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Old Dec 27th 2013, 11:28 AM
Tom Palven Tom Palven is offline
Cranky Curmudgeon
Join Date: Nov 2010
Posts: 2,058
Default Adam Smith: The Theory of Moral Sentiments

"This Liberty fund edition of 1982 is an exact photographic reproduction of the edition published by Oxford University Press in 1976," 412 pages.

Disclaimer: The opinions in this book review are entirely my own, and you may be in total disagreement with them upon reading the book.

Conclusion: I was disappointed the book, finding it to be very outdated. Although it was not required reading in my economics courses at Cornell, (The Wealth of Nations was) I had taken it out of the library and perused it, and I thought I had found it to be more useful than I find it now.

Summary: Smith seemed to have the ethics of the Boy Scouts of America's oath-- "A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent." Additionally, he seemed to be honest, and to have a benevolent worldview. He expressed his agreement with the early Stoics in several areas. On page 219 he states:
Every man, as the Stoics used to say, is first and principally recommended to his own care; and every man is certainly, in every respect, fitter and abler to take care of himself than any other person.

Smith deals with the question of "sympathy" quite often, which seems to equate more with "empathy" in today's usage. He says on page 141:
" 'When our neighbor,' says Epictetus, 'loses his wife or his son, there is nobody who is not sensible that this is a human calamity, although a natural event altogether according to the ordinary course of things; but, when the same thing happens to ourselves, then we cry out, as if we had suffered the most dreadful misfortune. We ought, however, to remember how we were affected when this accident happened to another, and such as we were in his case, such ought we to be in our own.'
What befalls ourselves we should regard as what befalls our neighbor, or, what comes to the same thing, as our neighbor regards what befalls us."

The above statement seems to be about as close as Smith gets to expressing the Golden Rule, which surprised me because I thought that I had picked up the idea of the Golden Rule as a moral/ethical standard from him.

In the index under the letter "C" there are 21 pages listed for Christianity, and references to Caesar, Julius, and to such obscure (to me, at least) philosophers as Campbell, T.D. and Chalmers, Alexander. And although Smith used extensive quotes from many different British, French, German, and other European philosophers, there not a single reference to Confucius, nor is there a reference to the Golden Rule anywhere.

Confucius is alleged to have said that all of human morality/ethics could be expressed in one word, xiang-hu, meaning reciprocity which is usually considered to be the origin of the Golden Rule which Jesus mentioned in his Sermon-on-the-Mount some 300 years later, so it seems surprising not to see it here in a book on morality. This may be at least partially due to the fact that in 1759 China was a closed society, and it's likely that little was known about China in the West, and that few Chinese works could be translated into English.

One paragraph in the book that mentions China is co-incidentally the only thing in the book that seemed completely recognizable to me, page 136:

" Let us suppose that the great empire of China , with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life...And when all this fine philosophy was over, when these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or pleasure... as if no such accident had happened... If he was to lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep tonight; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred million of his brethren..."

The above statement might be an accurate summation of Smith's economic theories- that even good, humane, people tend to be most concerned about their own self-interest and the welfare of the family and friends closest to them. This would contradict the views of Marx regarding a potential Workers Paradise or that of John F. Kennedy that people should not ask what their country (nation-state) can do for them, but what they can do for their nation-state, and may give us a clue as to why centralized command economies seem to be relatively unproductive compared to laissez-faire.
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