Sunday, January 30, 2011

Natural Law Was Not About Selfishness And Exchange Is Based on Reciprocation

Morris Berman writes in: Dark Ages America (HERE)

“The Structuralists”

“The shift from a European-based sense of commonwealth to a me-first free-for-all dates primarily from the 1790s.* Until that time, according to Joyce Appleby, the idea of a greater good and a system of reciprocal obligations still carried some weight, and the word "virtue" was defined as a commitment to those things. Under the impact of the ideas of Adam Smith and the Scottish enlightenment, however, this began to change. The new Newtonian-based philosophy held that societies were collections of individuals ("atoms"), and that the pursuit of profit on the part of each of these entities combined–i.e. the collective result of individual self-interest–would be the prosperity of the whole. "Virtue," in other words, had by 1800 come to mean personal success in an opportunistic environment; looking out for Number One.

The result was that the glue that had held colonial life together began to disintegrate, for individual greed is basically an antiglue. Historically speaking, according to Gordon Wood, this constituted a complete transformation in human social relations, amounting to a very new type of society. One might even call it an antisociety

Adam Smith was in the Natural Law tradition influenced by Grotius, Pufendorf, Carmichael and Hutcheson, which regarded the individual as a beneficiary of certain basic natural rights, including property in self, hence slavery breached Natural Law and was not about "greater social good"). This did not mean that individuals were atomistic, isolated, and hostile to each other.

For a start individuals live in societies and are socialized through, first, those closest to them – the family – and through relatives, and adults in social contact – the ‘great school of self command’ - and who constitute ‘societies mirror’ which helps form them from childhood into acceptable behaviours, rather than plain selfishness. [see Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759.]

Morris Berman is offering a ‘theory’ about ‘colonial life’, of early America to suit a fairly heavy ideological agenda (follow the link above). His basic premise is wrong. His assertions about Adam Smith are wrong. His claim of “looking out for Number One” played no part in Natural Law or Adam Smith’s moral sentiments. Because Morris gets these wrong, his ‘theory’ is more than suspect.



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