expression by missing his counter-points.

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Blogger David R. Larson said...

Thank you for this wonderfully informative site and blog.

Perhaps I may develop a novice's question:

If I distinguished between constitutive relations, those that help make me who I am, and contingent ones, those that I enter and leave at will with little or no impact upon the individual I am, would I be heading in the right direction if I thought that for Hobbes they are more contingent and that for Hume and Smith they are more constitutive?

Thank you for whatever help you may be able to provide.

David R. Larson
Loma Linda, California

2:43 am  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Your question reads like a tutorial essay given out to a class of Philosophy 101 students.

The obvious difference between Hobbes (society is formed out of fear of the tyranny of being the victim of random others) and both Hume and Smith (man has always lived in societies; an ‘outsider’ is an exception).

I am not sure what is meant by “help make me who I am”, or what is meant by “no impact upon the individual I am”, which sounds like psycho-talk (I see you live in California).

Sorry that I cannot help you resolve the question you ask; though if you would enlighten me (briefly) as to what is meant by these terms I may be interested in reading your comments.

9:24 am  
Blogger David R. Larson said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1:29 pm  
Blogger David R. Larson said...

I apologize for writing with so heavy a California accent!

The background of my question is a column in the 11 September 2008 New York Times by David Brooks, a Republican, I think, criticizing Republicans for not taking seriously enough Adam Smith's view “that people are socially embedded creatures.”

I think it interesting that a Republican would use Adam Smith against Republicans and am trying to learn if what David Brooks wrote is on target.

Thank you for your response and for this blog!

1:46 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Apologies for misreading your seriousness.

Yes, Smith did treat man in society as 'socialyy embedded' (though he did not use those words. His whole emphasis was man a social animal, contrary to Hobbes mythical state of nature with 'man against man'.

In Smith's thinking, man was socialised (another modern term) by social contact from childhood (parent and other adults) and then 'the great school of self command', other children in school.

They learn to 'get along by getting on' (my California-isms keep flowing!). Smith did not consider moral behaviour as innate; it is learned in social contact in which people in society are a 'mirror' on the acceptability of otherwise of our behaviour, from which our 'impartial spectator' ('conscience' would be close to its meaning) runs a constant comentary on our actions.

I am not sure 'Republicans', indeed most others, realise the moral dimension of Adam Smith was so important, including in his political economy.

In the famous 'butcher, brewer, baker' exmple, if read carefully, exhibits the moral dimension clearly. Acting in our self interest to acquire our dinner we must address the self interests of others, though this is taken as evidence of acting selfishly.

But two selfish traders cannot find a 'price' at which to trade; they can if each addresses the self interest of others. Indeed, social harmony requires that we realise we can only meet out self interests by serving the slef interests of those we transact with. We serve outselves by serving others.

I discuss this in my book (shamelss plug), "Adam Smith: a motal philosopher and his political economy", 2008, Palgrave Macmillan.

I am glad you like the Blog.

3:00 pm  
Blogger David R. Larson said...

Thank you for all your help!

Without expecting a reply, particularly when you are marking exams, perhaps I can say a few things about myself.

I am one of four people who teach medical ethics in the School of Religion at Loma Linda University, half-way between Los Angeles and Palm Springs, which is a long way from Scotland and economics!

[Perhaps you recall that at LLU 25 years ago Doctor Bailey transplanted the heart of a baboon into an infant’s heart. My wife and I were involved in that case, she as a chaplain and me as a bioethicist.]

Over the years I've had a desire to become acquainted with Adam Smith because I thought that no one could be as "out-of-it" [California!] as Milton Friedman portrays him and because I wondered if his idea of "sympathy" flows from a relational view of human nature, which is something medical ethics does care about.

Another thing is that I have been active at the Center for Process Studies at Claremont, also here in Southern California. It focuses on the work of Alfred North Whitehead and his relational view of things. I’ll be reading Smith with Whitehead in mind.

My own personal blog is at

We are all coping with the current financial meltdown in our own ways. Mine is to fulfill my promise to myself to get acquainted with Smith. But even though I have done some looking around TOMS, and have some preliminary impressions, I don't want to head off in the wrong direction. This is the reason for my question and my gratitude for your answer.

Meanwhile, in my semi-regular column at a pretty successful blog some people from my church run on their own—by that I mean financially and independently of the denomination—I have launched a series of reflections that explore the hypothesis, to be confirmed of disconfirmed with the help of others, that the primary source of our current financial difficulties is our frequent failure to integrate in theory and practice what Adam Smith meant by “sympathy” and “self-interest.”

The first column was “Capitalism: What Were Its Moral Strengths and Weaknesses?”

I’m working on the second one to be titled “Milton Friedman: Master of Disaster.”

Again, I don’t expect a reply to all this. I merely thought you might be interested in how far and wide your work is being helpful.

My next step is to work my way through your book. After that, I will have more and better questions. Meanwhile, I’ll be visiting your site/blog.

I’ve never learned how to decrease my ignorance without exposing it, so here goes!

All the best for the Holidays!

8:21 pm  
Blogger David R. Larson said...

8:27 pm  

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