Thursday, May 6, 2010

Free Enterprise, Sympathy, and Virtue

This is a continuation of posts from Paul Zak's book Moral Markets. Chapter 2 was written by Robert C. Solomon with the central question of, "What does Adam Smith mean by sympathy?" Smith's lesser known text The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) was concerned with the nature of morality and right behavior. Since he erected much of his arguments upon the foundation of sympathy as a natural sentiment ("natural" meaning not constructed, but, part of our biological make up) this is an important exploration.

For more information about sympathy beyond the discussion of this post TMS is available for free on the Economic Library of Liberty. Also, Russ Roberts had a five part podcast with Dan Klein discussing TMS. Here is a link to their Part I discussion which includes Smith diving into sympathy.

Like the previous chapter in Moral Markets this chapter strikes at the caricature of Adam Smith and markets. Adam Smith never said, in any way, greed is good. Instead, Solomon argues that Smith is in the vein of Aristotelian thought which defines humanity as, "the capacity for virtue and a desire for excellence according to one's place in society." And, IF Smith is Aristotelian, he would understand that the basis of society is a sense of community because virtue must be practiced with others in order to be sharpened.

Solomon goes into length about Kant and his approach to morality that asserted that moral decisions are made rationally with calculation. This is opposed to the more sentimental approach of Smith where we have inclinations and feelings towards others. These finer feelings like sympathy are what drive our morality according to Smith. So, that begs the question posed earlier, "What is sympathy?" Here it gets very interesting. Solomon points out that Smith and his contemporaries did not currently have the word "empathy" at their disposal. So, sympathy as Smith used it had a two-fold meaning "To feel sorry for" and "sharing the feelings of others" (Solomon argues the latter is Smith's favored use of the word the word we currently think of as "empathy"). Empathy is a pre-requisite to sympthay but empathy need not require sympathy. For example, in order to "feel sorry" for someone losing their job I would need to identify first with the feeling of losing a job. But, identification itself (empathy) doesn't necessarily lead me to sympathy. Put another way, empathy is the vehicle for sympathy.

There are several layers of empathy that Solomon discusses here, but, defers to Zak's Chapter 12 article. The main takeaway from this chapter for me (my brain is incapable at present to understand the importance of the deeper philosophical issues that Solomon delves into) is that Smith believed everyone could engage in this sympathy and indeed it was a natural part of being human. Moreover, these finer sentiments are the basis for the market economy, not, self interest.  Finally, community is vital to the development of virtue, the cultivation of which there was no higher goal (according to Aristotle).

To be honest, I'm not sure about that last point that Solomon makes. I'm certain that self interest is not the only thing operating in the market economy; however, it strikes me that self interest is the central reason why people act in the market. They are not thinking of others primarily, but, what others have produced or can produce for them. Perhaps they only care about this because they have a family to support and the self interest in the marketplace really masks the reason for that self interest which is love for their family? Because I can't dialogue with Solomon it is somewhat difficult to know. Philosophy is important but makes my head hurt.   



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