Monday, October 16, 2006

On Reading Moral Sentiments Too Fast

Stumbling and Mumbling, an economics Blog well worth reading regularly, is posting on Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. I posted a comment on the site yesterday before another article appeared discussing an aspect of Smith’s apparent suggestion, according to S & M author, Chris Dillow, that with economic improvement people’s moral behaviour should improve and questioning if this is true.

After discussing the possibilities he appears to conclude ‘that hierarchical capitalism is incompatible with the cultivation of Smithian virtues, or maybe many other virtues.” I am not sure what he means by ‘hierarchical capitalism’ and my response is not a defence or otherwise of ‘capitalism’; it is a response to his basic proposition that Smith’s Moral Sentiments may be ‘plain wrong’. I think his question is a good one and I shall comment on the extracts below.

Chris Dillow quotes from Moral Sentiments, Part V, chapter 2, paragraph 9: page 205 (Liberty Fund edition).

This raises a puzzle. Since Smith wrote this in 1759, we've become far richer than he could have imagined; real GDP per person is more than
15 times what it was in Smith's day. And yet it's not obvious that the "virtues of humanity" have improved accordingly. What went wrong?

One possibility is that Smith was plain wrong; original sin doesn't disappear with economic growth. But there are (at least) three other possibilities:

1. The hedonic treadmill. As incomes have risen, so have our wants. So we've never achieved the "ease" Smith describes.

2. Smith confused wealth with status. It's status that helps cultivate a concern for others. Men of high status want to appear magnanimous. Men of low status are obsessed with getting "respect" from others. Contrast Bill Gates with the gangsta-wannabees that apparently infect our inner cities.

3. Power matters. The contemporaries that Smith regarded as virtuous were men of self-reliance and independence - professionals, minor aristocrats, tradesmen. Such men had some control over their lives. They learned, therefore, to be the owners of their own actions, as these had consequences which were beneficial or detrimental to them. Just as they saw that good business practice improved their fortunes, so they might have inferred that good moral behaviour improved their character.

However, when people feel powerless - because say they are either out of work or in menial jobs - they don't feel in control. They don't feel that good behaviour leads to economic success or bad to failure. And if they can't cultivate their fortunes, why should they feel that they can cultivate the virtues? If any of these three possibilities is right, there's an unpleasant implication - that hierarchical
capitalism is incompatible with the cultivation of Smithian virtues, or maybe many other virtues.”

A thoughtful question but …. The Chapter Chris refers to is entitled ‘Of the Influence of Custom and Fashion upon Moral Sentiments’ and is only tangentially related to GDP (a 20th-century surrogate measure of wealth capacity). Consider an earlier sentence from the same chapter:

The different situations of different ages and countries are apt, in the same manner, to give different characters to the generality of those who live in them, and their sentiments concerning the particular degree of each quality, that is either blamable or praise-worthy, vary, according to that degree which is usual in their own country, and in their own times’ (TMS V.2.7: p 204).

There is no strict correlation between one age and its ‘manners’. Smith was not a determinist.

Smith adds: ‘Among civilized nations, the virtues which are founded upon humanity, are more cultivated than those which are founded upon self-denial and the command of the passions.’ He expected ‘humanity’ to be more prevalent, but not necessarily (or even at all) to be ‘universal’. Hence, his comments on the circumstances that ‘crowded out’, to call upon a phrase, a sense of humanity in a savage (hunting) society, as shown in the quotations selected by Chris.

And is not this Smithian proposition widely evident today? Earlier ages, earlier versions of our civilisation, were not noted for their humanity, except in a tiny minority of individuals in them.

The long struggle for justice over the whims of kings, local lords, petty officials, war criminals, brigands and piracy, family fathers, and all others inclined to be deficient in humanity, was part of that civilising process. What is regarded as tyranny in the recent past was way ahead in humanity compared to a hundred years previously. Take the case of justice in the Nelson’s Navy (the ‘Articles of War’) and today’s justice backed system of human rights in naval discipline, by no means total even now, and compare it with all previous centuries, in all armies and throughout society.

Similarly, war crimes are now a much bigger issue that they were before the 2nd World War; no ‘Make Poverty History’ (whatever we might think of its proposed ‘solutions’ as instruments to perpetuate it) campaign featured in Roman times across its empire, nor for a over thousand five hundred years after it fell. The decline of the ‘Victorian’ family in parental, mainly fathers’, tyranny is clear evidence that ‘humanity’ is not in decline. There is widespread revulsion if popular demonstrations are brutally dispersed.

That humanity still has a long way to go is self-evident, but the scale of change in competing norms is beyond challenge. But did Smith imply or require that civilised norms become universal; that all manifestations of inhumanity would disappear? Not at all. He had his feet firmly on the ground, not in the clouds, as many parts of Moral Sentiments shows.

There is less of a ‘puzzle’ that Chris Dillow suggests. Wherever humans operate, imperfections are prevalent too. Smith was not writing about perfection (or ‘right’) but ‘fact’. His book was a theory of the fact of moral sentiments within a minority or most of a society; it was not a manifesto to make them universal.

Nothing ‘went wrong’. Chris may have read Moral Sentiments too fast.


Post a Comment

<< Home