20 January 2010

Notre Dame and Innsbruck

It is a sad day for study-abroad programs: Notre Dame is shutting down its program in Innsbruck (hat tip: Brad Birzer).

The year I spent in Innsbruck, my sophomore year at Notre Dame, was transformative for me. I learned more there, grew up more there, and forged deeper friendships there, than in perhaps any other single year of my life. I had hopes that my own children would one day go through the program and experience the exhilaration, joy, and adventure that I did.

I understand why they might want instead to hold the program in a big city. And Berlin is a great city. But I'm sure I speak for hundreds of other graduates of the Notre Dame Innsbruck program when I say that the memories I have of that year nestled in the valley of the Nordkette of the Austrian Alps I shall treasure forever.

12 January 2010

Smith's TMS and WN

GMU economist Pete Boettke asked recently, "What reasons would you postulate as to why [Adam Smith's] The Theory of Moral Sentiments came to be under-appreciated in ethics and philosophy, and the interpretation of The Wealth of Nations came to be constrained and distorted in economics and political economy?"

This is an interesting question to raise. I responded to his question on his blog, but I thought I would re-post my thoughts here as well. Here is what I wrote:


You're asking a few different questions, Pete. One is why TMS's influence faded and was eclipsed by WN. Another is what the connection between the two books is. A third is why people thought--and some still think--that there is a tension between the books.

Several things combined to explain the phenomenon addressed in the first question. I'll mention two: one philosophical, one psychological.

The philosophical explanation is that philosophers came to see TMS as lacking in a serious way, namely in providing a bona fide source of moral normativity. TMS looks for all the world like an empirical investigation into the mechanisms that give rise to moral judgments and into the factors that account for three phenomena: (1) the fact that all (or almost all) human beings transition during their lives from amoral infants to highly moralized adults; (2) the fact that all (or almost all) human societies generate a rough consensus about wherein morality consists; and (3) there is a significant overlap among the respective moral consensuses various human societies adopt.

The problem is that, irrespective of whether Smith's proposed explanations of these phenomena are correct, it's not clear that Smith provides any way for people to critize moral orders. If our moral judgments arise the way Smith describes, as the unintentional results of people attempting to serve their ends in the company of others, then that seems to reduce moral judgments to the status of mere strategems. It makes them hypothetical, rather than categorical, imperatives. And moral philosophers like their categorical imperatives. (Remember, too, that Kant was about to come onto the scene, and his attempt to ground categorical moral imperatives--partly in response to Smith's (and Hume's) challenges--came to dominate moral thought. Smith's program is very different from Kant's in its aims and methods, and thus Smith's program came to be seen as alien, not really moral philosophy at all. It was thus relegated to other disciplines like psychology or anthropology, or to the dustbin of history.)

The psychological reason, at least for the latter half of the 20th century in the British and American world, is that Smith is associated with a political and economic order that the vast majority of academics find distasteful, even morally repellant. It is psychologically very hard to separate the two. It's like asking people to consider whether Mein Kampf has any redeeming literary virtues. As a result, most people will not even read, let alone seriously consider, anything Smith wrote. Moral philosophers who are interested in the "Smithian" program would rather read Hume than Smith, since Hume is not associated with capitalism. (Humanities scholars who work on Smith must constantly combat the initial "why on earth would you work on HIM?" question, before getting people even to consider any substantive issues.)

A quick thought on why people might think there is a tension between TMS and WN. WN does not mention TMS; it does not discuss the "desire for mutual sympathy of sentiments" or the "impartial spectator"; it does not mention any of the cardinal virtues TMS described; and in the Index Smith prepared for WN, it identifies "self-love" as "the governing principle in the intercourse of human society." Moreover, there is none of the theological language in WN that was present in TMS. It's almost as if two different people wrote the books--a curious fact since Smith was revising them side by side throughout most of his adult life.

In a book of over 1000 pages, one would think there might be some discussion of the connection between Smith's only two books. Indeed, one might expect that there would be a deep and extended "conversation" between the two books. Alas, there is none of that.

That doesn't mean the two books don't go together or can't be reconciled. But it does mean, I think, that it's not simply foolish (as some claim) to suggest there might be an interesting tension here.

--Jim Otteson


08 January 2010

Update on the "Great Mind Fallacy"

The Forbes editorial I wrote is based on a paper I just had published in Social Philosophy and Policy entitled "Adam Smith and the Great Mind Fallacy." For those interested in the more detailed argument, the paper is available here.

Most issues of SP&P are very good; this one (vol. 27, issue 1, winter 2010) is as well. It collects several excellent papers from a distinguished group of scholars all addressing the general topic of "ownership and justice." I highly recommend the other papers as well.

06 January 2010

Government Experts and Adam Smith's Great Mind Fallacy

A new editorial by me for Forbes under (approximately) the above title, here. (There should be more to come in the future.) Post your thoughts or comments on the Forbes site!

Review of My Book

I just discovered this brief review of my book Actual Ethics on the blog "Goodness Is Cool." (What a cool name for a blog!)

Thanks to Tom Burnett, the blog's administrator who wrote the review.

05 January 2010

How Bad Were the Naughties?

Tyler Cowen argues recently in the NYT that the previous decade was actually not as bad as you might have thought, since the poor in many countries around the world made significant economic gains. And Art Carden argues in Forbes that the "naughties" brought many goods and services that we already take for granted.

I was very glad to hear this, especially since--with a national debt that is over $12 trillion and counting and that is fast approaching 100% of our GDP--the naughties might have been our last good decade for a while.

03 January 2010

Worth a Look: Smith as Theologian

Routledge is bringing out a fascinating collection of articles (disclosure: one of them is mine) on the theological underpinnings of Adam Smith's work. Entitled Adam Smith as Theologian, it is edited by Paul Oslington, who is joint chair in economics and theology at Australian Catholic University. The essays were written for an enormously stimulating conference sponsored by the Templeton Foundation that was held in January of 2009 at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

One might be surprised to hear that Smith even had a theology, let alone that a series of penetrating essays could be written on the subject. (Perhaps only a conference on "David Hume as Theologian" could be more surprising!) I found the papers quite interesting, and they brought all sorts of things to light for me--someone who has studied Smith for some time. I highly recommend the collection.

02 January 2010

Some Quick Hits

1. The New York Times wonders when too many high school honors societies begins to diminish their value. Some students are apparently in as many as nine honors societies. My favorite line from the article: "But as honor societies have grown, some schools have screened out less serious students. At Florida’s South Miami Senior High School, the math society delays induction of new members until they fulfill a requirement for community service, and withholds honor cords from seniors who skip meetings, said Ileana Rodriguez, the activities director." What does community service have to do with mathematical ability? If your math honors society has too many members, why not screen out those who aren't as good at math?

2. Newark's Liberty Airport is going to get the full-body scanners. The images they give of your body are so precise that they have to be pixelated when shown on television. It would seem a rather invasive procedure, but many interviewed passengers don't mind, because they "have nothing to hide" and they'll put up with just about anything "as long as it keeps us safe." The NYT helpfully gives tips on how to avoid further delay. My favorite line from the article: An airport official recommends parents rehearse with children, so they know what to expect and don't get too scared when they go--alone--into the magnetometer. Yes, it is important to begin the training in obedience to government authority early. And they have to do it, because so many of the terrorists travel with their children.

3. An op-ed in the Wall Street Journal argues that the health care bill that recently passed the senate is unconstitutional. My favorite line: "America's founders intended the federal government to have limited powers and that the states have an independent sovereign place in our system of government." It's a nice effort--no, it really is. But that argument, along with the related claim that "The federal government may exercise only the powers granted to it or denied to the states," has been impotent, and thus irrelevant, to what the federal government does for many decades now.