Russ Roberts

Klein on The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Episode 1--An Overview

EconTalk Episode with Daniel Klein
Hosted by Russ Roberts
PRINT
Brink Lindsey on the Age of Ab... Don Boudreaux on Macroeconomic...

Dan Klein, of George Mason University, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about Adam Smith's lesser-known masterpiece, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, on the 250th anniversary of its initial publication. Klein highlights key passages and concepts of the book including its relation to The Wealth of Nations, Smith's willingness to accept "vague, loose, and indeterminate" rules rather than precise ones, Smith's criteria for assessing what is moral and what is not, and Smith's conception of justice.

This podcast is part of the EconTalk Book Club on The Theory of Moral Sentiments. It will be followed by four bonus podcasts in the coming weeks going through the book systematically. Interested listeners who wish to do the reading in advance can find the schedule along with more background on the book on the EconTalk book club page, accessible from the EconTalk home page.

Size: 38.3 MB
Right-click or Option-click, and select "Save Link/Target As MP3.

Readings and Links related to this podcast

Podcast Readings
HIDE READINGS
About this week's guest: About ideas and people mentioned in this podcast:

Highlights

Time
Podcast Highlights
HIDE HIGHLIGHTS
0:36Intro. Book Club, schedule. This week, standalone discussion with key points.
1:56Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) first published in 1759, revised, final edition 1790; spanned publication of Wealth of Nations, which was published in 1776. Impression of TMS: richer version of Wealth of Nations. Caricature of Adam Smith is focus on greed and self-interest. By contrast, TMS focuses on a richer set of motivations: fame, glory, guilt, reputation, self-esteem. Is that a good characterization? Moral dimensions of our conduct. Sometimes people feel that there is a tension between the two books. Smith trying to explore moral considerations and understandings, but also engaging in a project to advance them, improve them. Not just social psychology or moral psychology; agenda driven, part of enlightenment movement, sees developments of all kinds around him. Smith sees that he needs to explore natural jurisprudence, includes political economy--what the laws ought to be, proper law, desirable law as opposed to the positive law of each nation. Larger project: exploring the moral sentiments, wisdom, virtue. Applications of human behavior. Wealth of Nations (WoN) in a way is the virtue of the statesman. Also speaks to the conduct of the business person. WoN is most important ever moral authorization for the honest pursuit of profit, for commercial behavior. Shouldn't feel guilty about pursuing honest profit or speak ill of your neighbors for doing so; speaks to the legislature: let people pursue honest profits in this way. Fancy the idea that Smith's moral authorization was significant in the extent to which the industrial revolution arose so rapidly and successfully, explosion that follows his death. Moral authorization matters, culture matters.
7:53Roadmap: WoN is part of a larger project that TMS is the umbrella for; dimensions of moral approval, sources of moral approval, how do we judge actions of our fellow; Smith's idea of justice, precise and vague rules, beneficence. Continuing with larger project: In WoN, Smith gives moral authorization for the businessperson for honest profit, but to give moral authorization, you better have a theory of morals. In that sense, TMS is the umbrella. What are people really motivated by? Thomas Sowell's book, A Conflict of Visions, contrasts someone who thinks mankind can be perfected versus Smith's emphasis on imperfection and a just system is based on that. What constraints and laws we expect to be successful and desirable? Distinction between what human beings are and a project, exhortation, of what you should do, is almost a false dichotomy because Smith argues that what human beings are are beings looking for exhortation, looking for moral guidance, assessing and reviewing their own moral action. Smith has got this cultural agenda but sees it as his take on what our wisdom is, what wisdom is, what our desirable future is. "Is" and not "ought": aspiration is part of what human beings are. In more modern terms, distinction between individual and collective action. Each of us individually may have an idea of what is the good, proper, right behavior. Getting us to coordinate or be coordinated to achieve good outcomes en masse is a different enterprise. Role of statesman, leader, body politic. In TMS, the individual is in society, not apart from society. Stoics. Part learning, part instinctual; possible to read a lot of Hayekian evolution into Smith. Whether Smith is that sincere when he speaks of God--equivocal, cloaked. Not clear that he sees the need for the invocation of God--a practical need. Not clear that the notion of a benevolent designer is asserted out of anything more than convention rather than anything of what he says depends on that as opposed to a more evolutionary take, which is not designed but morality and beauty that mimic as if there were a designer. WoN as an application of larger enterprise. It's not that TMS lays out what is moral. Vague, mysterious wherein morality, propriety exists. Smith is explicit about that remaining "loose, vague, and indeterminate." Rules like grammar, that are precise and accurate, versus the rules of aesthetics, what critics lay down for what is sublime and elegant in writing. Everything in TMS except for Smith's demand for commutative justice which he says is precise and accurate and indispensable like grammar--the punishment fitting the crime and that you shouldn't commit crimes that violate property or contract, which are black and white; also adds reputation, shouldn't do something to injure someone's reputation (p. 84 doesn't mention reputation but other times does). Apart from that justice--reserves that justice as justice, means this commutative justice--everything else for Smith is in the category of "vague and indeterminate." Even prudence, not just beneficence, generosity, he considers loose, vague and indeterminate. Dierdre McCloskey speaks of max-U (utility maximizing) theorizing as prudence only; more like a grammar in economics. Maybe not prudence in Smith's sense: more of the everyday use than Smith's wider use of the term. Is it prudent to buy Treasury securities today? Who knows? Loose, vague, and indeterminate. Not a bright line.
18:09Close connection between TMS and WoN. TMS is not pitched as a political book. Interactions it focuses on are between neighbors, equals. As of the 4th edition of TMS, he added a lengthier subtitle: "The Theory of Moral Sentiments, or An essay towards an analysis of the principles by which men naturally judge concerning the conduct and character, first of their neighbors and afterwards of themselves." Your neighbors and yourself. People in civil society, day-to-day life. Some might object to the political reading we are giving TMS. Legitimate to draw these implications. He never says it explicitly in his book, but he wants a society of equals, egalitarianism; promoting that, putting society along those lines, de-governmentalize, de-politicize; where virtues reside and best flourish. Some pieces of the book explicitly address politics: par. about the superior, p. 81. Aside, leaves door open to overruling by the superior. Speaks of civil magistrate, could violate commutative justice; expedience. Smith wants to keep these exceptions as exceptional, serious about commutative justice. Liberty principle: if government always had to abide by that, they could never force people to do things with their person or property that people didn't want to do; couldn't tax or regulate. Other parts speak of politics: "man of system" example; Quote. pp. 233-234. Goes on to say that as long as the magistrate doesn't do anything too opposed, things go on harmoniously. When it tries to push people around, get disorder. Part VI was added 1790, surely written in light of what was going on in France, French Revolution.
24:39Talk about the dimensions--sources--of moral approval. Smith gives four. Consider the actions of someone's neighbor, Jim, building a shed. In judging Jim's behavior we consult four sources or dimensions of moral approval: p. 326. First, sympathize with motives of the agent--if Jim is being neighborly, we sympathize with his friendliness, beneficence, generosity. Second, enter into the gratitude of those who receive the benefit of his actions--we appreciate the neighbor's gratitude. Difference between walking over with a cup of sugar and putting up a barn. We are aware of the recipient's gratitude. We can envision someone putting up a barn when the recipient doesn't even want the help; we can understand that. NYTimes article, Vice-President Biden's relationship with President Obama: Obama orders lunch for Biden, picks out menu so that Joe Biden is eating healthy. Presumption is that that's beneficent and Biden is grateful; but maybe recipient is not so grateful. Third, we observe that Jim's conduct is agreeable to the general rules by which those two sympathies generally act--recapitulation; perception of agreement or disagreement of any action to an established rule. The interactions are proper to the setting, the occasion. Example: Suppose in a court a judge has someone in for a violation, some kind of crime. Then, overwhelmed by compassion says he's going to relent and not do these punishments. Beneficent in some sense, and the guy on trial would be grateful, but it's not proper to the situation. In the same way, the baker, the butcher, the brewer, it's not proper to appeal to their beneficence. Maybe would in another context, but to do it on the floor in the bakery when there are customers around. Not according to the established rule of the setting. Jim the baker is your neighbor and you say you are laid off and ask for some bread in private is different from doing it when there are customers around. Pharmaceutical companies asked to give away their products charitably; they may want to have some charitable roles but have to segment it. Can't confuse the focal points of everyday interaction. First three: motivations and intentions of Jim, feelings of those on whom Jim acts, and properness to context. Fourth throws it wide open: making a part of a system of behavior that tends to promote happiness for individual or society, derive beauty from this utility outside of these first three, as from a well-contrived machine. Have to think about how this fits into the grand scheme of things, long-term consequences, precedents, unseen or unintended, big view. Commerce and honest profit: benefits redound to people downstream; Smith wanted that seen and to morally authorize honest profit because of that fourth source. Farmer, baker is doing more than just the immediate, seeable things.
32:31Fourth source, price-gouging example: a restriction in the aftermath of a natural disaster arising from idea that it is immoral to charge a premium in those circumstances. Smith: if you create a climate where you are unable to recoup your inventory costs, when you've stored up stuff in the possibility of a disaster, you'll have long-run consequences if you preclude charging a premium. In the market, we do things by custom; in 1770s maybe even stronger connection. Sources 1, 2, and 3 may be by custom; source 4, Smith says we have to let it be unregulated, let speculators speculate in a famine, etc., because if we don't, people won't show foresight needed in the future. Smith goes on to write the WoN, illustrating that fourth source. People need a lot of instruction about it; people don't understand the unseen, to use Hazlett's or Bastiat's metaphor, and will go too much on 1, 2, and 3. Could argue socialism is an attempt to use 1, 2, and 3, ignoring 4. Unintended consequences. Not socialism: Impetus of the political process to impose short-run regulation to help people is a natural impulse, but ignores 4. Even says people are poor in these areas and need instruction. There is no single algorithm here, no weights, no magic formula, hence loose, vague and indeterminate. Inter-relate: whether we sympathize in source 1 with the motives of the agent may depend on how much economics we know, what we've learned to think of as propriety in individual behavior. Someone who harms neighbor in a way that harms neighbor and creates resentment: is that a moral act? The person meant well. Smith: you can't just judge it on the basis of the motives of the actor. Idea that you would create a dependency or ignore the knowledge of your neighbor's situation such as his preferences at lunch, changes it from a moral act to an immoral act. Want to weight how much harm, how much he should be expected to know the neighbor's situation would change the morality. Smith plays up knowledge of situation. Think about politics and what goes wrong. Government often blinds itself to the bad, indirect consequences of the fourth source. These four sources need to communicate with each other, free, candid flow. More cultural consistency or cohesion in what gets done and how we all think about it. People who want a free society want a better world not only materially, but culturally. Politics affects that.
41:12Challenge, cultural effects. Charles Dickens as an antagonist to some of this. Writing in first half of the 19th century, 75 years after Smith's WoN and TMS, caricatures a capitalist view of character of Gradgrind, in Hard Times. Famous paragraph: everything can be reduced to money. Gradgrind is max-U, homo-economicus, the green eyeshade of calculation, and is despicable. Countering the moral authorization invoked on Smith's behalf. Customer acting in customary, evolutionary way in norms of commerce. Smith saw those as enlightening; Dickens sees them as degrading, sees pursuit of honest profit as degrading and dehumanizing. Smith's followers and Smith don't make their case very well. Smith saw the mutual benefits of voluntary exchange as enhancing society, morality to those transactions. Correct? Smith really is a comparitivist, asking what are our alternatives: to embrace voluntary principle and let people do it, or alternatively try to restrict it. Maitland: not the emphasis on the invisible hand, as in universal harmony works out, but that the alternative has such bad problems of its own. Does talk about how government is misled by interest groups, but says there are alternatives out there. Classical liberalism, presumption on liberty; not really so beautiful, Dickens has a point, breakdowns of community. More like this is the way its going, go with the flow. Commercial society is coming, Scotland; probably more on the way, go with the core of it which can work out well, accept the fragmentations it will bring with it. Learn to love McDonald's--not that you have to love their hamburgers but love seeing it on the corner so people have that option. Idaho potato farmers get up early so that New Yorkers can have potatoes; beef ranchers. How much potatoes and beef would make its way to NY if you had to rely on the beneficence of these farmers and ranchers? Not too much. Given Smith's four sources of approval, maybe there would be less beef and potatoes but maybe it would be a better world because source 1 of the four would be there. Does Smith have anything to say about that? No; speaks to the politics that followed his time, democratic age. Now, social-democratic age. Group at large defined by the polity who become actors of the first three sources, but bad political economy at the fourth source. Smith didn't see it coming. Outside of Smith: when government creates a social security system, source 4 versus sources 1-3, contract between parent and child. Smith's taxonomy gives you a way of assessing the richness of human life but have to concede that world without social security or without rules against price gouging, while good at source 4, will have 1-3 problems. Not so clean. Social democratic age: certain take on the first three sources but not the only take. Take on capitalism is that its great on 4 but it degrades the human spirit. Have to concede, but loose, vague and indeterminate. Here is Smith, fountainhead of original liberalism, but wrote a whole book about why we have a natural impulse toward innate sympathy, just posited it as a natural impulse same as we feel hunger: posited that we have tendency to connect sentimentally. Didn't try to derive it; different from homo-economicus slander. Four sources can conflict.
54:21Justice. Par. on pp. 269-270, in Part VII, other moral systems. Off the track, book is so mysterious. Different notions of justice: one, the commutative justice. Only place in book where he uses the adjective "commutative." Abstaining from what is another's: person, property, promises, sometimes includes reputation. Distributive justice, which "consists in proper beneficence in the becoming use of what is our own." "Becoming" meaning comely, attractive, desirable. Defining in terms of ownership, what is our own. What do we consider to be our own? Our property, what you might give to the hungry. Other interpretation, because of "our", depends on polity. Footnote: Distributive justice of Aristotle consists in proper distribution of rewards from the public stock of a community. Aristotle is talking about community's own, Smith an individual's own. Social democrats today ultimately see the resources of a polity as owned collectively by "we," making rules through the democratic process delegating what you can do with that car, that house, that income, which ultimately is ours collectively but which we let you call your own. Social justice. Distinguish between distributive justice as Smith meant it and social justice by saying the former understands a libertarian or classical liberal configuration of ownership. Restrictions but it's not yours collectively to start. Libertarian distributive justice versus social justice. But others, like Sam Fleischacker, are making a social justice reading of Adam Smith. Does go beyond the Randian concept of the virtues of selfishness, suggesting you have an obligation to right a wrong when you see a person suffering to give them charity. Using the word "justice" about your state of affairs and mine but not using the authority of a larger concept of property. Not a redistribution, to use a term of modern thought. The word "redistribution" suggests there was an initial distribution; appropriate to say it's created, but what Smith is saying is that once it's created there is an aspect of what happens after the fact that is appropriate and some that is not. Distinction he draws, based on this ownership idea, is that commutative justice can be established by force and violators of it can be physically, coercively punished. Can hang a murderer. Distributive justice has no such claim. Has moral obligations, beneficence, generosity; you can frown on someone socially, but cannot take from him, can't violate the liberty principle, can't mess with his stuff. Smith doesn't bar the idea of a superior forcing giving to charity--brings it up, says it should be done with great caution, but doesn't say it can't be done. Interested in having a society that is basically egalitarian, can't force people to be beneficent. Forcing someone to be charitable doesn't make him charitable; in fact, induces resentment and does the opposite. Fellow feeling, range of stuff, everything from hate speech to racism to sexism to rudeness. Want to live in a world where they don't exist, but we live in a world where people have a natural impulse toward them, and can't make them illegal. Better ways to create better human beings. Legislating it could even upset those better ways. If government takes $5000 from me to give to charity, it could override my doing it myself plus also invaded my stuff and the moral message was lost because it wasn't an act of my own choice. Some argue that we should be proud to be taken from to give to charity.
1:07:42Another type of justice: esteem. All these together make up Plato's justice. Encompassing one, platonic, commutative, distributive, esteem justice; outside of this set, which Smith recognizes, is social justice, so 5 to keep track of. Justice and Beneficence, section setting out how justice can be forced, meaning if someone messes with your stuff you can punish them. Violators can be physically punished, even among equals. Neighbors can do this; self-defense is a just act. Pp. 78-91, becoming use of what is your own. Final two sentences: "Of all the duties of a law-giver, however, this, perhaps, is that which it requires the greatest delicacy and reserve to execute with propriety and judgment. To neglect it altogether exposes the commonwealth to many gross disorders and shocking enormities, and to push it too far is destructive of all liberty, security, and justice." Talking about coercive, redistributive justice. If it goes too far, it's hideous. What did he have in mind, tyranny? One-off paragraph. Remarkably parallel to Hayek in The Fatal Conceit on the micro-cosmos and macro-cosmos, and the natural impulse to take the connections in the family and extend them beyond the family to society at large. Quote, p. 18: "Part of our present difficulty is that we must constantly adjust our lives, our thoughts and our emotions, in order to live simultaneously within different kinds of orders according to different rules. If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed, rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e., of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilisation), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it. Yet if we were always to apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them. So we must learn to live in two sorts of world at once... [italics original]." Natural beneficence for the people close to us, and if we try to take that to the larger order we will destroy society. Kind of what Smith is saying there. Good fit, seeming hyperbole. Libertarian understanding of liberty. Justice and liberty two sides of the same coin, ownership versus abstaining from what is another's. No free-riding problems in Adam Smith; public goods discussed in WoN, maybe magistrate comes in there. Smith silent on whether they are violations or not. When it's the superior and the superior is forcing people, question of expediency and not count it as unjust just on the basis that it's someone's policy. There are paragraphs in the WoN where he accepts the legitimacy of government action beyond enforcement of contracts. Even in education, he was quite ambiguous about it. Night watchman. Chapters on taxation. Rich man and his carriage in WoN: luxury carriages, suggesting egalitarian strain, kind of progressive taxation, still might be taking same percentage. Left-readers of Smith.
1:19:17Anything else? Today hit on some of the stuff that is often neglected in people's reading and understanding. Idea of the partial spectator, when you are acting, what an impartial spectator would think of your actions and how that would affect you. Other times Smith means your conscience. Internal spectators or a God, or useful just to think of such a God. Plan for reading along on the Wednesday podcasts: four more, but might not get to Part VII, which was touched on here. Will read and discuss Parts I-VI.

Comments and Sharing



TWITTER: Follow Russ Roberts @EconTalker

COMMENTS (38 to date)
Hersh Sahai writes:

Just when I thought Econtalk couldn't get better. Brilliant stuff.

hacs writes:

In "Individualism and Economic Order" Hayek makes relations about those works of Adam Smith. In particular, "Individualism: True and False" is very elucidative regarding several distortions supported nowadays.

Adam writes:

I think Smith's work really needs to be looked at in its historic context. Moral sentiments were by no means the original idea of Adam Smith. It was a line of thought pursued by David Hume and Francis Hutcheson, both of whom were very influential men in Smith's life. Understanding the place of his work in their framework is, I think, a much more fruitful approach to figuring him out than attempting to put him into the framework of modern political debates over libertarianism vs. interventionism.

I don't think you can really say that The Wealth of Nations was written to give a moral dispensation. It, like The Theory of Moral Sentiments, was written in an attempt to understand human nature. The question asked by a Smith or Hume was not "what ought men to do?" but rather "what is morality?", not "what's the right moral philosophy" but "what role do general rules play in people's notions of right and wrong, and how do they emerge?"

I don't deny that they made normative arguments. At the end of the Wealth of Nations Smith argued that Britain would do better to let America be independent and just trade with us rather than taking on the costs of trying to maintain rule over us. And in the Theory of Moral Sentiments there's the stab at the "man of system".

But if you focus on those specific sections I think you will miss the bigger picture. Smith was not looking to provide justification or moral dispensation for anything. Smith was pursuing the science of man as best he could; certainly that lead him to believe that many ideologies that made the redesigning of society their primary goal were based upon false premises of the nature of society and human beings. Certainly he then opposed those ideologies, and certainly he had ethical beliefs of his own.

But if you think that his goal as a scholar was to push his personal ideological agenda...then I think you'll have a very hard time getting a clear view of what he's saying.

Adam writes:

I also wanted to comment on Smith's sources of approval (sorry, I know I'm rambling on and on here...hope some of this is of use to you!)

So there's sympathy with the motives of the person doing the deed, sympathy with the one effected by the deed, consideration of the general rules around the circumstances, and the sort of general utility or usefulness of the larger consequences.

The first two are fairly straightforward and I don't have anything to add to the discussion you guys had about it.

The third one I think you guys got as well; whether or not the accepted rules around the circumstances deem something appropriate. So a man may console a woman and, if we know both individuals well enough, we may sympathize with the good motives of the former and the comfort taken by the latter. How we feel in Smith's third sense will be very different if this is a brother and a sister, or a man and his wife, than if it was a man with someone else's wife. Even if we know the motivations of the specific individuals to be pure, we are likely to feel uncomfortable if a man goes into the home of a woman who is married to someone else in order to provide comfort, because the accepted rules about such situations tend to look unfavorably at that. If that makes any sense.

The discussion of the fourth one I think was too muddled with the terms of the modern debate over the role and size of government. I think of this in terms of an example he uses in the book (I'll have to go and find it later) where he talks about a criminal being punished, and having 1) sympathy for the person being punished on the one hand, but 2) sympathy for the victim on the other, and understanding that to spare the criminal is the punish the victim and, more broadly, to not punish murder or theft generally would be destructive to society as a whole.

I think that's more than enough (and probably far too much) from me--I look forward to the next installment!

Floccina writes:

Obama orders a health lunch for Biden! Ahhhh!

We now very little about what is a healthy lunch! We do know that we need a minimum of certain vitamins minerals and amino acids beyond that evidence is very weak. So it scares me that Obama does that! BTW one might also choose for a shorter less healthy but more enjoyable life!

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!

Sean O'Brien writes:

Terrific podcast. I listen when I run on Mondays. Always generates a weeks worth of follow-up reading.

Obama ordering lunch for Biden is all we need to know about his fatal conceit. Saturday Night Live seems to get this too. (http://www.nbc.com/Saturday_Night_Live/video/clips/presidential-address/1081312/)

To that end, I cannot find the NYT article referencing Obama ordering Biden's lunch. Can anyone help?

bluhawkk writes:

Ditto Hersh Sahai comment.

re: Obama and lunch, he's always appeared to me to be a bully. As President it's worrisome.

NYT article: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/29/us/politics/29biden.html

[Link edited to the NYT permanent link. Thanks for the pointer!--Econlib Ed.]

kebko writes:

Wow, this was just the introduction podcast?! You, Mr. Russ Roberts, rock! For this, and all the other podcasts, an A+ on all four sources of approval!

T L Holaday writes:

Let the record show that Russ Roberts raises principled objections to President Obama ordering a healthy lunch for Vice President Biden, but has not to my knowledge raised principled objections to President Bush ordering the torture of helpless prisoners.

JMD writes:

Russ,

Just wanted to thank you for this podcast series. The first one is superb! Thanks!!

Russ Roberts writes:

Adam,

I'm not sure whether Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations to give moral authorization to commerce as Dan claims. I think it does do that, whether that was Smith's intention or not. Dan has a more strategic/cunning view of Smith's intellectual project than you or I do and he may be right. Or not. It's going to be interesting to keep talking with him (and you, the listener) as we go through the book.

I think part of Dan's viewpoint is partly motivated by the current world of economics where almost all modern economists pretend they are merely scientists rather than people with an ideological agenda. Dan is an advocate for being open about one's agenda and also argues that in the old days, certainly Smith's time, economists weren't shy about preaching or describing the good life or good policy.

I agree with Dan that it's hard to argue that Smith saw himself as modern economists do--just trying to figure out how the world works, free of ideology or philosophy as to what is good. But maybe he goes too far in the other direction. Again, it will be fun to talk about in the coming weeks.

Your example of the man consoling someone else's wife is a very good one.

Dan S writes:

I agree with Adam's comments above and was somewhat disappointed with this podcast. I feel a better introduction to this topic would be an exploration of the historical context, empiricism and it's methodology, and Hume's moral theory (it is my understanding that Smith was a "Humean" in many important senses although I may be mistaken). I understand that one of the primary and legitimate purposes of the podcasts is to popularize libertarian ideas, but it seemed a bit forced here at the beginning of a book club on a philosophical masterpiece.

One other minor point, some of the discussion referred to a social norm or behavior as being "evolutionary" in origin or "evolved" in a Hayekian sense. I think its important in a discussion of ethical behavior to distinguish as best we can between cultural evolution of certain customs and practices in a specific society and biological evolution of an underlying human nature. I think "Hayekian" evolution refers to the former, but I thought it was a bit ambiguous. Obviously Hayek discussed both forms of evolution in his work.

I hope this post isn't too negative; I love the show and am psyched for the book club. Keep up the good work!

Daniel Klein writes:

When Russ and I touched on the “superior” paragraph (TMS, p. 81), we didn’t read the more interventionist sentences of that paragraph. Those sentences are the only interventionist moments in the entire book. Here is the entire paragraph:

“A superior may, indeed, sometimes, with universal approbation, oblige those under his jurisdiction to behave, in this respect, with a certain degree of propriety to one another. The laws of all civilized nations oblige parents to maintain their children, and children to maintain their parents, and impose upon men many other duties of beneficence. The civil magistrate is entrusted with the power not only of preserving the public peace by restraining injustice, but of promoting the prosperity of the commonwealth, by establishing good discipline, and by discouraging every sort of vice and impropriety; he may prescribe rules, therefore, which not only prohibit mutual injuries among fellow-citizens, but command mutual good offices to a certain degree. When the sovereign commands what is merely indifferent, and what, antecedent to his orders, might have been omitted without any blame, it becomes not only blamable but punishable to disobey him. When he commands, therefore, what, antecedent to any such order, could not have been omitted without the greatest blame, it surely becomes much more punishable to be wanting in obedience. Of all the duties of a law-giver, however, this, perhaps, is that which it requires the greatest delicacy and reserve to execute with propriety and judgment. To neglect it altogether exposes the commonwealth to many gross disorders and shocking enormities, and to push it too far is destructive of all liberty, security, and justice.” (TMS, 81)

Daniel Klein writes:

Adam,

Your (and Dan S.’s) critical feedback is appreciated. Your viewpoint is supported by the following passage:

“Let it be considered too, that the present inquiry is not concerning a matter of right, if I may say so, but concerning a matter of fact. We are not at present examining upon what principles a perfect being would approve of the punishment of bad actions; but upon what principles so weak and imperfect a creature as man actually and in fact approves of it.” (TMS, 77)

In my view, this passage from Smith, and the distinction you invoke (between is and ought) is not all that meaningful or useful. In the passage I just quoted, Smith says he is talking about what man in fact approves of it. So we’ve got man’s “oughts” embedded in Smith’s “is’s.” Smith proceeds to evaluate some of those oughts. He comments often and at length, sometimes even in tones of exhortation, that certain oughts (in people’s understandings) are misguided, foolish, imprudent, unbecoming, etc. So he is evaluating oughts. It is fine to say that he is correcting their oughts, or explaining what he views as the true or wise oughts. But doesn’t that pretty much mean he is saying what their oughts ought to be? I rather like the way Coase puts the matter of distinguishing is’s and oughts – it is an affectation. Why is it important to insist that Smith is not expressing his own moral sensibilities? And, since ideological sensibilities are just moral sensibilities as regards issues of government policy, I would then ask: Why is it important to insist that Smith is not expressing his own ideological sensibilities? In as much as, in certain matters, he is telling us his view on what the proper oughts are, why insist that he is not thereby providing moral dispensation for those oughts? Wouldn’t that be one of the largest, and most noble, purposes of the entire endeavor? Why should we deny Smith this grandeur and greatness? Hasn't he earned it?

In the final paragraph of the book (p. 341) Smith writes of his plan to address “natural jurisprudence, or a theory of the general principles which ought to run through and be the foundation of the laws of all nations.” He then subdivides that topic as “not only in what concerns justice, but in what concerns police, revenue, and arms, and whatever else is the object of law.” The grouping “police, revenue, and arms” can be seen as what Smith would consider the necessary, expedient, or “politick” policies that governments ought to do even though they violate justice (that is, commutative justice). Thus, the “police, revenue, and arms” are the oughts of government policy aside from (or even in violation of) sustaining justice. All this (including the sustaining of justice) is very much the stuff of WN. So I think it is fair to say that WN addresses “the general principles which ought to run through and be the foundation of the laws of all nations.”

Daniel Klein writes:

Dan S.,

Regarding Hayek and evolution:

As I read Hayek, biological evolution has always been a group-selection kind of process, and even ants and bees, as well as primates, can be said to follow “cultures”, in a broad sense of that term. Hayek clearly sees the hunter-gather band as suffused with a solidaric culture, and thinks that was a key part of the formation and early evolution of “man.” I tend to think that people too readily separate “cultural evolution” and “biological evolution.” Later, as cultures and societies grow more complex, the evolutionary impact of variations in culture becomes power-boosted and social evolution speeds up greatly. So there is a sense in which there is a cultural evolution working upon a certain base “human nature,” say in the past 10 or 20 thousand years (though even in this short span we should not neglect that such developments do affect the pool of genetic material – Greg Clark, for example, argues that even the past few hundred years matter significantly to the genetic pool). But even if we see it over the past 20,000 years (or whatever) being primarily cultural, it still doesn’t make sense to say that “before that” it was only “biological.” I take Hayek to be saying that culture, in a broad but not unreasonable sense of the term, was always a big factor in biological evolution. So the only distinction worth making, it seems to me, is to say that in more “recent” times, biological evolution stopped (at least to a significant degree, such that henceforth there are only relatively minor alterations in the “human nature” one would glean from the extant humanity), not that cultural evolution began.

Adam writes:

Professor Roberts,

I understand where Professor Klein is coming from, but I think we can see eye to eye if we come at the question a little differently.

I would say that what gets modern economists so mixed up is that they deal with questions of "ought" as though they were questions of "is"--whether or not something is "optimal" or "efficient" or involves "market failure"--questions which at their core require a normative judgment because it is about what reality should be and not what reality is.

I absolutely agree with Smith had his own moral compass, his own beliefs about right and wrong. What distinguishes him, and Hume, from modern economists is not whether they are more or less objective in their judgment, but whether their questions are about more or less objective subjects.

Smith does not ask "What is the right thing to do"; he has his beliefs to that end and doesn't hide them particularly, but it simply is not what he's focusing on. He's asking "How do human beings interact with each other" or, operating under the assumption that there's something to the theories of moral sentiments explored by his fellow Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, "how do these moral sentiments work in practice? How do they translate into action?"

The state of modern economics is so confused because they ask subjective questions and demand objective answers of themselves. Smith and Hume were a little more straightforward--they asked objective questions and understood that their answers were coming from scholars who were imperfect human beings just like everyone else.

In any case, I'm very excited to get into the book with you guys. I hope Professor Klein will stop by the comments section for discussions as well!

Adam writes:

Professor Klein,

I have to disagree with you.

It's true that Smith will sometimes comment on a feeling people have as being misguided or foolish, but that is trivial in the context of the larger work. His goal--self-stated, as you point out--is to describe particular characteristics of human nature. In this book, it's what they feel approval or disapproval for. So he goes through each facet of what people approve and disapprove, and along the way he may find some of these comic or tragic. At one point I remarks that if we trip on a rock and hurt ourselves, we often direct our anger at the rock and even kick it, as though the rock in some way intentionally hurt us. Smith rightly mocks this, but you should not mistake mockery for "correction".

Smith has no use for correcting people's feelings of approbation or disapprobation. If he finds them comic or tragic, however, he has no compunction about saying so. To be completely clear, what he is saying is that he has an opinion about whether or not those characteristics are comic or tragic or any other such adjective he may feel applies. What he is not saying is that people should change, or correct their behavior or feelings in some way.

The distinction between is and ought is not only useful, it is very important. I recently discussed a particular example of this with Professor Roberts, the case of Hume and Bentham.

Hume was always attempting to explain why human nature took the forms it did; why we believed what we believed, why communities and institutions took their particular shapes. So when he described justice as originating from general rules that were useful to society, he meant that human institutions of justice would not exist but for their usefulness to the preservation of the people within them.

Bentham understood Hume to mean that all law and justice was only justified if you could demonstrate its public utility.

Hume was attempting to explain a real world phenomenon, while Bentham was looking to justify a moral philosophy. The distinction between what they were doing, in my eyes, is vast and I personally feel that it is important to recognize.

Daniel Klein writes:

Adam,

Thanks for your reply. My impulse to play up the translatability of "is" to "ought," and of "ought" to "is," and to contend that such translation is quite easy, natural, and proper, is not to deny that when others invoke such distinction they have some substantive distinctions vaguely in mind.

For example, "normative" (offered as being opposed to "positive") often conveys, though without proper clarity, either outspokenness or unconventionality of the judgments made (or a combination of both). Outspokenness is best called outspokenness. Norms against outspokenness are best defended as such. Similarly for conventionality.

There are differences between the character of Hume and that of Bentham. But I would describe those differences in terms of confidence in alterability, hope for significant revision in attitudes and understandings, zealousness, activism, outspokenness vs. reserve, etc. I would not describe it in terms of is vs. ought, or positive vs. normative.

Adam writes:

But I would describe those differences in terms of confidence in alterability, hope for significant revision in attitudes and understandings, zealousness, activism, outspokenness vs. reserve, etc. I would not describe it in terms of is vs. ought, or positive vs. normative.

Again I have to disagree, because you can make a division between "ought" and "is" even here.

You can say that people are alterable, that they do have a disposition for changing their attitudes...or that they should be altered, should change their dispositions.

The meaning of the two types of statement are very different.

Pamela writes:

This is great!! I'm really looking forward to the whole thing. Your podcasts are first rate and do a lot to educate in a way that keeps me coming back for more! Thank you, thank you for doing this.

Eric H writes:

This is a wonderful opportunity!

I'm not quite sure about the "is/ought" distinction. Please correct me if I'm off base. My best guess is that the four sources of moral approval can be read as either instruction manual or catalog, i.e. here's how humanity ought to assign value to certain acts vs. here's how humanity actually does assign value to certain acts. Am I close? I'm winging it, as I am a novice to discussing this type of thing. If I'm correct, then discussion about the is/ought distinction as applied to Smith is merely a debate about how one can choose to read him; one can interpret his work as the product of a master cartographer of human sentiment or simply the ramblings of a moral scold. I'm thinking that there's little point in making such a distinction apply to Smith. Why can't he be both map maker and guide? Aren't most great works aggregations of their creator's feelings about how things are and how they ought to be?

Perhaps this should matter more to me than it does. What interests me most right now is how refreshing Smith is in light of the current financial crisis.

The four sources are cheerfully anachronistic, and I don't mean to dismiss them by describing them that way. They seem so because they offer us focal points for our sympathies and opprobrium; there are the actors and the acted upon. We can celebrate or scorn the beneficent depending on their own motivations, the desires of those they "help", the political, legal and cultural contexts in which their "help" occurs, or how well their help meshes with generally accepted norms of the social machine (at least that's how I interpret the fourth source!--maybe that's just a repetition of the third source...). Whether this is a catalog or an instruction manual I don't know. But I do know that it is anachronistic when read against the backdrop of economic stimulus and bailouts, because Smith assumes there actually is a someone to praise or blame.

Not the case now. When things are socialized, the opportunity to know who to celebrate and who to blame is lost. I know that the bailout of GM isn't textbook nationalization, but it comes close, and I know that mutually beneficial exchange isn't exactly like doing something nice for a neighbor, but hear me out.

For example, once upon a time, when GM made crummy cars, you could blame a guy named Rick Waggoner, or a guy named Bob Lutz. Now that Waggoner was removed by the President, and now that the GM's board will be appointed by a "blue ribbon panel" (a board appointed by a panel--there's a pun in there somewhere...) we don't have a locus for our sympathies; the actor upon which we could heap our scorn or approval, assuming there is one, has been obscured by layer after bureaucratic layer. Who do we blame when GM designs a dangerous or car? The President? Congress? Tim Geithner? You? I emailed my member of Congress to tell him not to vote for the stimulus, but he did anyway. Do I blame him, or do I blame myself for not persuading him? How can we apply the four sources of moral approval to anything done by a board appointed by a panel assembled by a Presidential administration?

The free market makes it relatively easy to find the individual actor and the context by which to judge his acts. Mutually beneficial exchange unmolested by pesky third parties is pretty straightforward. You don't like your car? Write a letter to the manufacturer, or the owner of the dealership. You don't like how GM does business? Buy a car made by a more "socially responsible" company.

In what context do we judge the acts of a bailed out manufacturer? In what context is Presidential "removal" of a CEO subject to moral approval? Does the apparent lack of actor and context mean that the American political scene is ignorant of Smith's subtleties, or outright hostile to them?

Thanks again for the opportunity to learn and share. I'll keep it shorter next time; I'm sure the effusiveness will wear off as I hunker down and read TMS.

Dan S writes:

Professor Klein,

Thank you for clarifying Hayek's views on evolution. I think part of the problem is that I haven't read enough Hayek. It does seem though based on your description that there is a clear tension between the Hayekian view and the Richard Dawkins' selfish genes and selfish memes paradigm. I think this issue will be really interesting in the discussion of Smith's views of our sense of justice in Part Two.

Pietro Poggi-Corradini writes:

Reading the Theory of Moral Sentiments makes me appreciate even more the fact that Adam Smith is rightly considered the "founding father" of the economic discipline. Before one even begins worrying about how people behave, Smith seems to want to worry about epistemic methodology. What are we observing when considering the actions of our fellow human beings? And how are we observing? The problem of observation needs a theory that takes into account both the observer and the person(s) observed. What could be more basic? You can't even start Econ101 without trying to understand this fundamental point.

And it's not an easy point, because economics wants to quickly start talking about aggregate observations, and average behaviors, and trends, etc...But before you start aggregating something you need to know about the individual act you are trying to sum. So Smith rightly worries about the way we judge other specific individual's emotions. What are the mechanisms that allow us to feel a neighbor's pain or joy? And more importantly, how successful are we at judging or sympathizing with someone else's situation.
The simple fact that Smith doesn't think such questions are easily answered and that he is open to considering alternative scenarios where we might go wrong even at the individual level, shows how modern Smith still is and that he anticipates many of the themes that were later developed by economics.

Daniel Klein writes:

Dear Eric H.,

Your moral cartography metaphor seems fruitful. I think that Smith is both instructing us -- as do critics who lay down helpful though loose, vague, and indeterminate pointers for what is sublime or elegant in writing -- in how to do moral cartography in general, and at the same time he is mapping out major landmarks of the moral universe he sees us living within. The two teachings -- how to improve your skills in moral cartography, and the mapping of major landmarks of our moral universe -- are developed together. The latter often illustrate or instantiate the former. The former often explains or helps to justify the specific mappings of the latter.

He would not sympathize with an urge to separate the art of moral cartography from concrete illustration of major landmarks. I think he offers the art and his mappings as parts that ultimately entail much mutual constitutiveness; they have to be considered together. But still, one can take the whole that Smith offers and see some aspects cohering more as the abstract art and other aspects as sketchy mappings of concretes in our universe.

After all, the art's purpose would be to enhance the concrete mapping of our universe, and so judgments about how that universe looks will not be separable from judgments about the propriety, beauty, and wisdom of the art.

AHBritton writes:

I enjoyed this podcast and look forward to following along with the subsequent installments.

Not to be nitpicky but the whole Obama ordering Biden lunch thing, although used in the podcast as a somewhat comical illustration of a point, is pretty ridiculous. I read the article and it is a minor side-point and doesn't really give an insight into motivation, nutritional or otherwise.

I've worked at places that brought pastries or other food items in for breakfast or lunch on specific days and I never took it as some coercive control of my diet. When they get together for Friday lunches Obama orders, I'm sure if it annoys Biden he could do something about it. To extrapolate it into some overarching concept about how Obama views the world is ridiculous.

Sorry if I went on too long about such a minor issue.

John Strong writes:

I am intrigued by the dialog between Adam and Professor Klein, but I get the feeling that you fellows are carrying on a well-known argument that I am not privy to. I even had to look up the distinction between “positive” and “normative”.

Here’s why I am interested in the “ought” VS. “is” distinction. Adam Smith’s “impartial spectator” bears a family likeness to conscience (you know, that faculty that generates propositions about what we *ought* to do), but apparently, conscience is not what Smith had in mind. Was it?

I am going to quote at length from one of my favorite authors, William Miller, a law professor at the University of Michigan, because he has some interesting things to say about this. I quote from his recent work, Faking It.

“It happened again today: I was bluffing my way through some material in my Property class about which I knew no more than what the teaching manual told me, ... On such occasions I present the subject in the pompous style in which professorial banalities are often uttered, meaning thereby to prevent student questions by elevating myself to the regions of the unquestionable. God forbid one of them should start thinking deeply about the stuff and expose the limits of my knowledge ...

Twenty minutes into the fill, and I have said everything I have to say. Still there is this me standing outside me watching me talk in someone else’s voice. Do not look at the beautiful babe sitting over on the right; you will lose all authority if you do that; meet only the eyes of the guys. Is she really that much of a bombshell, or is it that at my age I have lost all discernment, mistaking youth for beauty? Kill that kid over there who is nodding off again. Don’t turn to write on the blackboard because Ms. Simmons, the bombshell, will observe the thinning of your hair in back, the beginnings of your tonsure.

While all these thought are going on, the me standing outside the me going through the motions of lecturing gets a meta-thought of wonderment: how remarkable human consciousness is that it can have all these distracting thoughts while split in two and still let me speak coherently on easements ... Within seconds the me standing outside me remerges with the me putting on the show, and time is up and I am safe for another day, unless, that is, I should overhear a student grumble to another about what an awful class it was. But you never hear complaints after a day of bluffing. You know you get you highest approval ratings from the students when you keep it easy and falsely authoritative; as long as they can take good notes, most of them feel they got their money’s worth.

Is it the case that my experience of seeing myself as if outside myself was generated by guilt over faking it? Is that me outside me, in other words, my conscience? ... That hardly seems right. For often that me outside me simply looks on in contemptuous bemusement. Unlike conscience, it seems to take the performing me less seriously than a truly moral policeman would. I cares less that I am a moral failure than that I may be a social failure. It will suffer my being a knave but will not suffer my being a fool. It shares much with Adam Smith’s impartial spectator ...”

My question for Professor Klein and Adam: do you view morals as the same thing as manners? Or is the distinction vacuous and “uninteresting”? If they are different, then what sort of scruples does the impartial spectator police? Morals or manners?


David S writes:

This is shaping up to be a really great series. I will be following along regularly!

I enjoyed the discussion on property and how Smith sees it as fundamentally being owned by the individual whereas Aristotle saw it as belonging to the polity. This gave me a bit of an aha moment in understanding how people with different political ideas come to very different conclusions.

So let me ask this: why do you and Smith see all property as fundamentally belonging to the individual rather than the community? I mean, sure, the individual tends to be at the end-point of wealth creation and surely deserves credit for that, but a lot of collective things had to happen to enable that final act. Wars had to be fought, laws passed and enforced, infrastructure built, natural resources spent, workers educated, and people who might feel like they'd otherwise do better under a different system had to decide not to revolt. Doesn't the larger polity thus have some moral claim of ownership too?

In any case, I think you're being much to harsh on social democrats. I would describe your caricature of them as more realistically representing communists. It seems to me that the modern social democracies are more like vague and indeterminate hybrids of communistic and free-market ideas. In fact I'd say they tend to slant in the direction of the free-market. Even Swedes in reality sound a lot more like capitalists than they sound like marxists.

Adam writes:

@John Strong

I think that the distinction is based on convention, and the intuition behind it is one of magnitude and not of type, necessarily. Put differently, it's all value judgments, but when we speak of manners we're usually not talking about things that are as important as when we are talking about morals.

Smith's "impartial spectator" (which incidentally is one of my least favorite intellectual devices in the Theory of Moral Sentiments) would be looking out for when we have misstepped or how we ought to be behaving in both categories; whether our manners are appropriate given the situation and whether we're making the right moral decision.

John Strong writes:

Adam wrote:

I think that the distinction is based on convention, and the intuition behind it is one of magnitude and not of type, necessarily. Put differently, it's all value judgments, but when we speak of manners we're usually not talking about things that are as important as when we are talking about morals.

I think it is far more complicated than that, but I get the impression that Adam Smith conflates these two categories in precisely the manner you describe. The impartial spectator is supposed to help us discern the propriety of a particular emotion's intensity. This betrays the quantitative concern you mentioned, and the very use of the word "propriety" suggests that the assessment of moral emotions has been incorporated into a broader and blander discussion about what is decorous.

Eric H writes:

Professor Klein:

Thank you for the comment. Would it be beneficial to get familiar with Hume, or to read "a little" Hume in concert with TMS?

I've only gotten through the first 18 pages of TMS, and I sense some connection or conflict between Smith's theory of the appropriateness of sympathy, what I've perhaps naively chosen to call a "rationality of the imagination," and what little I know of Hume's ideas about experience and the self.

According to Smith, sympathy is the result of the sympathizer examining the proportionality of a sentiment to its cause--comparing the loudness of the crying to the size of the milk spill, so to speak. I consider this a rationality of imagination because the sympathizer must experience the sentiment in context and then compare it with what thinks his own response would be. What he thinks his own response would be can only be the product of imagination and the aggregation of all of his previous experiences. It seems to me that Smith is combining causality (taking crying as the result of spilled milk) and the incremental assembly of the self through experience. This seems at once contrary to Hume's skepticism of our ability to recognize causality and complimentary with Hume's idea that the self is a collection of experiences. Am I naively groping at figments of my imagination? I'm operating with a less-than-amateur familiarity with Hume, Smith and philosophy in general, so I preemptively beg forgiveness for any inaccuracies and misrepresentations.

Adam writes:

the very use of the word "propriety" suggests that the assessment of moral emotions has been incorporated into a broader and blander discussion about what is decorous.

Right. It's asking "what is appropriate" in the broad sense, from how you behave when you have guests to how you should behave when you see someone drowning. Smith doesn't seek to answer the question, but rather to examine how people arrive at their own answers.

John Strong writes:

Re PRUDENCE: By the way, in classical moral philosophy, Prudence is far more than simple caution or self-serving calculation. It translates the greek PHRONESIS, which means "practical wisdom", and some ranked it as the highest of the virtues, because it is the sort of wisdom that empowers you to convert your pious notions of Goodness into realities. Isn't PHRONESIS in this richer sense the true essence of Liberalism? I know that liberals are generally allergic to big abstractions like the Public Good, etc., because these abstractions are susceptible to abuses (for ex., by rent-seeking bootleggers who profess to be good Baptists). And notions of Public Good, as Russell Roberts rightly points out, tend to "evolve over time", but isn't Liberalism really the only truly social philosophy in that it seeks genuinely phronetic means to achieve public goods and general welfare. I personally think many libertarians fail this test of genuine Liberalism, because they are trapped in some kind of methological reaction to other people's sins. They want to systematically purify people's notions about what can be achieved by collective action (a la Mancur Olson), and they are so sick of the anti-phronetic approaches to achieving public goods that they embrace a kind of radical individualism that Adam Smith would have repudiated. Anyway, I would love to see some discussion about the meaning of prudence, as Adam Smith understood it. Perhaps this word had the same impoverished meaning in the 18th century that it has today, but I doubt it. Smith was a student of Aristotle, and he was certainly familiar with the older and richer meaning that moral philosophers gave to this word.

Daniel Klein writes:

Recent comments by John Strong, David S., Adam, and Eric H. prompt the following:

Saying that the impartial spectator is like the conscience is a start, but we find that it is the conscience's conscience, etc.

We also find that, unlike conscience, it is interpersonal, perhaps universal. I hope Russ and I get to dwell on para 11 page 215.

I find that "propriety" turns out to be very contextual, situational, elastic. How well can one square "propriety" of para 5 page 188 with the "exalted propriety" of para 11 page 192?

Prudence, too, seems to be rather contextual. Some significant "prudence" pages, in my view, are 174-76, 189, 327, 212-17, 262. (Both "prudence" and "propriety" are indexed in the book.)

Truth be told, I think that each virtue is a complex involving both a way of viewing and the referent behavior viewed. What I mean is that a referent behavior can be viewed alternatively through, say, prudence lenses, justice lenses, beneficence lenses, temperance lenses, propriety lenses, amiable lenses, respectable lenses, and so on.

A parallel: A state of the world (or pattern of behavior) can be viewed differently as an equilibrium in relation to alternative models -- or for that matter as disequilibrium in yet others.

For some purposes it will be most useful to view one way, for some purposes, another way.

But some models will make more sense, will be more focal, than others, so we muddle through. But there is no definitiveness.

So what's the point of it all? Well, I tend to read the whole as a deep argument for the presumption of liberty, for degovernmentalization, based on the situational particularism, complexity, and dynamics of moral life, learning, and responsibility.

Mabye that's just my robo-libertarianism.

RE social democracy and the collective configuration of ownership ("our own"): David S., I'm not saying that soc dems are for nationalization. I'm just saying that, regardless of their view on the minimum wage, they do not see it as the initiation of coercion. It would not be inconsistent or illogical for someone to maintain consistently soc-dem semantics and libertarian policy positions, or vice versa, just peculiar.

Culture is semantics. Semantics carry presumptions. Presumptions locate burdens of proof. Liberalism is a cultural system that turns on the meanings of the most important words -- liberty, freedom, property, contract, rights, justice, equity, equality, rule of law, and liberalism. The liberal lexicon became confused about 100 years ago, and now we have cultural confusion. Hayek quotes Confucius: "When words lose their meaning, people lose their liberty."

RE Hume's ideas on the sentiments, sorry, I'm just not versed enough to say.

gjemd writes:

Russ, You referred to SS as an example of the unintended consequences of Gov intervention. You seemed to imply that SS disrupted this beneficent unfettered private social safety net that existed before the Great Depression. Are speaking of the Poor Houses, or the endemic poverty of citizens in the 6th and 7th decades of life. Or the social immobility of rural life, trapped in itinerant farming to support the multi-generational family. I'm at a lost of this unintended consequence you speak.

Russ Roberts writes:

gjemd,

Social security discourages prudence and responsibility for oneself and between oneself and one's parents. Some people might find that a price worth paying, but those were the consequences I was talking about.

I don't think it was social security that reduced the poverty of the elderly or the social immobility of rural life.

Shareef Abdul-Kareem writes:

A first class discussion and I look forward to the coming weeks. What amazes me is the depth of thought of Adam Smith. I compare his writings with those of Francis Bacon and ask the question - "Why are we not producing thinkers of such levels in these modern times? And if we produce them, who and where are they?

Perhaps Russ Roberts and Dan Klien (just being cheeky).

Having discovered Maimonides, it will be interesting to exploit the effect of the Torah (Judaic) on all these great thinkers. I do not believe that we can hold one greater thinker in a vacuum from the others.

Keep up the good works!

John Strong writes:

Re: A plea in favor of studying Parts VI and VII

I have been reviewing the sections on Prudence that Professor Klein pointed out to us, as well as Parts VI & VII, generally speaking. These two sections have much more than just historical summaries of older philosophical systems, like Stoicism. Smith gives a lot of attention in Parts VI & VII to his two most important influences: Francis Hutcheson and David Hume and explains how his thought diverges from theirs. I strongly agree with Dan S. that we would do well to explore these influences on Smith’s thought. Smith also develops his critically important theory of approbation in these sections and has some clarifying thoughts about Prudence which are not just an afterthought, IMHO, even if they were added to the later editions of the TMS.

I hasten to add that, like other fans of EconTalk, I feel guilty uttering a single negative word about the service Professors Roberts, Klein et. al. are offering us, and I know they have things to do other than chatting with the fans of their blog. By far, my predominant feeling about EconTalk is one of humble gratitude that this resource is available and shocked admiration verging on disbelief at the quality of the conversation and supporting study aids.

Having said all that, here’s my “BUT” ... :-) I sense that Russ Roberts is grappling for a deeper understanding of the moral foundations of Liberalism, whence his inspiration to study TMS, and I think he is right to do so, because until we find more solid moral ground, we will suffer two slaveries:

(1) We will continue to be plagued by silly alloys like “libertarian paternalism” and “compassionate conservativism”
(2) We will continue to allow anti-Liberals to define us

How do we allow anti-Liberals to define us? Rhetorically. It happens when we react to anti-Liberal critics. For instance, professor Roberts is partly amused that Walter Williams sings the praises of “Greed,” but I also detect a little discomfiture. I am more than just uncomfortable with William’s argument. I admire Mr. Williams and understand his point, but it is outrageous to link Liberalism up with greed. This is nothing but the rhetorical reflex of someone stung by an accusation. It falls in the same category as Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness. Please.

I don’t even like words like “Capitalist”. Once again, we are allowing anti-Liberals to define us in absurd ways. We are going to call five thousand years of organic development and incomprehensibly complex emergent social and economic orders “capitalism” just because some yahoo named Marx read a little Ricardo in a museum and decided that was the essence of this complex reality??????? There’s this guy named Robert Solow who back in the 1970s told the world that all poor Africans needed to become rich was more capital, so we gave them a lot of it. That really worked well, didn’t it?

There are deeper foundations for philosophical Liberalism than just Max-U or fear of state violence. It is not an accident that you find more cooperation in liberal societies and far more public-spiritedness among a liberal citizenry than you do in societies dominated by “social” values like envy-avoidance. I wish we could use the TMS study to explore some of these deeper waters.

Russ Roberts writes:

John Strong,

Glad you enjoy EconTalk but always happy to hear and learn from thoughtful criticism.

First off, we're definitely going to talk about Part VI and my guess is that we will also talk about Part VII, but not at the level of detail that we've put into the earlier parts.

I'm interested in the moral foundations of liberalism but that isn't my goal for the book club. My goal is to learn more about The Theory of Moral Sentiments. We'll see where that leads. I can say that after taping the next two podcasts on Parts I and II that will be released on April 15 and April 22 that my thinking on all kinds of things far beyond the moral foundations of liberalism has been affected by reading Smith. It's a very provocative book, or at least it is when I'm engaging in conversation about it with Dan Klein.

Your comments on being defined by one's opponents are very interesting. I think the biggest harm that that creates is defensiveness. Defensiveness turns off the open-minded skeptic.

Comments for this podcast episode have been closed
Return to top