Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

The Other Brother has a longer commute to work than I, so he's long been a consumer of podcasts. One of the ones he particularly likes is Russ Roberts's Econ Talk. Indeed, he's such a fan that he bought and enjoyed this book and passed it on to me. I enjoyed it enough that I've become a listener on my daily dog walk. Particularly in these hyper-partisan, deeply silly, times, he is a voice of decency and reason. His guests are generally interesting and often enough authors that you end up with a pretty good reading list. But I do have a quarrel and it carries over to this book. though he is personally an observant Jew, Mr. Roberts is politically a libertarian, with the analytical shortcomings that ideology has always imposed. What is particularly jarring is the juxtaposition of knowing what is right and good--even required for the right and good--joined to the notion that society does not require same and can not access it.

Predictably then, while he had always been conversant with Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, he had never read, nevermind considered, Smith's prior book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The latter, after all, represents a fatal stumbling block to those who wish to use Smith to justify free markets in all things, including morality. read properly, the two texts represent an A-frame, with the former depending on the latter. The capitalist system that Smith recommends in Wealth of Nations requires the sort of universally predictable behavior and rule bound conduct that presupposes a shared societal morality. Moral Sentiments had already discovered the basis of this universalism in belief in God:
Without this sacred regard to general rules, there is no man whose conduct can be much depended upon. It is this which constitutes the most essential difference between a man of principle and honour and a worthless fellow. The one adheres, on all occasions, steadily and resolutely to his maxims, and preserves through the whole of his life one even tenour of conduct. The other, acts variously and accidentally, as humour, inclination, or interest chance to be uppermost. Nay, such are the inequalities of humour to which all men are subject, that without this principle, the man who, in all his cool hours, had the most delicate sensibility to the propriety of conduct, might often be led to act absurdly upon the most frivolous occasions, and when it was scarce possible to assign any serious motive for his behaving in this manner. Your friend makes you a visit when you happen to be in a humour which makes it disagreeable to receive him: in your present mood his civility is very apt to appear an impertinent intrusion; and if you were to give way to the views of things which at this time occur, though civil in your temper, you would behave to him with coldness and contempt. What renders you incapable of such a rudeness, is nothing but a regard to the general rules of civility and hospitality, which prohibit it. That habitual reverence which your former experience has taught you for these, enables you to act, upon all such occasions, with nearly equal propriety, and hinders those inequalities of temper, to which all men are subject, from influencing your conduct in any very sensible degree. But if without regard to these general rules, even the duties of politeness, which are so easily observed, and which one can scarce have any serious motive to violate, would yet be so frequently violated, what would become of the duties of justice, of truth, of chastity, of fidelity, which it is often so difficult to observe, and which there may be so many strong motives to violate? But upon the tolerable observance of these duties, depends the very existence of human society, which would crumble into nothing if mankind were not generally impressed with a reverence for those important rules of conduct.

This reverence is still further enhanced by an opinion which is first impressed by nature, and afterwards confirmed by reasoning and philosophy, that those important rules of morality are the commands and laws of the Deity, who will finally reward the obedient, and punish the transgressors of their duty.

This opinion or apprehension, I say, seems first to be impressed by nature. Men are naturally led to ascribe to those mysterious beings, whatever they are, which happen, in any country, to be the objects of religious fear, all their own sentiments and passions. They have no other, they can conceive no other to ascribe to them. Those unknown intelligences which they imagine but see not, must necessarily be formed with some sort of resemblance to those intelligences of which they have experience. During the ignorance and darkness of pagan superstition, mankind seem to have formed the ideas of their divinities with so little delicacy, that they ascribed to them, indiscriminately, all the passions of human nature, those not excepted which do the least honour to our species, such as lust, hunger, avarice, envy, revenge. They could not fail, therefore, to ascribe to those beings, for the excellence of whose nature they still conceived the highest admiration, those sentiments and qualities which are the great ornaments of humanity, and which seem to raise it to a resemblance of divine perfection, the love of virtue and beneficence, and the abhorrence of vice and injustice. The man who was injured, called upon Jupiter to be witness of the wrong that was done to him, and could not doubt, but that divine being would behold it with the same indignation which would animate the meanest of mankind, who looked on when injustice was committed. The man who did the injury, felt himself to be the proper object of the detestation and resentment of mankind; and his natural fears led him to impute the same sentiments to those awful beings, whose presence he could not avoid, and whose power he could not resist. These natural hopes and fears, and suspicions, were propagated by sympathy, and confirmed by education; and the gods were universally represented and believed to be the rewarders of humanity and mercy, and the avengers of perfidy and injustice. And thus religion, even in its rudest form, gave a sanction to the rules of morality, long before the age of artificial reasoning and philosophy. That the terrors of religion should thus enforce the natural sense of duty, was of too much importance to the happiness of mankind, for nature to leave it dependent upon the slowness and uncertainty of philosophical researches.

These researches, however, when they came to take place, confirmed those original anticipations of nature. Upon whatever we suppose that our moral faculties are founded, whether upon a certain modification of reason, upon an original instinct, called a moral sense, or upon some other principle of our nature, it cannot be doubted, that they were given us for the direction of our conduct in this life. They carry along with them the most evident badges of this authority, which denote that they were set up within us to be the supreme arbiters of all our actions, to superintend all our senses, passions, and appetites, and to judge how far each of them was either to be indulged or restrained. Our moral faculties are by no means, as some have pretended, upon a level in this respect with the other faculties and appetites of our nature, endowed with no more right to restrain these last, than these last are to restrain them. No other faculty or principle of action judges of any other. Love does not judge of resentment, nor resentment of love. Those two passions may be opposite to one another, but cannot, with any propriety, be said to approve or disapprove of one another. But it is the peculiar office of those faculties now under our consideration to judge, to bestow censure or applause upon all the other principles of our nature. They may be considered as a sort of senses of which those principles are the objects. Every sense is supreme over its own objects. There is no appeal from the eye with regard to the beauty of colours, nor from the ear with regard to the harmony of sounds, nor from the taste with regard to the agreeableness of flavours. Each of those senses judges in the last resort of its own objects. Whatever gratifies the taste is sweet, whatever pleases the eye is beautiful, whatever soothes the ear is harmonious. The very essence of each of those qualities consists in its being fitted to please the sense to which it is addressed. It belongs to our moral faculties, in the same manner to determine when the ear ought to be soothed, when the eye ought to be indulged, when the taste ought to be gratified, when and how far every other principle of our nature ought either to be indulged or restrained. What is agreeable to our moral faculties, is fit, and right, and proper to be done; the contrary wrong, unfit, and improper. The sentiments which they approve of, are graceful and becoming: the contrary, ungraceful and unbecoming. The very words, right, wrong, fit, improper, graceful, unbecoming, mean only what pleases or displeases those faculties.

Since these, therefore, were plainly intended to be the governing principles of human nature, the rules which they prescribe are to be regarded as the commands and laws of the Deity, promulgated by those vice-regents which he has thus set up within us. All general rules are commonly denominated laws: thus the general rules which bodies observe in the communication of motion, are called the laws of motion. But those general rules which our moral faculties observe in approving or condemning whatever sentiment or action is subjected to their examination, may much more justly be denominated such. They have a much greater resemblance to what are properly called laws, those general rules which the sovereign lays down to direct the conduct of his subjects. Like them they are rules to direct the free actions of men: they are prescribed most surely by a lawful superior, and are attended too with the sanction of rewards and punishments. Those vice-regents of God within us, never fail to punish the violation of them, by the torments of inward shame, and self-condemnation; and on the contrary, always reward obedience with tranquillity of mind, with contentment, and self-satisfaction.

There are innumerable other considerations which serve to confirm the same conclusion. The happiness of mankind, as well as of all other rational creatures, seems to have been the original purpose intended by the Author of nature, when he brought them into existence. No other end seems worthy of that supreme wisdom and divine benignity which we necessarily ascribe to him; and this opinion, which we are led to by the abstract consideration of his infinite perfections, is still more confirmed by the examination of the works of nature, which seem all intended to promote happiness, and to guard against misery. But by acting according to the dictates of our moral faculties, we necessarily pursue the most effectual means for promoting the happiness of mankind, and may therefore be said, in some sense, to co-operate with the Deity, and to advance as far as in our power the plan of Providence. By acting other ways, on the contrary, we seem to obstruct, in some measure, the scheme which the Author of nature has established for the happiness and perfection of the world, and to declare ourselves, if I may say so, in some measure the enemies of God. Hence we are naturally encouraged to hope for his extraordinary favour and reward in the one case, and to dread his vengeance and punishment in the other.
Where then men act according the the moral dictates of God, we can have an economic system that is rather free. But, obviously, to precisely the degree that each actor can invent his own personal rules we would have to have ever more restrictive government controls interfering in the marketplace. Absent the vice-regents of God within us we must have the sovereign state without.

But, as Mr. Roberts relates the lessons he took away from reading Moral Sentiments, it is precisely God (the Author) who is missing. He seems to believe that it would be sufficient for us to think of ourselves as continually scrutinized by any old "impartial spectator" for us to conform our behavior to a universal standard. But the problem of the impartiality here is readily apparent. For to be truly impartial would imply not just that the imagined spectator is impartial between you and me but between what you and I believe. This removes the capacity for any moral judgment whatsoever and thrusts us back on the sort of atomization and personal preference that can not sustain a moral scheme. Let us consider a pretty basic example: take a couple where one member believes in marital fidelity and the other does not. What use is it to refer their situation to an impartial observer if that observer has no partiality towards one behavior or the other? In fact, a workable morality is never impartial as to the prescribed rules, only to their universal applicability. The point of Smith's spectator's impartiality is that He applies the same rules to you and to me regardless of who we are.

Ultimately, while this book is well-worth your time and Mr. Roberts is, as always, a pleasant guide, his libertarianism prevents him from presenting the full treatment that Smith deserves, even requires. Like the blind men trying to describe an elephant, he can grasp only pieces, not the whole.


Grade: (B-)


See also:

Russ Roberts Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Russ Roberts
    -AUTHOR WEBSITE: Russ Roberts
    -TWITTER FEED: @EconTalker
    -PODCAST HOME: EconTalk (Library of Law & Liberty)
    -EXCERPT: Chaper One of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life
    -BOOK SITE: How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life (Penguin Random House)
    -ESSAY: In praise of … EconTalk: Every week the economist Russ Roberts chats to an academic or writer about a subject related to economics for about an hour (the Guardian, 8/31/10)
    -PODCAST: Russ Roberts: From the Bible to Hayek: A discussion with the influential economist, podcaster and educator, who recently made aliya to Israel (Good Faith Effort, 1/05/22, Times of Israel)
    -ETEXT: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith (Library of Economics and Liberty)
    -ETEXT: The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith (Library of Economics and Liberty)
    -PODCAST: Russ Roberts and Mike Munger on How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life (EconTalk Episode with Russ Roberts, 10/13/14)
-ECONTALK BOOK CLUB: Dan Klein and Russ Roberts offer a six-part podcast series reading and discussing The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS), by Adam Smith (EconTalk Podcast)
    -ESSAY: Adam Smith: Moral Hypocrite? (Russell Roberts, November 18, 2014, Defining Ideas)
    -ESSAY: Sympathy for Homo Religiosus (Russell Roberts, May 2014, Economics in Practice
-INTERVIEW: Russ Roberts Applies Adam Smith to Modern-Day Issues (Allen Kenney, 3/16/2015, REIT magazine)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Russ Roberts: Adam Smith's Surprising Guide to Happiness (But Not Wealth) (Nick Gillespie & Todd Krainin, October 8, 2014, Reason)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Learning From Adam Smith (KERA Think, November 5, 2014)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: HOW ADAM SMITH CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, 30th October 2014)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life With Russ Roberts (Art of Manliness Podcast #91, 11/30/14)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Episode 155: Russ Roberts – A Guide To Human Nature & Happiness (Ryan Hawk, 8/31/16, The Learning Leader)
    -INTERVIEW: When All Economics Is Political: The dismal science has too much junk science, says Russ Roberts, an evangelist for humility in a discipline where it is often hard to find. (Kyle Peterson, May 13, 2016, WSJ)
    -ESSAY: Adam Smith’s Other Masterwork (RYAN P. HANLEY, December 3, 2020, National Review)
    -ESSAY: The invisible hand and the little finger: Adam Smith’s morality tale (Pat Tomaino, Medium)
    -PROFILE: Deirdre McCloskey’s Market Path to Virtue: An idiosyncratic economist preaches the innate morality of business. (Andrea Gabor, 5/30/06, strategy + business)
    -PDF ESSAY: Adam Smith, The Last of the Former Virtue Ethicists (Deirdre McCloskey)
    -REVIEW: of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life by Russ Roberts (Kyle Smith, NY Post)
    -REVIEW: of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life (Daniel Akst, WSJ)
    -REVIEW: of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life (David Brown, Financial Times)
    -REVIEW: of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life (Carolyn Gregoire, Huffington Post)
    -REVIEW: of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life (Clive Crook, Bloomberg)
    -REVIEW: of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life (Robert Litan, WSJ)
    -REVIEW: of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life (Austin Frakt, Incidental Economist)
    -REVIEW: of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life (Jeremy Williams, Make Wealth History)
    -REVIEW: of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life (John T. Dalton, Independent Review)
    -REVIEW: of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life (Kevin Holtsberry, Collected Miscellany)
    -REVIEW: of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life (LUCY STEIGERWALD, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
    -REVIEW: of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life (Gary Belsky, Money)
    -REVIEW: of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life (Sheeraz Raza, Value walk)
    -REVIEW: of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life (William Irwin Ph.D., Psychology Today)
    -REVIEW: of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life (Robert E. Litan, Brookings)
    -REVIEW: of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life (Anthony Annett, IMF)
    -REVIEW: of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life (Brendan P. Foht, Free Beacon)
    -REVIEW: of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life (Robert Curry, The Federalist)
    -REVIEW: of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life (MARIA POPOVA, Brain Pickings)
    -REVIEW: of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life (Jackson Thornton Asset Management)
    -REVIEW: of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life (Buddha on Wall Street)
    -REVIEW: of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life (Candice DiLavore, Values & Capitalism)
    -REVIEW: of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life (Ira Stoll, Future of Capitalism)
    -REVIEW: of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life (Alex Russell, Center for Independent Studies)

Book-related and General Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Adam Smith
-Adam Smith (1723-1790 ) (Library of Economics and Liberty)
    -ETEXT: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith (Library of Economics and Liberty)
    -ETEXT: The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith (Library of Economics and Liberty)
    -ESSAY: Market Man: What did Adam Smith really believe? (Adam Gopnik, 10/18/10, The New Yorker)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Is there more to Adam Smith than free markets?: He championed laissez-faire economics but also recognised the need for strong social institutions (John Kay, Financial Times)
    -PODCAST: Otteson on Adam Smith (EconTalk Episode with James Otteson, 6/27/11, Hosted by Russ Roberts)
    -ESSAY: The Real Adam Smith Vs. The Fake Adam Smith (Jerry Bowyer, 9/15/17, Forbes)
    -ESSAY: Adam Smith on CSR (CLIVE CROOK, AUG 8, 2008, The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY: Adam Smith Preached Self-Interest–and Self-Help, Too (Robert Litan, Apr 25, 2015, WSJ)
    -ESSAY: Nit-Picking “Blessed” Adam Smith (Stephen Masty, February 20th, 2015, Imaginative Conservative)