Dan Klein on The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Episode 4--A Discussion of Part III
Apr 29 2009

This is the fourth podcast in the EconTalk Book Club discussion of The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith. In this episode, Dan Klein of George Mason University and EconTalk host Russ Roberts discuss Part III of the book.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


John Strong
Apr 29 2009 at 10:23am

Re. The politicization of mathematics.

Russ Roberts invites listeners who are mathematicians to confirm or dispute Smith’s claim that hard sciences are less prone to cabals than literary professions:

Smith: The morals of those different classes of men of letters are, perhaps, sometimes somewhat affected by this very great difference in their situation with regard to the public. Mathematicians and natural philosophers, from their independency upon the public opinion, have little temptation to form themselves into factions and cabals, either for the support of their own reputation, or for the depression of that of their rivals.

Can’t speak for mathematicians, but at no time in the 16 years I worked as a programmer did I ever have the slightest doubt that technical merit would be rewarded. Software development managers have a chronic and urgent need for talented engineers who can solve real business problems, and this gives the engineer a relative immunity to politics. If the engineer thinks of politics, it is probably because he has an ambition to obtain a role of influence beyond his technical niche.

Late in my career I became a technical writer. Suddenly, I noticed that office politics mattered. You had to be more careful about what you said in e-mails. You had to worry about not offending people on the outskirts of your professional orbit (editors, production people, even secretaries). The sort of technical writing I did requires a lot of knowledge about operating system internals, but the measure of performance is less objective. As Eric Raymond noted in a previous podcast (The Cathedral and the Bazaar), a computer program either works or it doesn’t.

Apr 29 2009 at 1:36pm

John Strong,

That’s a fantastic comment. Do you mind if I repost it on my blog?

John Strong
Apr 29 2009 at 1:59pm

Of course not. Put it wherever you want. But careful, or you will embolden me to make more posts, and our teachers Russ and Daniel will despair of having so many longwinded fans. 🙂

John Strong
Apr 29 2009 at 2:31pm

Re: Audience of Those Whom We Admire

After hearing from multiple quarters that Smith is an apostle of socially constructed morality, what a breath of fresh air to read Smith’s powerfully nuanced description of praiseworthiness in Part III. Our internal spectator is not constructed from the cultural in general, but from the very select society of people whom we admire. We want the admiration of our spectators, but we have to admire them first. Our admiration is the price of admission to our internal audience.

Professors Roberts and Klein, I didn’t hear you mention this in the podcast. Did you not think it was significant, or did you just run out of time?

I think the fact that our internal audience is composed of those whom we admire is directly related to the distinction Smith makes between Praise VS. Praiseworthiness.

Apr 29 2009 at 3:46pm

Great podcast. Thank you.

Daniel Klein
Apr 29 2009 at 5:27pm

John writes: “We want the admiration of our spectators, but we have to admire them first.”

There is on our part selection into the constitution of the internal spectator, but Smith doesn’t make it as stark as you have it here, John.

You write: “Our admiration is the price of admission to our internal audience.”

But parents enter free, though later they might be ejected.

There has to be a you before there is your admiration.

For each person the development is a path-dependent experience in history, and culture/nurture makes a difference — especially, in think, in the evolution of the individual’s political views.

John Strong
Apr 29 2009 at 9:08pm

Good point about the parents. But Smith doesn’t mention parents as internal spectators, does he? He just mentions those whom we admire. You have to fastforward a century or so to find systems of moral psychology that explain moral beliefs as the early internalization of parental authority, don’t you? The text of Part III is still somewhat fresh in my mind, but I may be forgetting something.

Do you agree that there might be some connection between Smith’s notion of praiseworthiness and his conjecture that we limit our spectators to those whom we admire?

What are the criteria for determining whom we admire?

BTW, I do not think liberalism is a set of tribal (or even discursive) commitments that we inherit from parents. I think it is a way of thinking that arises when cultural conditions make possible moral inferences by individuals from shared community values. I take it that neither you or I share the political beliefs of our parents.

Daniel Klein
Apr 29 2009 at 10:31pm

John, Of your previous, I agree with the 1st, 2nd, and 4th grafs, though research shows that one’s political and religious views are highly affected by parents/upbringing.

Not sure I understand the question about “the criteria for determining whom we admire?”, but I don’t see Smith offering a formula for what one will find admirable. He says we are impressed by self-command, even when it is exhibited in evil doings. Beyond that, he says we admire exceptional display of virtue, but that begs the issue: I don’t see him offering a formula for what it is that one will deem to be virtuous.

Pietro Poggi-Corradini
Apr 30 2009 at 1:37am

I did not really detect “intellectual hubris” in Smith: the way I interpreted some of his statements is that they are examples taken from his observation that help illustrate his theory, but what matters is the theory itself, not the particular examples. It’s almost as if he is saying “I will let the reader provide his own examples from his own observation”. This makes sense from the point of view of the “organon”: he’s trying to impart a way of thinking.

The impression I get from the book is that he is exploring the interplay between micro-ethics and macro-ethics. There are the moral sentiments of individuals and then there are the interactions of such feelings within larger and larger communities. An equilibrium is reached via the “invisible eye” (or “heart” I should say) of the impartial spectator, which is a truly “macro” concept that can’t be easily quantified or even formalized. In modern jargon we could call it a feed-back that helps individuals “discover” the appropriate sentiments.

About mathematics, my personal opinion confirms Smith’s insight. As a teenager, I consciously decided to go into math because I thought it would be a “clean” and uncontroversial subject, a safe endeavor that could not possibly lead to any arguments and I have to say that it generally is so. However, as of late, I’ve started questioning whether mathematics’ aloofness and detachment could actually be hurting the field. It is dangerous when a discipline does not feel the need to justify itself too much. Especially at the lower level, math presents itself as an inevitable and organized set of ideas. There is almost no question or variation on what the curriculum should be. I remember in my Freshman year I was undecided between Physics and Math. So I went to the Physics department and found a really long wall on which were taped the many different “program of studies” that one would have to choose from. Then I went to the Math department and I had a hard time finding a similar wall. Finally, in a corner, was a small announcement with basically only one choice: calculus, algebra, geometry and physics, then repeat for four years. There is a very strong consensus about what a mathematical education should consist of. And yet recent advances are challenging this tradition: probability, discrete math, linear algebra, and other approaches are slowly changing the curriculum. But it’s always extremely cautious. In fact, there is more debate at the elementary school level than at the college level.

Apr 30 2009 at 10:47am

Along with Pietro’s comment, I don’t think it’s really hubris. I think it just speaks to a time when scholars were less self-conscious. If you looked at Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, or Hume, none of those guys couched it as “this is what I think, what is my experience, here’s some evidence, etc etc”.

It’s not like Smith thought he was giving us undeniable truth; he just didn’t use a passive voice in his writing style because it doesn’t really add anything. Personally I prefer it; there’s plenty of time to be modest when we’re having a back and forth discussion. But when you’re stating your point of view I’d rather you just lay it out so that I can understand it; how strongly you believe it to be the absolute reality is a side-issue.

scott clark
Apr 30 2009 at 10:05pm

Russ and Dan,

Have you guys talked to your colleague David Levy about this stuff? He is a great Adam Smith scholar. The first book Levy wrote, I think it was called The Economic Ideas of Ordinary People, he talks a lot about the motivations that are derived from seeking approbation and avoiding disapprobation. I didn’t really care about it at the time in my undergrad days, but maybe it sinks in as time goes by.

Daniel Klein
May 1 2009 at 6:56am

Scott, Surely; David Levy is super on Smith. And he knows a lot more than I about the history of economic thought.

May 1 2009 at 10:05am

It’s funny because I saw Crimes and Misdemeanors for the first time maybe two weeks ago. I think the character you talk about can fit into Smith’s framework; Smith is focusing on the pressures that drive people to do good even if it means personal sacrifice to some extent. But that doesn’t mean that everyone always yields to that pressure.

In Crimes and Misdemeanors the doctor undergoes a tremendous moral crisis after the murder. He’s on the brink of turning himself in for most of the movie; but eventually he manages to let himself forget it ever happened. I don’t think that Smith would argue that everyone always yields to their conscience. If you consider the role that distance plays in TMS; there’s the example discussed in this podcast with the people of China and losing your finger.

It’s true that Smith says that we would be horrified at the thought of sacrificing 100 million far off strangers to save our finger. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who would do something along those lines (though perhaps not of that magnitude). The interesting thing about the character in the Woody Allen movie is that he does feel guilt and as though he has committed an atrocity. It’s just that once it has been committed, he is able to let himself forget it the greater the distance in time he is able to put between himself and it.

It may be speculation, but I don’t think that Smith would say such people do not exist.

May 1 2009 at 1:06pm


I wanted to attempt to resolve the contradiction you brought up when you were discussing the section that Russ read of Chapter 3, Part III.

I think the solution lies in seperating out Smith’s egalitarian idea of commutative justice from his notion that individuals who strive to be praise-worthy are owed the esteem of the people in their community and are thus superior to those who do not.

With communitive justice no matter how great you are, you still can’t violate the basic rights of anyone else even if they are below you in terms of character. So, even the wisest, most benevolent philosopher can’t get away with killing a hundred million Chinese to save his pinky.

But, that doesn’t mean that people can’t be considered morally superior to others. Smith clearly states that a man who does an action simply because it is praiseworthy is morally superior to a man who does it only to receive praise. That doesn’t mean, however, that the superior man is now authorized to go and steal from the man who is morally below him (putting his own interests ahead of the other’s).

I think that helps explain the seeming contradiction that compared to everyone else we are little (and thus have the same basic rights) but can still be superior without our superiority allowing us to impinge on everyone else’s rights.

Daniel Klein
May 1 2009 at 7:41pm


What you write in the preceding doesn’t quite feel like a resolution to me. First off, the pinky thought experiment is not clearly defined, but if an evil genius says he is going to kill many others unless you cut off your pinky, I would not call declining to cut off your pinky a violation of commutative justice.

But, at any rate, I don’t think that the egalitarianism in the graf (p. 137) is narrowly confined to matters of commutative justice.

I still feel that the graf’s element of superiority (at the very end) and element of egalitarianism (about 14 lines above that) pose somewhat of a paradox.

Perhaps the egalitarianism is not that we all have the same rights, but that we all have the same duty to do what is right by the whole of humankind. You are not superior in that you are no more excused from this duty than anyone else, and hence will not be excused if you fail to cut off your pinky. When we cut off our pinky, we feel superior in fulling this duty, a duty that bears equally on everyone.

Or something like that?

John Strong
May 2 2009 at 8:50am

Aesthetics and Teleology in the TMS:

I think that in Smith’s aesthetic ethic of “propriety” and “praiseworthiness” you can find hints of an implicit statement about what fulfills human nature, and thus a teleological morality.

I haven’t read MacIntyre’s After Virtue in years and so I reread some of it yesterday to see if I would view it differently after reading Part III of the TMS.

Adam Gurri, you will not approve, because MacIntyre makes an argument in favor of teleological concept of human nature (deriving an “ought” from an “is”) along these lines:

“From such factual premises as ‘This watch is grossly inaccurate and irregular in time-keeping’ and ‘This watch is too heavy to carry about comfortably’, the evaluative conclusion validly follows that ‘This is a bad watch’. From such factual premises as ‘He gets a better yield for this crop per acre than any farmer in the district’, … the evaluative conclusion validly follows that ‘He is a good farmer’. Both of these arguments are valid because of the special character of the concepts of a watch and of a farmer. Such concepts are functional concepts; that is to say, we define both ‘watch’ and ‘farmer’ in terms of the the purpose or function which a watch or a farmer are characteristically expected to serve. It follows that the concept of a watch cannot be defined independently of the concept of a good watch nor the concept of a farmer independently of that of a good farmer … To call something [a functional] good therefore is also to make a factual statement … But once the notion of essential human purposes or functions disappears from morality, it begins to appear implausible to treat moral judgments as factual statements … the secularization of morality by the Enlightenment had put in question the status of moral judgments as ostensible reports of divine law. Even Kant, who still understands moral judgments as expression of a universal law, even if it be a law which each rational agent utters to himself, does not treat moral judgments as reports of what the law requires or commands, but as themselves imperatives. And imperatives are not susceptible of truth or falsity.”

Notions of “function” and “utility” are extremely close to the notion of “purpose” and you will notice how often Smith associates “utility” with beauty. Smith remains faithful to the Greek/Christan/Jewish idea that you can find a moral end within human nature, while avoiding the horrors of utilitarian tyranny, by locating this purposefulness in an aesthetic rather than a big social plan.

I understand why libertarians bristle at notions of what human nature “ought” to be. It calls to mind Marx, Lenin, Hitler and even corporatist Christianity. We all agree with Thomas Sowell’s wise advice that we should accept human nature for what it is. No? And I also understand why libertarians are skittish about the “R” word, “reason”. I hestitate to use the “R” word in this forum, lest some well-meaning libertarian call 911 and I find myself in a police lineup next to Robespierre and the usual suspects.

But we’re trying to understand Smith, right? Smith clearly believed that human nature inclined towards certain notions of propriety, just as clearly as he believed that those notions of propriety are catalyzed by social relationships and have no meaning outside the society of men. We are a social species. Certain aspects of our genetic moral programming come to fruition in society. Why would we expect it to work differently?

John Strong
May 2 2009 at 9:56am

Clarifying addendum to my last post: traditional teleological morality does not recommend that we change human nature to what it “ought” to be. It argues that human nature has a certain potential (or “potency” to use the Aristotelian term). That potential is part of human nature, and we fulfill our natures by actualizing that potential.

Utilitarians with radical political agendas (Robespierre, Marx, Hitler, et al) do not view human nature that way. They view human nature as a blank slate. If you don’t like what is written on the slate you just erase it and write what you want. If the white board is stained and won’t adapt to your social purposes, you just discard it.

There’s a difference between the belief that human nature has a potential that it “ought” to fulfill and the belief that human nature “ought” to be radically different from what it is. Seems to me that these two contrary positions are confused in some peoples’ minds.

Daniel Klein
May 2 2009 at 12:54pm

John, Regarding your preceding, note that Smith has a ch. “Of those Systems which make Reason the Principle of Approbation”, pp. 318-321. (BTW, I love the gratuitous swipe at Hobbes — “so odious a doctrine”.)

Also, in two instances (25.5, 168.9) Smith writes of the perfection of human nature, seemingly in the sense of human nature not being fixed but rather being improved.

Eric H
May 2 2009 at 1:27pm

John & Dan,

What do you make of this passage in III.5.9, p 168:

The industrious knave cultivates the soil; the indolent good man leaves it uncultivated. Who ought to reap the harvest? who starve, and who live in plenty? The natural course of things decides it in favour of the knave: the natural sentiments of mankind in favour of the man of virtue…Thus man is by Nature directed to correct, in some measure, that distribution of things which she herself would otherwise have made.

This blurs the distinction between “is” and “ought” for me. Human nature “is” natural, but it “ought” to follow its natural impulses to correct nature; our morality is at once derived and contrary to Nature. Couldn’t this provide a basis for income redistribution and “social” justice? A careful reading by an enterprising modern liberal could justify every redistributionist and progressive scheme. If our morality is naturally derived but meant to correct perceived natural inequalities, what could be more logical, and “natural” than progressive taxation, social engineering and eugenics?

Are we beings “designed” by Nature with the capacity to “design” ourselves? In other words, are we capable of overcoming our natural selves at some point? I guess these questions are kind of rhetorical. I think I now know why some modern historians make no bones about drawing a direct line between modern and classical liberal schools of thought.

May 3 2009 at 3:35pm

Dan and Russ,

While Russ did note the conversation was slow, I appreciate this new format and covering economic liturature.

I did have one thought while I was listen last week. From my perspective, Russ and Dan tend to try to find how what Adam Smith said makes sense in today’s world. I do agree that Smith’s work provides a great framework for understanding values, but is it possible that some of what he wrote may not fit into a neat framework?

Then came the element of Smith that I thought did not fit with my way of thinking. In regard to the little finger vs. the 100,000,000 lives. From my hearing this was ascribed to moral or inner sentiment. I would counter with my perspective, that the risk of an individual taking only 1,000 lives from an individual benefit is extremely dangerous to the social order of a civilization. I would argue that this market force of eliminating those in a group that would significantly harm others for their own smaller benefit is a much strong explanation of the origin of the inner sentiment.

I don’t claim my one example contervails all of Smith’s great insight, nor that my one example is in fact a better way of explanation compare to Smith. I do however think that consideration of potential shortfalls in Smith’s approach could be considered in the reading.

Thank you Dan and Russ for your great work. Econtalk definitly is one of the best podcast for inducing thought and education that has meaning in daily lives.

Mads Lindstrøm
May 3 2009 at 6:17pm

Hi John

Regarding you very first comment, that programmers are protected from office politics. I do not think this is universally true.

In my relatively short career of 5 years, I have been employed three different places. In the first one, I was the sole software person in a three person company, so there really could not be any politics. The second had about 200 software developers, and like your experience, programmers did not have to concern themselves with politics.

But in my current job, this is very different. Before I got hired, it had been decided to use some new tools which were really poor. It would have been a lot more productive, to do thing like people were used to. This is properly not the venue for technical details, but suffice it to say that not only I thought the tools were poor, but everyone of the approximate 10 software developers who had the displeasure of using these tools, taught the same thing. Obviously, people complained and tried to change this decision, but people higher up the food chain, had decided and kept insisting on using these tools. Who exactly had decided to use these tools were unclear. I had asked a couple of times, but got different answers from different persons.

About two months ago, my co-worker put together a presentation for why we should replace one of the poor tools. He presented it to people higher up the food chain (to a software architect), and it all went very well. While the software architect had concerns, he clearly seemed convinced. However, a couple of days latter we were informed that we kept the poor tool. No real explanation why. And it was even unclear who had decided what. I got the imprecision that things were decided elsewhere, and whatever good arguments we could come up with would have no effect.

Then about a month ago we got new management, and things changed nearly from day one. Within a week, we began the process of replacing the old tools (this will take some time).

So, at some places, politics do exists for programmers.

May 4 2009 at 6:31am


You sounded amazed when recounting that Smith (in battle) was imagining the applause he’d get following his death.

This has ancient literary gravity at least as far back Homer. In the Iliad, Kleos (commonly, glory) is the only form of immortality possible for the warrior – later afterlife possibilities yet undeveloped. This is literally: ‘what others are saying about you’, ‘what others hear about you’.

The warrior accrues kleos by killing many/well and/or dying nobly/courageously.

Thanks for the series.


May 4 2009 at 8:57pm

I read “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” a few years ago and realized that Smith was a giant among thinkers. I am very grateful for this series and eagerly await future episodes. Judging from the quality of the comments I would hope the book club as done here is seen as a great success and that Russ is making a list of more volumes to try the format on.
I came away from my reading of the book curious about its impact in its own time and since. I would welcome pointers to scholarship regarding this (accessible to the lay reader).
My favorite moments in the podcast are when Russ and Dan get caught up in the excitement of appreciating Smith’s thought. I have to say I’m a little disturbed when they can’t seem to help themselves using him to back some libertarian ideal or other or brush off something as “18th century”.
And using the word “hubris” in connection with this man — let’s have no more of that, please.
Oh well, nobody’s perfect, right? And nobody’s man-in-the-breast.

John Strong
May 4 2009 at 10:03pm

Re: REASON in the TMS

Professor Klein, I jumped ahead to Part VII and read the section you referred to where Smith dismisses theories that claim reason is the principle of approbation. He follows his teacher Hutcheson in this.

Here’s what Smith says about rational induction:

“… though reason is undoubtedly the source of the general rules of morality, and of all the moral judgments which we form by means of them; it is altogether absurd and unintelligible to suppose that the first perceptions of right and wrong can be derived from reason, … nothing can be agreeable or disagreeable for its own sake, which is not rendered such by immediate sense and feeling …” (VII.III.14)

But induction is not the only kind of reason, and inductively derived rules are not the only contribution reason makes to moral judgment. I detect at least two distinct uses of the word “reason” in the TMS. Reason refers to:

(1) The faculty that makes logical inferences (especially inductive ones)
(2) The faculty that allows us to weigh an abstract future in the balance with present appetite.

Number (2) is the meaning and use of the word “reason” that I encounter most often in Aristotle and Aquinas. For them, the most important apect of moral reasoning is not logical inference, but the capacity to compare and rank two moral options, in general, and compare future good with present good, in particular, and defer gratification as necessary.

Smith is aware of this, of course. For instance:

“… it has been observed on a former occasion, that superior reason and understanding are originally approved of as just and right and accurate, and not merely as useful or advantageous … That self-command, in the same manner, by which we restrain our present appetites, in order to gratify them more fully upon another occasion, is approved of, as much under the aspect of propriety, as under that of utility. When we act in this manner, the sentiments which influence our conduct seem exactly to coincide with those of the spectator. The spectator does not feel the solicitations of our present appetites. To him the pleasure which we are to enjoy a week hence, or a year hence, is just as interesting as that which we are to enjoy this moment.” (IV.I.18 & 19)

I think it is worth noting that when Hutcheson refuted the notion that reason was the principle of approbation, he was responding to Hobbes, not the Ancients. The Greeks did not believe in a Will without feeling. Aristotle’s word for “choice” was prohairesis (“rational desire”). Aquinas defined the Will as the intellectual appetite. Reason elicits desire and appetite, but it cannot move the Will without desire. Without appetite, the Will is just inert.

But here is my question for you Dr. Klein:

Is it fair to say that Smith incorporates definition (2) of reason into his notion of “impartiality”?

I say that he did. A key characteristic of the Impartial Spectator is that he is adept at comparing future possibilities with present possibilities and eliciting desires in a rational way, in an evenhanded manner, without giving preference to the appetites of the presence.

Reason has more functions than just inference. It also allows us to make hypotheticals and even counterfactuals the objects of desire.

Kevin Harris
May 5 2009 at 1:30am

The book club is great – I am really enjoying the introduction to a fascinating work I haven’t read and would have had little inclination to read in the absence of this. I hope that you will be able to do this for other neglected classics in the future.

John Strong
May 5 2009 at 8:48am

Schepp, not sure I understood you, but Smith did **NOT** say a typical human would sacrifice 100m lives to save his little finger. In fact, he makes the fairly radical claim that no such human has ever existed:

Smith: To prevent, therefore, this paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them? Human nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it

People who bandy the little finger passage around usually take it completely out of context. Smith’s purpose for using this illustration was to draw a distinction between “passive feeling” and “active principles”.

Smith: But what makes the difference? When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so sselfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble?

John Strong
May 5 2009 at 2:04pm

Eric H writes: John & Dan, What do you make of this passage in III.5.9, p 168: The industrious knave cultivates the soil; the indolent good man leaves it uncultivated. Who ought to reap the harvest? who starve, and who live in plenty? The natural course of things decides it in favour of the knave: the natural sentiments of mankind in favour of the man of virtue…Thus man is by Nature directed to correct, in some measure, that distribution of things which she herself would otherwise have made. This blurs the distinction between “is” and “ought” for me. Human nature “is” natural, but it “ought” to follow its natural impulses to correct nature; our morality is at once derived and contrary to Nature. Couldn’t this provide a basis for income redistribution and “social” justice?

When it comes to Smith’s interpretation of the Aristotelian notions of Commutative and Distributive Justice, I know nothing other than what I learned from Dan’s comments in the podcast.

But with respect to your last question, I’d say this. The text you quote from paragraph 108 comes soon after the discussion of happiness in paragraph 106, where Smith states that God is the author of eudaemonological ethics. 🙂 (My tongue is only partially in cheek here). In other words, I think Smith would agree that you can (in a sense) get an “ought” from an “is” by saying: Human nature is such that A makes people happy. Therefore, we ought to pursue A.

Smith: The happiness of mankind, as well as of all other rational creatures, seems to have been the original purpose intended by the Author of nature, when he brought them into existence … by acting according to the dictates of our moral faculties, we necessarily pursue the most effectual means for promoting the happiness of mankind … (III paragraph 106)

Of course, eudaemonological ethics sneaks an “ought” into the premise: it is good for people to be happy, but so what? I recommend dropping the inquiry into “ought” VS. “is”, unless you want to debate the point with someone who doubts that it is good for people to be happy.

The more interesting question is: does distribution of income make people happier? The so-called “happiness literature” discussed in previous podcasts (see the fabulous interview with Richard Epstein) holds that inequality makes people unhappy. But the notion that you can produce “equality” (much less happiness) by governments intervening to redistribute income strikes me as breathtakingly naive.

It is true that in some poor societies where merit is not even acknowledged much less rewarded people feel less existential angst about their position in the hierarchy of merit. I have noticed this in Mexico, where I live. The Mexicans do not feel the same shame at mediocrity that a gringo feels. They have not internalized meritocratic values to the same degree, and there are some psychological benefits to that.

But there are a lot of problems with it too, and the notion that government can reproduce that kind of social reality using the tax system is about as reasonable as believing that given enough carbon and calcium government could create a corral reef.

Daniel Klein
May 5 2009 at 4:08pm

Yes, Smith incorporates weighing an abstract future against present impulses into his notion of impartiality. This is perhaps most clearly stated at graf 11 p. 215 (or, VI.i.11).

However, Smith is not too inclined to get “reason” or “rational” talk into such matters, it seems to me.

John Strong
May 5 2009 at 4:27pm

Professor Klein writes: Yes, Smith incorporates weighing an abstract future against present impulses into his notion of impartiality … However, Smith is not too inclined to get “reason” or “rational” talk into such matters, it seems to me.

Agreed. But I get the impression that this is only because (1) he is reacting to Hobbes (2) he is affirming his teacher’s work, which disputes the notion that reason is the principle of approbation.

He may not call the comparing faculty “reason”, but that’s what the ancients and medievals called it.

Daniel Klein
May 5 2009 at 5:41pm

You might want to look at Charles Griswold’s discussion of the imagination in Smith, pp. 336-344 of his exceptional Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment (Cambridge U.P., 1999).

Daniel Klein
May 5 2009 at 6:05pm

One person (“micanopyan”) asked about scholarship on the reception of TMS at the time. I’ve read biographies of Smith by John Rae, Francis W. Hirst, E.G. West, and Gavin Kennedy. Those tell of its happy reception. Some of the reactions can be gleaned from Smith’s correspondence. Also, a volume entitled On Moral Sentiments: Contemporary Responses to Adam Smith would have original materials (I just ordered a used copy from bookfinder.com). Ian S. Ross has a new biography out just recently, I haven’t read it yet. I haven’t checked Wikipedia but it might tell of the reception.

The bottomline with Smith is that from 1759 onwards he was the crest of the summit of Scotland, which increasingly came to be regarded as one of the grandest intellectual peaks in the world. Hume’s stature might have rivaled his, with some, but as I understand it Hume never had the same institutional base for trying his items out in lectures, for belonging to a circle of peers and colleagues, and for income. Some of Hume’s works, such The History of Great Britain, were great successes at the time, but Smith a leader of Scottish professors by the time he was 36. He just went from elevation to elevation, to the day he died. And then he was elevated farther!

John Strong
May 5 2009 at 9:07pm

Charles Griswold, Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment

I just took a peak at this work on Google Books, and it looks extremely interesting.

You are channeling Russ Robert’s pedagogical heart when you offer this kind of guidance. I’d say it is very much in the spirit of EconTalk and greatly appreciated.

May 6 2009 at 7:37am

Hume’s stature might have rivaled his, with some, but as I understand it Hume never had the same institutional base for trying his items out in lectures, for belonging to a circle of peers and colleagues, and for income.

You know it’s funny you say that, Professor Klein. I always felt like the careers of Hume and Smith were strange mirror images of one another. Hume wrote his masterwork, A Treatise on Human Nature very early in his career–it was a young man’s work. And, by his own description, it “feel dead-born at the press” (wasn’t exactly an overnight sensation).

Smith, on the other hand, wrote The Wealth of Nations later in his life, after he had already built up something of a career and a reputation. I’ve always felt that that played a role in its success.

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About ideas and people mentioned in this podcast:Books:

      • The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS), by Adam Smith. Part III, Part IV, and Part V. On Econlib.
        • P. 165, par. III.I.104. "What is agreeable to our moral faculties...".
        • par. IV.I.23. "All such sentiments suppose the idea of some other being...".
        • par. III.I.103. "This opinion or apprehension...".
        • par. IV.I.10. "... the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for."
        • par. III.I.9. "The love of praise-worthiness is by no means derived altogether from the love of praise."
        • par. III.I.38. "The all-wise Author of Nature has, in this manner, taught man to respect the sentiments and judgments of his brethren; to be more or less pleased when they approve of his conduct, and to be more or less hurt when they disapprove of it."
        • par. III.I.42. "Can we wonder that so strange an application of this most respectable doctrine should sometimes have exposed it to contempt and derision?...".
        • Chapter III, Of the Influences and Authority of Conscience: par. III.I.43.
        • Earthquake in China: par. III.I.46. "Let us suppose that the great empire of China.... If he was to lose his little finger... paltry misfortune of his own... It is not the love of our neighbour, it is not the love of mankind, which upon many occasions prompts us to the practice of those divine virtues. It is a stronger love, a more powerful affection, which generally takes place upon such occasions; the love of what is honourable and noble, of the grandeur, and dignity, and superiority of our own characters."
        • par. III.I.85. "The real, revered, and impartial spectator, therefore, is, upon no occasion, at a greater distance than amidst the violence and rage of contending parties. To them, it may be said, that such a spectator scarce exists any where in the universe."

Podcasts and Blogs:



Podcast Episode Highlights
0:36Intro. First two parts of the book dry, slow, hard-going to read. Parts III, IV, V lively reading, funnier, deeper, profound. Reading Part III for itself recommended.
2:32Smith's general approach, principle: organon. In micro, organon of utility maximization, principle we use, see the world through this lens. Convention, weltanschauung, worldview. Moral judgment is always enshrouded in some kind of sympathy, spectatorial sympathy. Instinctual, voice tones of parents, psychological research. Not just spectatorial view, but happiness, attractiveness, beauty, what people think of us. Disturbing, deep: live by principles, won't be swayed by other people's perceptions, but if you are aware of it, profound. Thinking of yourself as being observed, not comfortable place to be. Thinking about it unconsciously all the time. Allows for independence, but founded on dependence of internal spectator which itself is derived from society. Layers of onion, simultaneity, man within, man without. P. 165, "What is agreeable to our moral faculties...". Elsewhere (Part IV): "All such sentiments suppose the idea of some other being...". Morality, but explicit chapters on beauty, implicit reader over my shoulder. Look down on writers who look to be popular, prefer artist who goes his own way; forces you to think about that tension. Smith's focus on propriety could be moral relativism. Smith has absolutes, but assumes everybody shares those. Justification for the norms of society being in harmony; but also norms of his society just. Relativism vs. universalism; whether society tends toward moral progress and improvement, just Britain or not.
12:27Spectatorial and organon: Men view what happens in the world also in terms of intelligent beings, origins of religion. "This opinion or apprehension...". People personify God, man creates God in his own image, vs. Biblical God creates man in his own image. First five years as infants. Impartial spectator: ultimately is a universal being emanating a universal wisdom. My man in the breast, representative of the partial spectator but imperfect representatives. Divide myself into two persons, one judged and one judged of; but each of those can be divided into two persons. Turn music up loud, maybe disturb neighbor. Judge of the judge, which is still coming from one's own self. Can always step back and judge deeper; onion. World today different politically and culturally different. Invisible hand mechanisms and morals, blame on government: organon. Impartial spectator like a sun around which we all orbit. Need subscripts for Smith, Judget. Infanticide, fleeing. Loose, vague, and indeterminate. Impartial spectator seems to be a "he," author of nature, "she". Very little sex-based differences.
21:52Intellectual hubris. He's the ultimate armchair theorizer, not doing a lot of empirical research, laws of human nature. Speculating about the brain, but only one brain, Adam Smith's. Beggar sunning himself. Part III, our own, turning inwards, vs. Parts I and II. Desire to be praised and to be praiseworthy. Want to be loved, but we want to merit being loved. "Love of praise-worthiness...". Don't feel good when you get praised for something you feel you don't deserve praise for. Women who wear makeup; plastic surgery; vanity. Incomplete knowledge of oneself, even unknowability of the good. "He applauds and admires himself...". Sacrifice life in battle. Knowledge problem, can't know everyone's moral worth and they can't know ours. Have to create a judge who does know--can be a god, but in Smith most of the time is not. Nineteenth century British literature, want world to know about the good deed, frustration, urge to compensate and punish on reality of the motives. Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky; Dickens. Lottery winner, quadriplegic. Man who loses his leg, back to normal eventually, Raskolnikov kills woman and wants to progress. World, universe, God has judged him. Reconcile by putting self in shoes of impartial spectator.
34:09Woody Allen film, "Crimes and Misdemeanors," Martin Landau, Jerry Orbach [Alan Alda?]. End of movie, perfectly content. Woody Allen's moral universe: devoid of justice. "Match Point." O.J. Simpson: what does he think about himself? Power of self-deception. We do want to go on with our life. Smith affirms remorse view, different from Woody Allen movie--could be his time, his class, his circle of people; could be exhorting. Notes that we are the more anxious to know about praise or blame when we are uncertain about society. Poets vs. mathematicians. Natural philosophers, physics; nothing about moral philosophers or political economists. Previous podcast about groupthink. Newton vs. Leibnitz: lots of backstabbing, Newton not all that serene, mathematician friends, poets name names, cabals. NYTimes Book Reviews, patting backs of friends and slicing up enemies.
40:23All-wise author of nature "more or less pleased"... Author of nature male. Vice-gerent on earth. We have been deputized to police each other. Divine plan of self-motivation implies also that we should judge others, motivate them in turn. Higher tribunal. Man in your breast, supposed impartial and well-informed spectator. Never directly judged. Onion, spiral, comments. Praise-worthiness. Man is sometimes astonished. Chapter 2 of Part III: human enterprise, we go through life and we want people to respect us and we want to respect ourselves. Thinking about virtues is actually virtuous. Instead of Prozac; but time-consuming reading Smith. Religion inculcator of these things, bishop example, established religion often does this, people react, warns against that. "Can we wonder that...?"
47:47Chapter 3, authority of conscience. Moral depth perception. Earthquake in China. "Let us suppose that the great empire of China.... If he was to lose his little finger... paltry misfortune of his own." We are self-centered, caring is not as heart-felt. Hundreds of millions of his brethren--in the 19th century that have been startling in Britain. Losing one's finger vs. dying. "But what makes this difference...?" Would not kill 100 million people to save one's finger. "How come it?" Not the soft power of humanity, stronger power: reason, principle, conscience, great judge of our conduct. Real littleness of ourselves. "It is not the love of our neighbour, it is not the love of mankind, which upon many occasions prompts us to the practice of those divine virtues. It is a stronger love, a more powerful affection, which generally takes place upon such occasions; the love of what is honourable and noble, of the grandeur, and dignity, and superiority of our own characters." What motivates us to do good deeds isn't that we are truly altruistic, but that we would not respect ourselves and there is something universal about that. Not feeble spark of benevolence, but rather deep moral code.
57:02What one makes their self-interest. Create our own utility functions; can get pleasure from doing the right thing. Creates spirals. Can become routine. Can care only about family; get urged to go wider. Secret pleasure "what is honourable and noble...". Turn that toward wisdom. Noticing virtue and morality uses that, but reconciling. Sordid: love of distinction gets channeled in a way that any sordidness that would come out of it is self-repressing, keep you from feeling superior. Wisdom vs. goodness; Platonic justice. Superior of the multitude. Jewish expression, exhortation: a person should have in his pocket a piece of paper saying "From dust I was created, from dust I will return," and in the other pocket a piece of paper saying "The universe was created for me." Expectations of what I am to achieve and everything turns on that. In one, I'm nothing, in the other, I'm no lower than the angels. Got to have both. Go through life with that tension: have to have pride, but not too much pride. Not happy middle: can't just take the mean nor even each at the right moment. In Smith, curious tension, duality, mob of humankind, coarse clay. Not thinking so much of the average person, but also rareness of wisdom, everyone's got the same basic faculties. Egalitarian vs. sense of superiority. Most people are scum, depraved state of mankind; man within lies to us, conscience fools us. Hard to do the right thing, but we can rise above that. Smith is exhorting us. Superiority in the egalitarianism, somehow reconcile. Rich picture of humanity: can rise above our coarse clay.
1:07:07Liberalism. Smith, Jesus or Moses of Liberalism. Classical liberalism. "When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble?" Active matter of choice. After that: Two sets of philosophers who talk about moral duty: whining and melancholy moralists, do-goodism, love your neighbor as much as yourself. Affected and sentimental sadness. We don't need to expend a lot of emotional energy on those we can neither serve nor hurt. Pragmatist. We should only care about those whom we can serve or hurt. But maybe something to be said for those we cannot serve or hurt. Could give to this charity, buy this kind of meat, Peter Singer, animal rights. Trade issue. Who can we serve or hurt? Stoics, love yourself only as much as you love your neighbor. Tempering your self-love. Affection between parent and child, evolutionary remark, asymmetry. Ten commandments: doesn't say to love your parents, can't command love. If a stoic's son died, stoic may not show so much grief; off-putting, even improper. Losing your arm or leg and keep commanding officers, all for Stoicism. Sense another viewpoint in the presence of other people. Dialectical moment, next layer, judge your sentiments, judge of a judge, recursivity, self-improvement, self-control. Classic view of English gentleman, Rudyard Kipling's poem, If.
1:18:30Guy with wooden leg, guy within the breast. "Time, the great and universal comforter, gradually composes the weak man to the same degree of tranquillity which a regard to his own dignity and manhood teaches the wise man to assume in the beginning." All on the same path of moral learning, or same source, emanator, convergence. Kirzner on entrepreneurship, we tend to notice what is in our interest to notice. Robinson Crusoe on his island. Man who struggles the least. Did Smith have children? Hubris there to suggest that people who have gone through horrific tragedy such as loss of child soon or eventually recover. Amiable and respectable virtues. One's own pressing concerns and needs. Stiff and dry can be improper. Different life styles: in solitude we tend to brood on ourselves; conversation of a friend brings us to a better temper and a stranger even a better temper. Universal humanity. Travel. Fight, yelling, and phone rings: you assume a normal tone of voice. This isn't me. Man within the breast passage, ideal means idea. Not a positive man in the breast, but sleeping spectator. His duty to home, so he has to have someone else he's reporting to. Conscience itself has a duty. When you are up, you feel big, you don't care. Imperatives. War, war negotiation. Anti-governmentalization theme. Subjects almost perfectly innocent but punished as if they were guilty. Unlucky persons. "General contagion"--"in a nation distracted by faction." True party man. Candor selected out: "The real, revered, and impartial spectator, therefore, is, upon no occasion, at a greater distance than amidst the violence and rage of contending parties. To them, it may be said, that such a spectator scarce exists any where in the universe." Got up to Part III, Chapter III.

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