Thursday, April 23, 2009

Nicholas Gruen on Smith's Moral Sentiments

Nicholas Gruen’s article on Adam Smith’s Moral Sentiments (first published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 10 April) is republished in On Line Opinion (Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate’) HERE:

I recommend that you follow the link and read Nick’s explication of the role of sympathy in human relations, as explained by Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759).

Over at Econ Talk (HERE) Dan Klein and Russ Roberts are discussing the whole of Smith’s Moral Sentiments text (they are on part 3 of the series this week), but if you want a short, sharp introduction to Smith’s theory of reciprocal sympathy, Nick’s excellent and inimitable prose style in just the right tone will provide you with the tools in about 15 minutes reading (and thinking).

Here is the briefest of extracts for you (consistent with ‘fair dealing’ of copyright materials):

"Happy 250th birthday: Adam Smith the public figure

Smith’s great theme was that self-interest was healthy if balanced by similarly powerful forces tending towards the public good. In economic life in freely competitive markets, competition and self-seeking behaviour would - miraculously - serve both private and public interests. So long as a bargain was free and informed - for instance free of a merchant’s monopoly power or of fraud - it would improve the lot of all concerned.

And Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments argued that people seeking their own interests in a society were united by their sympathy or fellow feeling for others. If that sounds a bit lame to you - a monopolist’s sympathy for his customers rarely stops him exploiting them - Smith wasn’t arguing that people always do the right thing. His point was subtler and more powerful. Smith observed the way we internalise others’ values and live enmeshed in social meanings and expectations.
In thrall to Newton’s explanation of the movement of planets via a single, uniform principle - that of gravity - he looked for a similar foundation for human behaviour in society. In modern parlance Smith argued that we were “hardwired” for sympathy or fellow feeling with others, not in the sense that we always take their side, but in the deeper sense that our understanding and ultimate judgment of them depends on an imaginative sympathy, on the process of being able to place ourselves in their position, to see the world through their eyes

Lost Legacy has corresponded with Nick Gruen since its foundation in 2005 and he is a perceptive literary scholar of Adam Smith’s Moral Sentiments. I have posted a couple of his articles in the past on Lost Legacy’s Home page.



Blogger Nicholas Gruen said...

Thanks Gavin, You're very kind. (And feel free to extract as much stuff as you like. I don't think Adam Smith was all that keen on intellectual monopoly!) I also enjoyed the first podcast on TMS and have downloaded the next two to listen to.


4:55 am  

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