Adam Smith: Father of Economics by Jesse Norman

I’m very glad I read this. I mainly knew of Smith that he wrote The Wealth of Nations and a rarely read book called The Theory of Moral Sentiments; that he explained how productive a division of labor can be; that he was a very good friend of David Hume; and that he is viewed as a champion of “the free market”, especially by libertarians and so-called “conservatives” (who sometimes wear Adam Smith ties around their right-wing necks). The most important thing I learned about Smith was that he wasn’t a libertarian at all. He understood that a market economy cannot work properly without government regulation. He also knew that economic decisions cannot be divorced from politics or morality.

I’ll quote from the book’s last chapter, “Why It Matters”:

How can the benefits of markets be safeguarded and extended, and their ill-effects contained?… We need a new master-narrative for our times. We need better frameworks of public understanding, better explanations … through which we can come to terms with these issues. But to create them, we must return to the dawn of our economic modernity and to Adam Smith himself. Not to Smith the caricature one-note libertarian alternately celebrated by his partisans and denounced by his detractors, but to what Smith actually thought, across all his writings, from ethics to jurisprudence to political economy…

The real Smith was not an intellectual turncoat who switched from altruism in The Theory of Moral Sentiments to egoism in The Wealth of Nations. He was not a market fundamentalist, an economic libertarian, or in that strong sense a laissez-faire economist. He was not an advocate of selfishness, … the creator of homo economicus or the founder of predatory capitalism… He is rightly called the father of economics, conceptually because he was the first to put markets squarely at the center of economic thought, and practically because there are few if any economists … who do not stand in his intellectual debt….But his political economy ranges far wider that economics alone, and he could with equal justice be considered one of the founding father of sociology….

For many people, Smith’s political economy will always hold center stage; both as a model of economic analysis and for his specific insights into human behavior, markets, trade, specialization and the division of labor, taxation and the negative effect of subsidies, bounties and protection. Others will admire his moral egalitarianism, his feeling for the underdog, his belief in the importance of dignity and respectability to people’s status and sense of self, the way he minimizes inequality within his “natural system of liberty”, his devastating attack on crony capitalism, his … theory of human development, his historical analysis of the supersession of feudalism by commerce and his extremely subtle exploration and defense of commercial society… Still others will recognize the foundational importance of his theory of moral and social norms….

We have a president who ignores moral and social norms, whose greed is without limit and who fully embraces crony capitalism. But he’s a Republican, so most people would say he’s following in Adam Smith’s footsteps. That does Smith a disservice. The truth is that a progressive Democrat like Senator Elizabeth Warren is much closer to Smith. She believes in capitalism but understands that the government has a crucial role in making sure markets work for the benefit of society as a whole. That is pure Adam Smith.


The Metaphysics and Ethics of Relativism by Carol Rovane

I would have to read this book at least one more time in order to feel confident about summarizing the conclusions the author reaches. However, here’s my impression after reading it once. As I understand her aims, Carol Rovane wants to clearly explain what relativism is with respect to science and ethics, and then determine whether we should endorse relativism with respect to either of those domains.

She begins by criticizing what she calls “the prevailing, consensus view” of relativism, which she says relies on the idea of disagreement. This is the idea that relativism arises “with a certain kind of disagreement that is said to be, first of all, ‘irresoluble’ [i.e. unsolvable], but also, second, ‘irresoluble’ for the specific reason that both parties are right” [15-16]. Rovane prefers defining relativism in terms of alternatives, which may or may not involve disagreement, and which are themselves explainable in terms of “normative insularity”.

According to Rovane, relativists believe that some alternative views in science or ethics are cut off from other scientific or ethical views. Logic neither “mandates, licenses or prohibits” inferences between them, so two people can hold alternative views about science or ethics and logic has nothing to say about the alternatives [94]. It’s as if, metaphorically speaking, people can occupy different scientific or ethical worlds. Non-relativists, on the other hand, believe that all truth bearers are logically related, either directly or indirectly. My scientific views aren’t insulated from your scientific views, and your ethical views aren’t insulated from mine. We all occupy the same scientific world and the same ethical world.

Rovane goes so far as to label the non-relativist and relativist positions in terms of how many “worlds” they mandate. What she calls “unimundialism” is the non-relativistic view that there is only one world (in which there is no “normative insularity” between propositions in science or ethics). “Multimundialism” is the relativistic view that there are many worlds (in which there is “normative insularity” between some scientific or ethical propositions). 

I think the conclusion she reaches is that scientific theories apply to a single world, so it’s best not to think of science in unimundial or non-relativistic terms. Reality is one, so alternative scientific theories can’t be equally correct. But unlike scientists, who all study the same world, people grow up and live their daily lives in various social conditions. These social conditions help determine which behavior is morally correct for them. Rovane thinks it’s fair to say, therefore, metaphorically speaking, that people inhabit different ethical worlds depending on their particular social conditions. Hence, multimundialism or relativism is an acceptable view with respect to ethics.

To help justify her relativistic conclusion regarding ethics, Rovane asks us to imagine two women. One woman was brought up in Europe or America and accepts the ethical importance of autonomy, i.e. every individual’s right to make their way in the world according to their own needs and desires while respecting the needs and desires of other people. The other woman was brought up in a village in India and sincerely believes she has an ethical obligation to obey her parents, even if it means giving up her right to pursue her own needs and desires.  Rovane argues that these two women live in very different ethical worlds. Their societies are so different when it comes to ethical issues that each woman is acting ethically, even though they are following very different paths and choosing to obey very different ethical principles.

Nietzsche on Morality by Brian Leiter (2nd Edition)

Leiter concentrates on Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality. He argues that Nietzsche was a naturalist and his primary goal was to convince the best people that they shouldn’t pay so much attention to standard Christian morality. It’s time for the revaluation of all values! But only for the strongest, most able among us. They’re the ones who can understand Nietzsche’s message and achieve great things if they can rise above the morality of the herd. Although it’s fine to be nice to less talented people. Just don’t let it hold you back if you’re especially strong and talented.

On the Genealogy of Morality by Friedrich Nietzsche, translated by Maudmarie Clark and Alan J. Swensen

On the Genealogy of Morality (more often translated as “On the Genealogy of Morals”) is Nietzsche’s attempt to explain why many of us subscribe to Judeo-Christian morality, and why we’re wrong to do so.

The book is divided into three treatises. In the first treatise, Nietzsche argues that there was an ancient distinction between “good” and “bad”. “Good” referred to the powerful, i.e. the nobility; “bad” referred to the weak, i.e. the slaves. Then Judaism and Christianity popularized a new distinction, replacing “bad” with “evil”. “Good” people were now those who followed strictures like the Golden Rule and evil people were those who didn’t. Judeo-Christian morality embraces ideas like compassion for the weak in place of respect (including self-respect) for the strong. It is “slave morality”.

The second treatise describes the origins of punishment in the ancient relationship between creditor and debtor and the subsequent creation of the guilty conscience. God was erected as the ultimate creditor to which we owe absolutely everything. We are not worthy. We feel guilt. Nietzsche says that having a guilty conscience is a kind of sickness. We should accept the fact that we all have a fundamental “will to power” or, what he says is an equivalent phrase, an “instinct for freedom”. If we suppress our will to power, if we do not act as we will, our internal energy bursts forth in other ways. We become sick. We suffer. 

According to Nietzsche, bad conscience should really be wed to “the unnatural inclinations, all those aspirations to the beyond, to that which is contrary to the senses, contrary to the instincts, contrary to nature, contrary to the animal — in short, the previous ideals which … are hostile to life, ideals of those who libel the world” (section 24).

Not everyone recommends reading the third treatise. It is an extended rant concerning the ill effects of religion as practiced by the “ascetic priest”. To quote Nietzsche: “the ascetic ideal and its sublime-moral cult, this most ingenious, most unsuspected and most dangerous systematizing of all the instruments of emotional excess under the aegis of holy intentions, has inscribed itself in a terrible and unforgettable way into the entire history of man” (section 21). But not all is lost: “It is from the will to truth’s becoming conscious of itself that from now on — there is no doubt about it — morality will gradually perish” (section 27).

Nietzsche apparently believes that the will to power or instinct for freedom is such a large part of human psychology that it is foolish to deny it. In order to live good, healthy lives, we need to create our own morality, one that meets our need for power and freedom, if we are capable of doing so. This does not necessarily mean that we must treat other people badly. We just have to remember that we should always come first. It isn’t surprising that this philosophy appeals to some people, since it is awfully one-dimensional. Fortunately, cooperation, compassion and even altruism are natural too.  (4/2/12)

Noncognitivism in Ethics by Mark Schroeder

Non-cognitivism (with or without the hyphen) in ethics is the view that ethical statements do not describe features of actions or agents, but rather express attitudes of the speaker regarding those actions or agents. Quoting the philosopher Simon Blackburn: “Hence, it is supposed, there is nothing ethical to know, for knowledge aims to track or represent independent truths about things” (The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy). Mark Schroeder describes non-cognitivism, less clearly, as a non-descriptivist view that seeks “to explain the meaning of words by other means than by saying what they are about”.

Schroeder analyzes a number of 20th century non-cognitivist theories, including emotivism, prescriptivism and expressivism. He finds all of them lacking in various ways, especially in their failure to adequately explain how we actually use ethical language and reason about ethical subjects. But he also believes that non-cognitivist theories correctly draw attention to the fact that there is more to meaning than truth-conditions.

It seems to me that non-cognitivist theories are basically correct, but in a limited sense. We cannot analyze ethical statements in terms of attitudes, as some non-cognitivists (used to) do. For example, “Stealing is wrong” does not literally mean anything like “I disapprove of stealing and everyone else should too”. “Stealing is wrong” means that stealing conflicts with the moral rules. But what such a statement means in another sense, i.e. what we can conclude when someone says that stealing is wrong, is that the speaker has a certain negative attitude toward stealing and thinks that other people should have the same attitude. This is what it “means” or shows when someone says that stealing is wrong, although “stealing is wrong” has a different literal meaning. 

It’s obvious that ethical statements aren’t descriptions; they’re evaluations. They say how the world should be, not how it is, even though many of them are grammatically similar to descriptions and have literal meanings that imply that they are descriptive of some state of affairs, i.e. that some action is in harmony or conflict with certain moral rules or that some agent tends to obey or disobey those rules. Stating that an action is in conflict with a rule sounds like a description and has the force of a description — that is such a statement’s literal meaning. But making such a statement is evidence for a different state of affairs; it means that the speaker is opposed to the action in question and thinks other people should oppose it too.  (10/23/11)

The Sources of Normativity by Christine M. Korsgaard

Professor Korsgaard argues that ethical normativity or value results from autonomous agents like ourselves reflecting on what we ought to do and then endorsing a rational course of action, i.e., a course of action based on reasons we can truthfully endorse. This is “reflective endorsement”. Actions and the reasons for those actions are good if they are well-considered and promote our “practical identity”, the conception of ourselves as valuable beings with lives worth living. And since we value our own humanity, we should value the humanity of others as well. 

Korsgaard says that obligations only exist in the first-person perspective: “in one sense, the obligatory is like the visible: it depends on how much of the light of reflection is on”. She also believes that we are subject to moral laws that we ourselves create (until we as individuals change those laws).  

She admits, however, that her argument will fail to convince someone who is completely skeptical about morality. She does not provide a non-moral foundation for morality (who could?). What Korsgaad does provide is an explanation of the role morality plays in our lives and how trying to be moral contributes to our self-image as proper human beings. 

Included in the book are responses from four well-known philosophers. I thought that their criticisms were more sensible and understandable than Korsgaard’s replies.  (5/2/11)

Moral Clarity: a Guide for Grown-Up Idealists by Susan Neiman

Abraham did the right thing when he argued with God about God’s intention to kill everyone in Sodom and Gomorrah (not when he agreed to sacrifice his son Isaac). By standing up for his ethical ideals in opposition to the demands of his religion, Abraham foreshadowed the values of the Enlightenment.

Neiman believes that we should adopt certain key Enlightenment values, in opposition to cultural trends on both the right and the left (but mostly the right). She focuses on happiness, reason, reverence and hope. She contends that Enlightenment thinkers understood the limitations of reason. They also realized that progress is not inevitable. But thinkers like Kant showed the way to a universalist morality that favors reason over tradition, knowledge over superstition, and hope over fear.  (12/26/10)