Monday, November 04, 2013

Adam Smith on Sympathy

Daniel Klein, professor of economics at George Mason University, where he leads a program in Adam Smith. He is also associate fellow at the Ratio Institute in Stockholm. He is the author of “Knowledge and Coordination: A Liberal Interpretation” (Oxford University Press, 2013), which I reviewed for the Adam Smith Review (imminent).
In my view, Daniel is a distinguished Smithian Scholar, with whom I have debated since 2009 on Adam Smith’s use and meaning of “an invisible hand”. He has posted a discussion piece on the Oxford University Press Blog HERE
It is another original piece, typical of his scholastic energy and new thinking: “Come together in Adam Smith”.  I think it worthwhile for Lost Legacy readers to study, because like most of Daniel Klein’s work he makes readers (and students) think more closely about what they think they know about Adam Smith.
Daniel Klein writes:
I support a classical liberal worldview. I call to social democrats and conservatives alike: Be fair. Let us treat one another like fellow Smithians and come together in Adam Smith.
Adam Smith said we judge under the guidance of exemplars. That is a central principle of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. All moral sentiment, that is, all approval or approbation of human conduct, is enshrouded in sympathy. …

Adam Smith said we judge under the guidance of exemplars. That is a central principle of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. All moral sentiment, that is, all approval or approbation of human conduct, is enshrouded in sympathy. …
We need to work our way back to Adam Smith. He propositioned that every case of moral approval be subject to a query.
For example, Hank approves of Jim’s action. Samantha asks: Hank, wherein do you find sympathy for your approval of Jim’s action? Hank must be ready to lead Samantha to his exemplar, Jean-Jacques (an exemplar with whom Hank finds sympathy). The procedure prompts Hank and Samantha to talk about how Jean-Jacques sees matters like that of Jim’s action.
Hank may then take issue with Ludwig’s view. “Oh, Samantha, you cannot slavishly follow Ludwig, your Master and Exemplar!” And Hank is right, of course.
In referring to Ludwig, Samantha does not so much identify the one with whom she finds sympathy, but characterizes that one in a way that Hank will find meaningful. The one with whom Samantha finds sympathy is the man in the breast, a figurative being she has developed during her life. By referring to Ludwig, she gives Hank a flavor of her man in the breast, as concerns matters like Jim’s action.
“Well, Samantha,” Hank might say, “even though your man in the breast resembles Ludwig in matters like Jim’s action, my man in the breast does not. Mine resembles Jean-Jacques, so where does that leave us?”
Adam Smith urges them on. He would say to Hank:
Hank, your man in the breast is the representative of an impartial, super-knowledgeable, benevolent spectator. And Samantha’s man in the breast, too, is a representative of the same spectator. (In fact, that goes for everyone, so the spectator is universal.) Now, as you and Samantha have not found sympathy in the matter of Jim’s action, there must be a problem in the representations developed in your breasts. We all know that none of us has full or direct access to the impartial spectator, that each of our man-in-the-breasts is merely human. Talk with Samantha about how you think the impartial spectator would look at your man in the breast vis-à-vis her man in the breast.”
Daniel’s Blog post extends an argument he developed in “Knowledge and Co-ordination”, some of which I expressed reservations about in my Review for ASR, and the same concerns arise here. Those who push the frontiers out always risk exciting concerns and that is good because it makes students think more closely about what they know about Adam Smith.  Daniel’s post- graduate seminars at GMU (Fairfax) and the Ratio Institute (Stockholm) must be lively experiences.
His “super-knowledgeable spectator” echoes the former giant among Smithian scholars, Edwin Cannan, late editor of the famous 1904 edition of Wealth Of Nations, re-issued in 1937 (Random House). It is still in print and much used regularly by me for his footnotes. Cannan developed the idea of an “omniscient and omnipresent benevolent Inca” as a figure of speech for the metaphor of “an invisible hand”.  Daniel re-incarnated this figure of speech as an allegorical “Joy” who tells “Bridget”, an entrepreneurial baker, to do what, in the end, in my view, amounts to what would happen if she simply acted according a market’s price signals.
Daniel seems in a-round-about way to bring into Smith’s moral philosophy, a sort of “divine” presence, at which I recoil or at least exhibit a quizzical frown at where Daniel is going with this (see my chapter in “The Oxford Handbook of Adam Smith”, 2013: “Adam Smith on Religion”.
Daniel is less inhibited, if only to the extent of envisaging for Smith a “man in the breast” who is “universal” and sets the moral tone for humans.  He/she is a “super-knowledgeable, benevolent spectator” approving of some actions and condemning others (including their social customs).
I would suggest, where individuals, from their deep cultures differences, including social class differences, clash, we experience common misunderstandings in which the members of one culture may accept their moral stances as normal while members of another culture consider them abhorrent. Depending on which culture the observer views the other they recoil or accept the moral behaviour.  Usually the dominant culture prevails, often with considerable violence in speech, and actions. 
For example, in a relatively common misunderstanding, such as when a well-intentioned, western high-wage media commentator, visiting an emerging economy reacted to its relatively cheap labour and its long hours of work, described as “disgusting exploitation” compared to a western economies happier practice. The western commentator, chasing a tv story and bashing the branded product producer, disregarded the proper direction of comparisons of the actual locally available alternatives in that economy’s economic development.  It’s not so much between advanced western-market economies and manufacturing in largely agricultural peasant economies, so much as between machine-driven manufacturing hours and wages versus harder labour in peasant fields for long hours, every day of the week.
I recall a Vietnamese woman scoffing at the male western tv “spectator” complaining of her 14-hour day, 6 day week in a brand new, air-conditioned local factory making western-branded clothes.  She said she was used to 18-hour, 7 day weeks for a pittance in all weathers on her family’s farm plot. The factory was air-conditioned and paid her cash many times her farm income, and she could now afford the wages of a local woman as a child-minder.
So, while I applaud Daniel’s points that by “being good Smithians and receiving others as good Smithians” we could overcome “stereotypes and come together to improve our judgment and conduct in matters of common concern”, which is how we should behave in the academy – a standard not always reached   However, our cultures are closer and our academic training should set the common standard of scholarly enquiry. 
Presumably, “Jean-Jacques”, “Samantha”, “Ludwig”, “Jim”, and “Hank” are of a common-mind set and in the habit of being ideal model “Smithians”.  But then,others - the majority? - may not be so blessed.  We cannot theorise and make such assumptions about everybody.  Even “murders” and “thieves”, in Smith’ example in TMS, share the common restraint to ‘refrain from murdering or robbing each other’.  But their behaviours towards non-members of their fraternity are well-short of sharing the same universal, impartial, super-knowledgeable, benevolent spectator”.  I do not think Adam Smith was so naively evangelical about the impartial spectator to consider it a potential universal trait.  It was perhaps reached by attendees at the Edinburgh Oyster Club and at his Sunday lunches at Panmure House.
I also worry about the sentence: “Let us treat one another like fellow Smithians and come together in Adam Smith”.  It struck me as semi-theological, of the kind I remember from my youth as a young Presbyterian – “coming together in Christ” and such like.
So, while I found his article both informative and thought provoking, I am not persuaded. I am, however, grateful for Daniel Klein drawing our attention to his thought-provoking treatment of Smith’s “impartial spectator”. 
If this had been one of his tutorials and I were a class-student in it, I would have left the tutorial with much to think about, which is precisely representative of how I imagine the high-standards in his tutorials.


Blogger said...

I think you raise a bit of strawman with the Vietnamese story. Yes, initially the women does not mind her 10 hour day, six days of week work in a textile factory compared to the drudgery and, I think it was Marx, stated was the idiocy of rural life. Both in the history of the industrial revolution and currently in Bengladash, the exploitation of workers converting from peasant to industrial labor begins to produce outrage among the workers themselves, without the need of outside agitators. Whether it is the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York or the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladash, a body count just becomes to big, and "my man-in-m-breast" feels to much sympathy with the dead to buy underwear and overcoat from such merchants.

3:44 am  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Thank you for your welcome and interesting comment. I have replied in today's post as the issues you raise are of main-line interest, and in months ahead the comments tend to become "lost" to visiting readers.

11:06 am  

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