Saturday, July 08, 2006

Smith on Human Happiness

‘More than a feel good solution’ by David Brooks

Attachment theory has been thriving for decades, but it's had little impact on public policy. That's because the policy world is a supermagnet for people who are emotionally avoidant. If you go to a congressional hearing and talk demography, you are treated like a serious policy wonk, but if you start talking about relationships, people look at you as if you're Oprah.

But everything we're learning about the brain confirms the centrality of attachments to human development and the wisdom of Adam Smith's observation that the "chief part of human happiness arises from the consciousness of being beloved." (Brain research rarely reveals anything new about human nature; it just tells you which of the old verities are most important.) And so maybe it's time to focus a little less on individual capacities and more on nurturing attachment.”

( ‘the voice of Southeastern North Carolina’’ 5 July by David Brooks, also a columinst for New York Times)

Well it makes a change from quoting Smith as the Icon of the 'invisible hand' (which he wasn’t) and ‘father of capitalism’ (which he wasn’t either). Smith was a Moral Philosopher, which in his day in mid-18th-century Scotland incorporated in its corpus of knowledge what was called ‘police’, later political economy.

His special interest was in the revival of commercial society after the long interregnum of barbarism and feudalism that followed the Fall of Rome. He saw commerce as the road to opulence; he had no conception of what lay ahead after that.

So if ‘attachment theory’ (whatever that is) promotes wider interest in Smith’s ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments’, then I for one am pleased to welcome it.

That the, on the compass bearing of ‘southeastern north Carolina’ (‘east by north’?) has a syndicated article from the lofty New York Times by a columnist who mentions Smith on moral philosophy, I find encouraging. I hope his readers are prompted to read more of Smith’s rich contributions in his other Works.


Blogger Hank Roberts said...

>Attachment theory

Research in how people (and other animals, in fact) behave has shown we don't act the way the old economists have assumed, in social groups. There's a _lot_ going on in this area. Please look for it.

Here's just one cite from a quick search, from an economics journal:

"... fairness concerns may have a decisive impact on both the actual and the optimal choice of contracts in a moral hazard context. Explicit incentive contracts that are optimal according to self-interest theory become inferior when some agents value fairness. Conversely, implicit bonus contracts that are doomed to fail among purely selfish actors provide powerful incentives and become superior when there are some fair-minded players."

The old hypothetical economic man behaves as what we now call a sociopath, maximizing self-interest without emotional benefits. It's the model enforced as proper behavior for the 'corporate person' nowadays.

The suggestion that people who lack good attachment will function better in politics is interesting, I don't know if it's been studied.

This is very hard for most classically trained economists to even think about.

4:18 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Thank you for the reference, I will look it up and may comment.

I would like to make clear that 'economic man' has not connection with Adam Smith's moral philosophy or his political economy. That is an ascription added to his name in the 19th -20th century - what Jerry Evenski calls 'Chicago Adam Smith' in contrast to 'Kirkcaldy Adam Smith' (Adam Smiths Moral Philosophy', Cambridge 2005).

An economic socio-path would not have managed to exercise the propensity to 'truck, barter and trade' in Chapter 2 of Wealth of Nations.

I am not averse to 'attachment theory' - I just had not heard of it and was being honest about my ignorance.

I'll get back after I've read some references.

10:18 pm  
Blogger Hank Roberts said...

I appreciate the correction about 'economic man' -- makes sense. I probably learned from someone who learned from the Chicago school, I might have known (wry grin) they'd have twisted the idea.

To go far back on "attachment theory" look in Google Scholar; for current childrearing see "attachment parenting" -- and for failure of attachment the original studies would be those by Harry Harlow.

There's good recent neurology, see 'mirror neurones' +empathy.

This is being perverted by the advertisers who are using brain scans to confirm what changes people's perceptions and beliefs to tweak their advertising. No doubt the politicians are hiring them. The lack of attachment and empathy shown by that approach is almost funny.

3:34 pm  

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