IN PRAISE OF SMITHIAN SELF-INTEREST
Martin Cohen is editor of The Philosopher and author of Political Philosophy from Plato to Mao (2001, 2008). He posts (27 October) a review article on Stewart Sutherland’s “Greed: From Gordon Gekko to David Hume, (Haus) in (Times Higher Education HERE “Greed From Gordon Gekko to David Hume”
“Martin Cohen on a brief but powerful look at the history of avarice in society and what can be done to temper its more extreme elements”
“Haus [the Publisher] is to be congratulated for its courage in dusting off the political pamphlet format and publishing a series of essays, short enough to be read in one sitting, in the internet age. Where other publishers have sought to make their products bigger, glossier and more colourful, Haus has headed determinedly the other way. … I gave the approach a tasting via Stewart Sutherland’s mini-book, a whistle-stop tour of David Hume’s ideas about greed and its role in society, with a nod at those of Hume’s great friend, Adam Smith. There is very little reason for Gordon Gekko, the villain of the film Wall Street, to be here, other than that it seems to offer some contemporary relevance.
Hume’s view … is that the excessive pursuit of self-interest is damaging to society and should be discouraged. “Hume’s insight”, says Sutherland, “is that greed minimises the claims of others, and absolute greed minimises absolutely the claims of others – depriving them of their shared humanity, no less”. …
[Sutherland’s solution?]  …”through socialisation within a family” [and] “education” …  ”re-think the place of the education of the emotions” and [3 and “a shared language” to “break down the barriers in society that greed can put up”.
“But enough theory – what does Sutherland’s pamphlet actually propose by way of action?”
“Lord Sutherland is, as the publishers put it, “one of Britain’s most distinguished philosophers”, … and a pillar of the educational establishment, so … we should not expect his advice on social policy to be anything too radical. … “it turns out to be simply that income tax declarations should be made public” and “we can trace its philosophical origins back not to Hume but to Adam Smith, who speaks of society as holding a mirror up to the individual, which restrains our worst impulses – such as greed.”
I concur with the reviewer to a limited extent, but I agree more with Adam Smith’s insights into the dynamics of self-interested inter-actions, as he explained them, in both his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and his Wealth Of Nations (1776).
If Lord Sutherland’s overall conclusion is that “income tax declarations” are an important part of resolving the problems created by “avarice in society”, then I am perplexed by the naivety of his assertion. I am also surprised, as I attended a lecture he gave in Edinburgh some years ago where he seemed to me to be more “switched on” to policy-making than implied in that limp suggestion.
There is more than a “nod at those [ideas] of Hume’s great friend, Adam Smith”. I think Smith’s contributions were far more elevated than covered in Lord Sutherland’s reported expression of them.
Smith said a person’s moral code is moulded from an early age by contact with others in society - mother’s particularly from the earliest age and other adults thereafter, and school-age children. He uses the metaphor of society’s “mirror” by which individuals learn about acceptable and unacceptable behaviours. Of course the moral qualities of the behaviours - so to speak in the “mirror’ - impress a range of behaviours in the specific society in which a child/adult learns to accept them as 'moral'.
A society of “robbers and murderers” will exude behaviours different from a society of ‘saints’. The former would operate according to a common rule that they do not rob or murder each other and the latter operate with a high degree of personal politeness and self-sacrificing generosity no matter how poor they were. Both societies, however, could resort to murder to bring back into line anyone tempted to persistently endangered the others, or to protect that society’s cohesion or continuation with serious dissent.
Overall, members of a society learn to conform to the great school of self-command”, wrote Smith. Once dissent-behaviours take root, the cohesion of a group in a society weakens. However, once an ethos self-reinforces the cohesion of the group, it settles the group’s morality until events, including unacceptable behaviours, disrupt it.
On equating ‘self-interest” with “selfishness” and “greed” - a common enough error among such as “Gordon Geko” - erroneous ideas take root. For Adam Smith, such errors are nowhere asserted or implied in his discussions of “self-interest”. He specifically discussed how two individuals behave who want something from each other and he specifically identifies the means by which they address their self-interests to obtain what they want from each other. He called it bargaining in Wealth Of Nations (WN I.ii.2: 26-7) and outlined it in Moral Sentiments (in several places) how they reconciled differences in views or aspirations using conversation and persuasion, primarily free from compulsion.
Self-interested agents can only achieve what they need or want by addressing the other’s needs and wants, not solely their own, and by showing them (and reminding themselves!) that both have to modify their own demands to serve sufficient of each other’s interests for them to agree on a mutually acceptable exchange of their “good offices”.
“Greed” is not a stable nor mutually cohesive strategy for serving one’s self-interests. Philosophical advocates of greed (such as Bernard Mandeville or Ayn Rand) sound smart to some readers and viewers only because cynical ‘sound bites’ appeal to certain juvenile audiences and to professional controversialists.