Thursday, January 24, 2008

Adam Smith on the Origin of Our Moral Sense

Wall Street Journal here:

In the interview, Mr. Gates was emphatic that he's not calling for a fundamental change in how capitalism works. He cited Adam Smith, whose treatise, "The Wealth of Nations," lays out the rationale for the self-interest that drives capitalism and companies like Microsoft. That shouldn't change, "one iota," Mr. Gates said.

But there's more to Adam Smith, he added. "This was written before 'Wealth of Nations,'" Mr. Gates said, flipping through a copy of Adam Smith's 1759 book, "The Theory of Moral Sentiments." It argues that humans gain pleasure from taking an interest in the "fortunes of others."

In the WSJ sidebar is this statement:

The Theory of Moral Sentiments" -- This 1759 book by Scottish philosopher Adam Smith arguing that humans are born with a moral sense and can derive happiness from the "fortunes of others."

I’ll comment on Bill Gates’ speech when it is published, but in the meantime I am not sure the WSJ’s author’s side-bar statement on Moral Sentiments is correct. It was his tutor, Francis Hutcheson , who believed that ‘humans are born with a moral sense’, not Adam Smith.

The point about Adam Smith’s approach is that humans are ‘schooled’ (socialised) by their contact with family and then outsiders to the family in the ‘great school of self command’ (the school playground).

Society is a mirrors to their conduct, from which they learn to lessen behaviours that others find reprehensible and increase those they find acceptable. It is from this process that we 'derive happiness from the "fortunes of others".'

The impartial spectator plays a significant role in this process by approving or disapproving of the individual’s conduct, from which the individual modifies his or her behaviour, necessarily lowering their passions and raising their praise-worthy behaviours.


Blogger mary a sears said...

Please help me understand where in the Theory of Moral Sentiments Adam Smith can be said to define "propriety" as "the knack of coordinating our behaviors without intending any benefit or explicit collaboration." This has been bothering me ever since I read Richard Bourke's review in the TLS.

11:08 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Sorry; I have only just noticed tour comment (January, 2013!).
The short answer is Smith never made such an assertion.

10:59 am  

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