Thursday, February 06, 2014

Beware Secularists and Preachers Who Claim to Know Everything About What People Want


Douglas Andrew Henson posts 5 February in the American Secularist HERE 
“My favorite verse in the letter in 1 Thessalonians 5:15, “…always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.” I can’t think of another Bible verse that would do more good for American society if it were whole-heartedly followed – nor of one that is so blatantly anti-capitalist. Paul is basically saying to consider others when you decide to do something, and make sure whatever you are doing is good for everyone else. Imagine how much better our society would be if we constrained our actions in this way. No one would cut you off in traffic. Your neighbor wouldn’t walk his dog in your front yard. A stock price wouldn’t rise when a company sacked a few thousand workers, because this wouldn’t be good for society as a whole.
Adam Smith assures us that the beauty of capitalism is that everyone can work towards their own self-interest, without giving too much thought to what effect it might have on everyone else. The invisible hand will somehow make this work out for society in general.
In my personal economic experience, it has been more of an invisible backhand, Stanley Kowalski in a wife beater undershirt. Perhaps for the 1%, this hand is more satisfying, more like an invisible hand job from an expensive escort. In any event, someone is wrong, as there is an obvious contradiction here. Either the Apostle Paul got this one wrong, or Mr. Smith did.
Comment:
Paul Says: “…always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else” and Douglas asserts:Paul is basically saying to consider others when you decide to do something, and make sure whatever you are doing is good for everyone else, concluding that “Either the Apostle Paul got this one wrong, or Mr. Smith did.”
Paul, or the author writing decades later in the name of Paul, was writing of the interests of “others” and “everyone” else by instructing his readers to “make sure whatever you are doing is good for everyone else”.  My question to readers of Paul trying to follow Paul’s guidance is: How does everyone or you know what everybody else wants?  They don’t, of course.  And not every one wants what we want. That is why Adam Smith’s contribution on morality is relevant.
Smith said a great deal on moral sentiments in his lectures at Glasgow University, 1751-64, and he wrote a large book on the subject. I wonder if Douglas has read every paragraph in Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments” 1759, plus 5 other editions up to 1790.  (Tip: that’s a whole lot of reading and, by the way - I was brought up in a Presbyterian household and Sunday school). I can also highly recommend readers to read, Ryan Hanley’s “Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue” (Cambridge, 2013) for a thorough treatment of Smith’s views on morality.
With such a reading background, Douglas would be treated seriously in his certain (even smart ass) comments about the authentic Adam Smith. The cartoon cutouts from his modern epigones (who also are given to pontificate about an Adam Smith from Chicago a different person to the Adam Smith from Kirkcaldy) are unreliable
Adam Smith never “assure[d] us that the beauty of capitalism is that everyone can work towards their own self-interest, without giving too much thought to what effect it might have on everyone else. The invisible hand will somehow make this work out for society in general.
Smith’s point about “self-interest” is that it is realised by engaging in the voluntary co-operation of others –“no man is an island entire unto himself” (John Donne).  He repeats this specific point throughout his Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth Of Nations.
All men depend upon the “co-operation of thousands of others” and this requires peaceful persuasion, conversation, haggling and bargaining for each to receive what they want from others. And specifically, Smith mandates self-interested buyers to address the self-interests or self love of those with whom they seek to transact (WN I.ii.2: pages 26-27).  In short, we can meet our own self-interests morally by mediating our self-interests with the self-interests of others.
This is an entirely different Smithian mandate for seeking our own self-interests and also the most practical because though we deal with many other self-interested people we discover what they want from us without either person having to arrogantly assume they “know” what is “good for everyone else”.  What they want can only be learned and acted upon, assuming we have the means, by persuasive conversation, not by assertion, which may also require us to modify what we want self-interestedly for ourselves.
Where this fits with Paul’s reported dicta is up to theologians to ponder.  I think Paul goes too far in preaching knowledge by assumption that he knows everything about what’s good for everyone else. 
I also know Douglas knows little about Adam Smith’s real views “on the beauty of capitalism” (the last word was not used in English until after 1854 when Thackeray’s used in "The Newomes" – see the Oxford English Dictionary, the definitive guide to the derivation of words in the English Language).
Adam Smith (from Kirkcaldy) never said that  The invisible hand will somehow make this work out for society in general”. Douglas, and new readers, of Lost Legacy can find out the facts about Smith’s use by casting an eye over any number of previous posts on Lost Legacy on Smith’s use of the “invisible hand” metaphor.
On this example, it is Douglas Andrew Henson who “got this one wrong”, not Smith.  As for Paul readers may make their own minds up.

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