Saturday, April 24, 2010

Ayn Rand versus Adam Smith

Art Carden posts (22 April) on the Blog: Division of Labour a report of a debate between Yaron Brook and James Otteson on Ayn Rand and Adam Smith. Dan Klein asked Art to ask Yaron Brook to answer a question and what follows is Yaron Brook’s reply and a number of comments. Here is the question and to read the responses and comments follow the link HERE:

"Take Smith's famous thought experiment about -- by some fantastic unstated mechanism -- you ("a man of humanity in Europe", in 1759) could prevent an earthquake in China by cutting off your pinky. Smith says that of course you would do so, and then addresses why. Yorum, would you cut off your pinky? Assume that knowledge of the whole affair would necessarily remain entire personal. If yes, and you claim to square that with "selfishness," aren't you using words in an opportunistic and unmanageable way?"

Ayn Rand Institute's Onkar Ghate responds:

“The question’s undertone is that everyone “just knows” it’s right to cut off your finger. Moral theory’s task is to rationalize this incontrovertible conclusion; Rand’s theory can’t, however, because it’s an abuse of language to call the action selfish.
But it’s a mistake to think that Rand’s ethics begins with the moral beliefs that happen to saturate the culture, not with reality. True, it would be an abuse of language to label the action Smith envisions “selfish”: it is self-sacrificial. Precisely for this reason, Rand’s ethics would pronounce the action immoral.

To understand the radical difference between Smith and Rand here, one must grasp the principles at work. Consider first the details of Smith’s imagined scenario in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, III.I.46.

If a “man of humanity,” Smith writes, heard about a devastating earthquake in China (that has no personal effect on him), he would feel sorrow. But if he didn’t directly witness the disaster, he would sleep undisturbed; indeed, he would feel more disturbed by “the most frivolous disaster that could befall him,” say the prospect of losing his finger the next day.

But now suppose, Smith says, the man were not a passive bystander but an active participant. Would he choose himself over others? “To prevent . . . this paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them?” Smith’s view is that no man could be so monstrous. And Smith’s question is: Why is our chosen action so different from our passive reaction
?” [Continued]

Follow the link to see how the debate unfolds. It well worth the effort. I regularly quote Adam Smith on the earthquake in China and what the ‘little finger’ episode means.

BTW, book marking Division of Labour is an excellent way t read thoughtful economics.

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Blogger Maxine Udall (girl economist) said...

Thank you.

11:17 pm  
Blogger Christian Prophet said...

Ayn Rand is so thoroughly misinterpreted! You may or may not have seen the article: "Ayn Rand, 20th Century Prophetess."

7:19 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Thanks Christian
I shall follow the link in your comment


9:34 am  
Blogger entech said...

Just spent a fascinating few hours following Christian Prophets link, he certainly spreads his message far and wide.
However, it is difficult to see the relationship between a religious group and Ayn Rand, anti religious as she proclaimed herself to be.
He suggests that everyone should read her books, as a young man, I did when they were first published. They did not prevent me from becoming a rather dark shade of pink, or, later being convinced that a market economy and individual liberty (not libertarian) provide the most beneficial outcome. As for being misinterpreted that certainly applies to Adam Smith, particularly as interpreted by Onkar Ghate.
I think I will stay with Professors Otteson and Kennedy.

7:35 am  

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