Thursday, December 17, 2009

Mistaken Identity?

Mark W. Hendrickson, a faculty member, economist, and contributing scholar with the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College, writes (12 December) for the Catholic Exchange Blog (HERE):

"The Theory of Moral Sentiments: Adam Smith’s Timely and Timeless Classic"

“2009 marks the 250th anniversary of the publication of Adam Smith’s masterful treatise on ethics, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith, primarily known today for his hugely influential 1776 work on political economy, The Wealth of Nations, was a professor of moral philosophy. The Theory of Moral Sentiments is stunningly relevant today.

Whereas The Wealth of Nations featured the “invisible hand,” the metaphor that dominates Moral Sentiments is “the impartial spectator.” The “spectator” represents one’s conscience-one’s ability to perceive the divinely ordained objective standard of right and wrong.

In Smith's view, conscience is both a divine spark in mankind and also the product of reason. Indeed, Moral Sentiments (like western civilization itself) is a synthesis of Greek Stoic philosophy and Christian thought.”

Take this strange sentence:

The Wealth of Nations featured the "invisible hand," the metaphor that dominates Moral Sentiments is "the impartial spectator."

I say “strange” because both Wealth Of Nations and Moral Sentiments “feature” (if that is the correct description) the invisible hand metaphor, in both cases by a single mention only, along, it must be said, with many other metaphors, some on only one occasion, too.

Mark W. Hendrickson goes on to assert that on Moral Sentimentsthe metaphor that dominates Moral Sentiments is "the impartial spectator."

Now the word “dominates” is a lot stronger than “features”, itself in this context an overly-strong reference for a metaphor used on only one occasion.

Being an economist, Mark W. Hendrickson, must know that Adam Smith used the metaphor in Wealth Of Nations only once (Book IV, Chapter 2, p 456).

I suspect that his reference to the metaphor being a “feature” of Smith’s work reflects the impression that many non-economists (and not a few economists, including from top universities) who haven’t read Wealth Of Nations – and a few that have – who rely on the ubiquitous references in modern media to the invisible hand assume that the metaphor was uniquely popular with Adam Smith solely because everybody believes it was major feature of his works. But it wasn’t.

Moreover, Mark asserts that ‘the "spectator" represents one's conscience as one's ability to perceive the divinely ordained objective standard of right and wrong’.

I have shown in my

The Hidden Adam Smith in his Alleged Theology” *

, that the widespread belief (more likely, the knee-jerk repetition of assertions made by others) that Smith believed in divine origins as a source of ‘harmony’ in commercial society – or that the ‘hand of God’ controlled the so-called ‘invisible hand’ - are at a minimum questionable, and, to my mind, they are compromised by a close reading of what Adam Smith actually wrote in Moral Sentiments, especially the sixth ad last edition, and considered along with biographical facts about his life.

[* (presented to the History of Economics Society, University of Colorado, Denver, June 2009 – copies are available in PDF from Lost Legacy: gavin At negweb dot com.]

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