Alexander Douglas reviews two books, that led me to some thoughts and considerations.
Systematic philosopher and public thinker
Sympathy not selfishness
By Eric Schliesser
The Infidel and The Professor
David Hume, Adam Smith, and the friendship that shaped modern thought
By Dennis Rasmussen
Just reading this first paragraph I could only think of Amartya Sen’s introduction to the 250th Anniversary edition of ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’. Google Books has made available a 48 page preview, that makes Sen’s revelatory introductory essay accessible. Mr. Douglas reduction of Smith to the level of ‘mascot’ is dismissive, not to speak of degrading !
Adam Smith has achieved his greatest fame neither as an economist nor as a moral philosopher but rather as a mascot. His name and image symbolize a single thought: that individuals considering only their own advantage can bring about a result that benefits others. Selfish actions can have, in fact, the consequences that unselfish actions have in intention. Smith has also widely been taken to have justified free-market liberalism with that thought.
Douglas opines, sometimes thoughtfully, and at other times, within the same paragraph, he lapses into flaccid ideology, or something resembling that rhetorical creature:
Schliesser argues that Smith’s thought amounts to a coherent system of “anthropic philosophy”: a comprehensive understanding of human life and all its social possibilities. In doing this, Schliesser seeks to renew the intellectual foundations of modern liberalism. Both projects require a proper appraisal of Smith, going well beyond the famous bromide about selfish actions having happy consequences.
As Mark Blaug once noted, “the prejudice that every action motivated by private gain must be antisocial by virtue of this fact alone was widely current in the 18th century”. Those who held this prejudice presumably believed that too few of the games we play in society are positive-sum for us to expect many social benefits to arise from individual self-interest. Smith’s claim was that, on the contrary, our social life is full of positive-sum games, or at least can be with the help of some institutional reform. Proving this involves a detailed moral psychology and an analysis of our social institutions. These are mostly found in his 1759 treatise, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and his much more famous work of 1776 on political economy, Wealth of Nations. Schliesser also finds a great deal of insight in Smith’s lesser-known early and unpublished works.
On the question of ‘Modern Liberalism’ it seems to have been answered, at least in part, by Liberalism : A Counter-History’ by Domenico Losurdo. It reads like a well deserved indictment!
Douglas then moves from ‘Sympathy’ to ‘The Impartial Spectator’, and a telling quote from H. L. Menken couched in moral cynicism, that riffs on the notion that God sees and knows every human action, as in Johnathan Edwards hysterical Protestantism.
Sympathy is also interestingly reflexive in Smith’s theory. As we observe someone and project ourselves into her situation, she also projects herself into her spectators, imagining what it would be like to observe herself from the outside and then feeling what she would feel in this case. From this root the tree of morality grows. Our natural projection into the imagined vision of an “impartial spectator” develops into moral conscience, which Smith calls “reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct”. But for all Smith’s lofty rhetoric, he isn’t far off H. L. Mencken’s definition of conscience as “the inner voice that warns us somebody may be watching”.
See D.D. Raphael’s ‘The Impartial Spectator: Adam Smith’s Moral Philosophy’ for a more concise and reasoned explanation of what that ‘Impartial Spectator’ might actually be!
Mr. Douglas rambles on at some length about The Wealth of Nations, and its impact on thought and action, since its publication. It could be argued that Smith once looked upon the rise of Capitalism as emancipatory, the poor no longer tied to a Landed Gentry, or long apprenticeships, but could strike out on their own to earn a living. ‘Wealth’ has been the ur text of the Neo-Liberals and their Trinity of Mises/Hayek/Friedman, and other apologists for the excesses of institutionalized Capitalist Greed.
Smith embraced ,within his writing, the two seemingly antithetical worlds of Capital and Morality. The Legacy of Smith awaits its successor. Perhaps Piketty will write such a volume?