Moral Philosophy

What follows is the fourth installment in a series explaining the context and deeper meaning of all eight songs on my band’s album all about Adam Smith “Silent Revolution.”  Listen to the entire album with audio commentary/explanation here. This song is inspired by text found in Part 1, Chapter 2 of Wealth of Nations.

The book commonly referred to as “Wealth of Nations” is actually an abbreviation of its full-length title “An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.” The question at this time was why, amidst millennia of abject poverty and subsistence-level living, a few countries mostly in the northwest of Europe had started to have a significantly better standard of living. For some, the answer was obvious: the farther from the equator you were, and the whiter your skin was, the more superior you were. For others, it was a country’s ability to hoard gold or other fine metals. Or maybe it was that good-ol’ Protestant work ethic? Smith rejected all of these explanations and instead used Wealth of Nations to argue that a nation’s standard of living is determined by its ability to utilize specialization and the division of labor.

Smith went farther than just rejecting the racial explanation as a determinant of wealth. He saw all humans as essentially equal in worth and dignity. What we perceive to be inequalities is actually the result of, and not the cause of, the division of labor.

The difference of natural talents in different men, is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause, as the effect of the division of labor. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education. When they came in to the world, and for the first six or eight years of their existence, they were, perhaps, very much alike, and neither their parents nor play-fellows could perceive any remarkable difference.

Smith uses the comparison of a street porter and a philosopher as extremes of social standing. One is near the lowest status of society as far as prestige and perceived skill level, the other considered to be a wise and distinguished profession. But before they enter into schools or the labor force, their skills are basically equivalent. Through different levels of education, parenting, and circumstance, these previously-indistinguishable individuals end up working two jobs with incredibly different reputations in society. Yet deep down the two people are not so different.

By nature a philosopher is not in genius and disposition half so different from a street porter.

This is a radical contrast to any “nature” arguments in a “nature versus nurture” debate. This specifically departs from Aristotilean thinking that certain people like the Barbarians were meant to be slaves (thus explains our lyric “so Aristotle was wrong about the slaves”). The commercial economy, in addition to giving us the capability to innovate and flourish, also gives us deep material inequality that deceives us into thinking we are less equal in worth or dignity than we actually are.

It is the necessary, though very slow and gradual, consequence of a certain propensity in human nature…the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.

Just as with Smith’s conception of sympathetic fellow-feeling, this propensity to engage in commerce is universal across people. In fact, it is what separates us from other animals. Unlike dogs, for example, humans are able to engage in trade and specialize.

It is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals, which seem to know neither this nor any species of contracts…The strength of the mastiff is not in the least supported either by the swiftness of the greyhound, or by the sagacity of the spaniel, or by the docility of the shepherd’s dog.

So the next time you go down to your corner store to buy a pack of gum or toothpaste, think to yourself, “damn, it feels good to be human.”

The complete lyrics to “The Street Porter & the Philosopher“:

Well at six years old we seem to be
In ability nearly the same soon changed by modernity
And our innate desire to truck barter or exchange
And you’re not any higher in worth or dignity

Whether you’re paid to think or move on street
Your disposition and genius were made in equity
In isolation they’d appear the same
Still that philosopher remains so vain

But the fellow dogs separately
Can’t utilize their different skills: strength, swiftness or docility
From no innate desire to truck barter or exchange
And you’re not any higher in worth or dignity

Whether you’re paid to think or move on street
Your disposition and genius were made in equity
In isolation they’d appear the same
Still that philosopher remains so vain

It’s our innate desire to truck barter or exchange
And you’re not any higher in worth or dignity



What follows is the third installment in a long-overdue series explaining the context and deeper meaning of all eight songs on my band’s album all about Adam Smith “Silent Revolution.”  Listen to the entire album with audio commentary/explanation here. This song is inspired by text found in Part 3, Chapter 2 of Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Man naturally desires not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love…he desires, not only praise, but praiseworthiness.

We are motivated, Smith says, to behave in a way that not only garners approbation of those around us but to live in a way that makes us the proper beneficiary of that approbation. Our love for society and the desire to share in the sentiments of others leads us towards cooperative and ethical behavior.

To judge our actions to the best of our abilities, we use our capacity for sympathetic fellow-feeling to put ourselves in the shoes of our peers and see what they would think of our actions. But oftentimes our interactions with others lack a third party to judge our actions and sometimes we engage in behavior without even a second party directly involved. Smith develops a mechanism for how we judge the propriety of our actions known as the “impartial spectator.” This spectator is an imaginary figure that looks onward at our behavior from the outside, full of all the information others may lack that is needed to judge our actions.

But in order to attain this satisfaction, we must become the impartial spectators of our own character and conduct. We must endeavor to view them with the eyes of other people, or as other people are likely to view them.

If we have the opportunity to cheat on an exam or find a wallet on the street, what pulls us towards “doing the right thing” when we could reasonably get away with unethical behavior? It is this desire to be lovely, the desire to be worthy of our peers’ praise. If we ace an exam and win lots of awards, we have an empty feeling inside, knowing we don’t deserve the accompanying accolades.

On the contrary, if we are doubtful about [being the natural object of approbation], we are often, upon that very account, more anxious to gain their approbation and provided we have not already, as they say, shaken hands with infamy…

This explanation is an interesting contrast to many predecessors, contemporaries, and later thinkers who explain human morality as coming directly from God or purely utilitarian motivations derived from expected reciprocity. Our innate desire to belong, be understood, and share in the sentiments of others is what drives us to live ethically and the impartial spectator is our best conception of how our peers’ will judge our actions.

The song is in a sense a love song to our own impartial spectator. Here are the complete lyrics to Impartial Spectator:

How am I to know if what I do is right or wrong
I’m seeking approbation from the need to get along
And to be lovely, but not just to be loved.
Not only loved, but lovely in your eyes

Tell me how it seems from the outside looking in,
I want to be worthy of your praise devoid of sin
And to be lovely, but not just to be loved.
Not only loved, but lovely in your eyes
And to be lovely, but not just to be loved.
Not only loved, but lovely in your eyes

The emptiness of fame when the public misconstrues,
Fills me with anxiety, ‘cuz you know it’s not true
And to be lovely, but not just to be loved.
Not only loved, but lovely in your eyes
And to be lovely, but not just to be loved.
Not only loved, but lovely in your eyes

Check out this artistic rendition of Smith’s Impartial Spectator on our very own unisex t-shirt (Available for purchase at the Theory of Moral Sentiments price of $17.59).


What follows is the second installment in a long-overdue series explaining the context and deeper meaning of all eight songs on my band’s album all about Adam Smith “Silent Revolution.” The first post for the titular track can be found here. Listen to the entire album with audio commentary/explanation here. This song is inspired by the first section and chapter of Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Of the many misunderstandings of Adam Smith’s work, the idea that Smith saw humans as being motivated entirely by rational self-interest is the one that looms largest. The robotic Homo Economicus model of human nature so dominant in modern economic theory is far from how Smith explained human behavior. The first song on Silent Revolution, called “Fellow-Feeling,” invokes his idea that the basis of human behavior is not in rational utility maximization, but rather sympathetic fellow-feeling and a desire to share in the sentiments of others.

The first of Smith’s two books, Theory of Moral Sentiments, starts with this:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principals in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others…for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous and humane…

A few things to emphasize here: 1) as selfish as we may appear to be and often can be, we exhibit behavior suggesting we are interested in the well-being of others ; 2) there is universality in his analysis (“by no means confined to the virtuous and human”). Smith was writing specifically in contrast to David Hume and Bernard Mandeville‘s writings that took more of a utility maximization perspective. People’s tendencies to exhibit altruistic, sympathetic, or ethical behavior could be viewed through a redefined utility function, they argued. In other words, we are nice to each other and follow rules because it’s in our best interest. Smith is not convinced. He gives a number of examples where we put ourselves in the shoes of others, with no discernible self-interest or rational calculation.

When we see a stroke aimed and just ready to fall upon the leg or arm of another person, we naturally shrink and draw back our own leg or our own arm…the mob, when they are gazing at a dancer on the slack rope, naturally writhe and twist and balance their own bodies…persons of delicate fibers and a weak constitution of body complain, that in looking on the sores and ulcers which are exposed by beggars in the streets, they are apt to feel an itching or uneasy sensation…

As another example, consider instances where we cry while watching movies. Our tears will not help the characters in the movie and the characters are often fictional and/or experiencing fictional events; there can be no explanation for our tears being out of expected reciprocity or benefit to anyone. So what gives? Smith would say our impulse towards fellow-feeling has put ourselves in the shoes of the characters concerned, and though we cannot feel exactly as they do, we respond as if it were happening – in part – to us. In his examples, seeing someone about to be hit, struggling for balance on a tight rope, or experiencing severe discomfort from homelessness, our reaction is so instantaneous that it’s hard to imagine it being the result of a rational calculation or perceived personal benefit.

This tendency towards sympathetic fellow-feeling not only governs our behavior, it is the basis for explaining what we truly desire. Rather than pursuing a straightforward utilitarian life of wealth, fame, and prosperity, what we seek is for others to share our sentiments. We want them to understand how we feel, like what we like, and – more importantly – dislike what we dislike. We can all relate to the giddiness of sharing with friends works of art that we enjoy. Knowing that they enjoy it as we do gives us a deep pleasure.

A man is mortified when, after having endeavoured to divert the company, he looks around and sees that nobody laughs at his jests but himself…When we have read a book or poem so often that we can no longer find any amusement in reading it by ourselves, we can still take pleasure in reading it to a companion…But both the pleasure and the pain are always felt so instantaneously, and often upon such frivolous occasions, that it seems evident that neither of them can be derived from any such self-interested consideration.

Similarly, when our friends dislike people or things that we disliked, we are even more pleased (more on this in the future). To me, Smith believes that the deep pursuit of our lives is to feel we are correctly understood by the peers we care about, and to be worthy of accompanying praise.

Nestled towards the end of this section in TMS is a quick teaser on how Smith explains our ethical behavior.

We sympathize even with the dead, and overlooking what is of real importance in their situation, that awful futurity which awaits them, we are chiefly affected by those circumstances which strike our senses, but can have no influence upon their happiness. It is miserable, we think, to be deprived of the light of the sun; to be shut out from life and conversation; to be laid in the cold grave…It is from this very illusion of the imagination, that the foresight of our own dissolution is so terrible to us, and that the idea of those circumstances, which undoubtedly can give us no pain when we are dead, makes us miserable while we are alive. And from thence arises one of the most important principles in human nature, the dread of death, the great poison to the happiness, but the great restraint upon the injustice of mankind.

Through the mechanism of fellow-feeling, Smith says we put ourselves in the position of those we see that are dead and think “wow, that would really be a bummer to be that guy.” Again, mourning for someone that’s dead – especially one in fiction or someone you don’t know halfway across the world – cannot be explained through the lens of rational self-interest. Your tears cannot bring them back to life, being sad does not benefit you, and crying for a fictional character should have no real effect on your well-being. But from this tendency to sympathize with the dead, we refrain from killing each other and are given “the great restraint upon the injustice of mankind.” By understanding as best we can what it feels like to be dead – in the cold, dark grave, never again able to experience the pleasures of life – we aim to never put anyone in that situation nor put ourselves in that situation anytime soon.

So why can we sometimes be unethical? Aren’t there limits to our fellow-feeling? How does this square with the view of human nature found in Wealth of Nations and the market economy? Answers to all of that coming up later in this series!


The complete lyrics to “Fellow-Feeling”:

So I mourn for the dead, though they cannot hear my cries
What good is it unnoticed, what good is it to try
From that fear of cold and darkness, when imagined in that grave
Give power to restrain the injustice of mankind

The fortune of others, as I conceive
Not just the virtuous, or humane
However selfish that I may seem
Derive his sorrow
Though at ease I cannot feel his pain, imagination puts me in his place

The stroke is aimed (I shrink back) upon his arm
The beggar on the street, ulcers and sores
On the slackrope (I twist) the dancer writhes
Only conception
Yet enough to cause me that unease, the robust and feeble feel it too

To share the amusement of a book or a poem
And to enter in their sentiments just as if they were our own
The mortification when we jest and no one joins,
Feels so instantaneous that it cannot be self-love


P.S. here’s a selfie I took by the Adam Smith statue in Edinburgh last week


New podcast episode finally out. I interviewed Carson about The Ethics of Locavorism. Essentially, the question is: if we want to be ethical consumers, should locavorism be a priority in our consumption habits? I won’t spoil the answer, but we examine the case for locavorism through the environmental lens, economic lens, and trying to foster communities. Find the RSS feed here, iTunes here.

I’m currently reading Bourgeois Equality, Deirde McCloskey’s final installment in a trilogy. I have a lot of thoughts that will be for another day, but for now a quick observation…

Among the many ideas and arguments brought up in the trilogy, McCloskey criticizes modern-day economic thought as relying only on one of the seven principal virtues: prudence. Ethical philosophers and psychologists throughout time have recognized that human behavior is (and should be) guided not just by prudence (“rational self-interest”) but also by temperance, justice, courage, love, faith, and hope. Adam Smith, in Theory of Moral Sentiments, argued wonderfully about how human behavior guided only by any one of the four cardinal virtues (the first three plus prudence) was unreasonable and unethical. More to the point, mainstream economic analysis today is both incomplete and unreasonable to reduce all human behavior down to a rational utility maximization.

What dawned on me is how the economics discipline today is full of people worshipping this prudence-only mindset. I think the causation works both ways. On the one hand, individuals who themselves see problem-solving and behavior as largely rational calculated decisions will be disproportionately drawn to economics…because the framework they are going to be working with jives better with their own approach to life. On the other hand, students who study economics often start to shape their approach to life problems and policy decisions as if human behavior is only understood through prudence. After studying economics for a couple years, I recognize that I started to oversimplify behavioral analysis and ethics as “well, yeah, it’s in their self-interest.”

To non-economists the following parable may seem absurd, but to me at the time it sounded oddly sensical: the girlfriend of a roommate was visiting for the weekend; the roommate without the girlfriend felt this was a burden on his space and lifestyle, so he did some Coasean bargaining to allow this roommate’s girlfriend to visit and stay with them. They worked out some monetary deal to make the visit an agreeable event. Since they were sharing a room, the girlfriend visit meant the single roommate would have to sleep on the couch. What a drag! (For the record: I was not directly involved in this situation)

Another quick bit of evidence can be seen in experimental economics. Some experiments, like the dictator game or ultimatum game, are meant to isolate how altruistic humans can be in different scenarios when money is involved. Non-economists demonstrate more charity and altruism, even when the experiments are anonymous and no “self-interest” can be ascertained from their behavior. Undergraduate economics students, on the other hand, follow more closely to what “maximize utility” models would predict. Basically, they know the models. They know how they’re “supposed” to act. In a sense, they have shifted their decisions to emphasize prudence more than the other virtues. Like I said, the causation can work both ways, but I doubt that roommate would have engaged in some Coasean bargaining absent learning about the concept in economics classes. No society that I know of imposes a norm of private bargaining in such a household situation.

This reality unfortunately reinforces itself. Prudence-driven individuals are more likely to go into economics, economics is more likely to draw people towards a more prudence-based approach, and the discipline ends up staying focused on prudence only. People who are so aghast at the idea of rational self-interest being the sole driver of human behavior stop after Intro to Micro and go into other disciplines. In addition, the credibility of the subject to outsiders diminishes. On some levels, this is a fair decrease in credibility. In others, it means non-economists wrongly dismiss economic realities of scarcity and the laws of supply and demand when they shouldn’t.

I didn’t vote for President last time. A lot of people find this repugnant to some sort of degree. After all, the right to vote is something that people have risked their lives for over thousands of years to secure. Meh, so what.

I believe that a “reckless vote” is a lot worse than a “non-vote.” I think that a lot of people who vote do it based on bad reasons. Studies show that a decent chunk of people vote for candidates based on their personality only. That’s a reckless vote. I think that the large majority of voters are not as informed as they should be. Does anyone think that more than 0.1% of people voting for the Cook County judges to it on anything more than the Chicago Tribune endorsements and/or party affiliation? Am I obligated to vote just because I am a citizen? I believe voting for President is somewhat inefficient and irrational because my vote will not make a difference. I am registered to vote in Illinois, where Barack Obama will surely win. In that case, my vote is only going to be a “moral support” type thing and, frankly, I don’t want to feel in any way responsible for some of the policies he does.

Well, someone has to win Will, so you gotta vote for somebody. So do I have to vote for the lesser of two evils? Maybe I’ll vote for Gary Johnson. Johnson is the Libertarian Party nominee. He also happens to be a successful businessman, a popular ex-Governor of New Mexico, and the highest elected official to ever call for an end to the War on Drugs. Johnson ran for the GOP nomination but never had the chance to pick up steam because he was shut out of the debates. But at the end of the day, if I vote, I can realistically choose between voting for one of the two candidates who have a shot at winning or a candidate in hopes of increasing LP’s federal election funding.

I also think that voting, and democracy in general, have little to do with how “liberal” America is. A ranking of the freest and most democratic countries in the developed world shows a weak correlation. America isn’t too high on the democratic list compared to other developed countries, but also has some of the most permissive speech laws and economic liberties. I’d explain democracy and liberalism as a correlation thing, not a causation thing. America has the laws that it does because of our culture and history, not because we are all huge participants in the great government machine. Proponents of democracy don’t like to talk about ‘illiberal democracies’ like Russia that have formal schemes that resemble democracies but give terrible results.

So, why vote? To get better policy? In my case, Illinois will go easily to Obama. Because I have a moral obligation? Ok, then I’ll vote for a third party candidate that I genuinely am enthusiastic about.

Even Gary Johnson has ideas I disagree with. Hell, if I ran I’d probably disagree with myself. So every candidate is the “lesser of x evils” to the extent that no candidate will ever really be 100% in line with one’s beliefs. So when’s it appropriate to not vote, and when is it appropriate to just vote for one of the major party candidates? We’re not dealing with a Hitler vs. Stalin situation here, but I think most people agree that situation would warrant some sort of non-vote (in addition to a major uprising). So there’s a gray area. My next post, which hopefully will come soon, will deal with whom I would vote for in Barack vs. Mitt.

Will Wilkinson:

If, like [Peter] Singer, we are utilitarians, we need not be too vexed by the problem of identifying the best morality. The best morality–the one that produces the largest sum of happiness–is the morality of liberal market societies.

I find Wilkinson’s argument compelling, because liberal market society is the main source of moral progress in the modern world (some people disagree, but I think this is pretty obvious). As Peter Singer and many others have convincingly argued, global poverty is one of the most important ethical issues of our time. Innocent people (including children) suffer and day everyday from preventable causes, such as hunger, disease, and lack of clean water. Singer, being a utilitarian, argues that we all must give substantially more money to charity than we currently do. This seems right. But consider the historical evidence on people escaping severe poverty. How many lives have been saved by the kinds of charitable donations that Singer advocates? Relatively few. How many lives have been saved by societies transitioning toward market liberalism? An astronomical amount. In China alone, virtually the entire population (at the time just under one billion) was in severe poverty at the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. Thirty-five years later, according to Singer, just over 200 million Chinese (out of a population of about 1.3 billion) are living on less than $1.25 per day. In China alone, a shift toward market liberalism has brought many hundreds of millions of people out of severe poverty in just a few decades. So if you care about poor people, spreading market liberalism seems like the way to go more so than donating to charity (although the two are not, of course, mutually exclusive).

However, there’s good reason to think that consequentialism and the  morality that serves as the foundation of market liberal societies are mutually exclusive, because the morality of market liberalism is not consequentialist. As David Schmidtz points out, the utility-promoting institutions of market liberal societies depend in large part on their ability to create “conditions under which people can trust each other not to operate in an act-utilitarian way.” Effectively promoting utility depends largely on not acting on the motivation to promote utility.

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