Tuesday, November 05, 2013

More on Adam Smith’s Moral Sympathy

I think you raise a bit of straw man with the Vietnamese story. Yes, initially the women does not mind her 10 hour day, six days of week work in a textile factory compared to the drudgery and, I think it was Marx, stated was the idiocy of rural life. Both in the history of the industrial revolution and currently in Bengladash, the exploitation of workers converting from peasant to industrial labor begins to produce outrage among the workers themselves, without the need of outside agitators. Whether it is the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York or the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladash, a body count just becomes to big, and "my man-in-my-breast" feels too much sympathy with the dead to buy underwear and overcoat from such merchants.”
I thank “rickstersherpa” for his interesting and well-argued comment (yesterday's post).  He expresses a strong case in his informed criticism of my post yesterday, “Adam Smith on Sympathy”, and it is worthy of a main post, rather than it become “lost” in the months to come in the comments section. 
It illustrates my critique of Daniel Klein’s piece that for individuals should emulate his admonition to “work our way back to Adam Smith” on the basis that “All moral sentiment, that is, all approval or approbation of human conduct, is enshrouded in sympathy”.
As I stated, I think that such concurrence on moral sympathy requires some reasonably common understanding among those who apply Smith’s method of what constitutes a common morality.  Western academics, such as Daniel or myself, may share a common understanding of the moral standards of discourse, but the illustration I gave (among many others available) of the gap between the European tv presenter and the Vietnamese supposed “victim” of exploitation on low wages and long hours compared to a European employee, attempted to show a gap in the tv presenter’s moral perceptions and the harsh reality of the Vietnamese woman’s work experience and moral outlook.
I could also cite other cases of a long-standing BBC radio broadcaster, with vast experience of India, who commented critically on a western-based campaign against a factory employing local labour to make a top-UK brand of footballs (soccer) because they were ‘exploited” by low wages. 
He knew one of the boys employed there because he passed him everyday for many months walking towards the local town.  As a result of the campaign, the western owner of the brand ended its contract and the employees lost their jobs. But, the BBC commentator said of the “success” of the campaign by reporting that the boy, now unemployed, returned to his morning walk and his life of male prostitution for pedophiles who picked him up along the road in their cars.  Again two different moral judgements clashed and misled the “spectators”.
“rickstersherpa’s” observation of the dreadful cases of the “Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York or the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladash” causes his " man-in-my-breast" to “feel too much sympathy with the dead to buy underwear and overcoat from such merchants.”   I concur broadly with that sentiment, as I do with the awful plight of the men, women and children whose daily life is stuck in peasant farming, with its chronic indebtedness and exhausting daily grind, spreads a dreadful blight among the living enduring it for generations.
On fires and safety in New York the conduct of the owners is illegal in the USA, as it is the UK. The recent cases in Bangladesh of awful fires in buildings that trap the employees in them, or simply collapse from shoddy construction, is something over which Western aid agencies have leverage, which they should exercise.
But blanket requirements that industrialisation in peasant economies should await western-living standards before continuing is not an answer to any of their problems.   It is also utopian.  Living standards rise from industrialisation, as per capita income growth manifested itself in all of the western market economies in their recent and historically unprecedented cases.  With rising per-capita incomes comes rising standards, as in my life-time in the UK and Australia, I experienced in low-paid labour in an English engineering factory, age 15, through to a Scottish university, aged 25, and academic teaching, aged 30, with its higher paid academic "labour" to my retirement at 65. Comparing England and its post-war Austerity to the post-war 1960s (and today's "austerity"), I witnessed the effects of rapid economic growth on the existing arrangements.  That process is now visibly underway among the poorest economies in the world.
From economic development, moral codes are also modernised and as they are, the common moral sentiments of societies that change for the better too.
NB: the above exchange illustrates Daniel Klein’s perceptive view that Smithian sympathy assists adult debate without the distractions of rancour.


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