March 12, 2019


Adam Smith, Loneliness, and the Limits of Mainstream Economics (Russ Roberts, Mar 11, 2019, Medium)

The fundamental question Smith asks in The Theory of Moral Sentiments is why, given that we are self-interested (not selfish, self-interested) do we ever make sacrifices for others? Why do we do acts of kindness and generosity at our own expense?

His answer is that we have a vision of what is honorable and we try to live up to it. That vision comes from an awareness that when I step outside myself, I recognize that I have no claim to be better than anyone else. To act as if I am is selfish and dishonorable.

Smith argues that we want the respect of those around us and we want to earn that respect honestly by how we actually behave rather than how we are perceived. We want our true self to be the source of our reputation. A single sentence sums up Smith's view of our motivation:

Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely.

By loved, Smith didn't just mean romantic love or deep friendship. He meant honored, respected, praised, paid attention to. We want to matter in the eyes of others. By lovely, Smith meant worthy of honor, worthy of respect, praiseworthy. We naturally desire to be loved and lovely -- we're hardwired that way. What Smith is saying is that we care deeply about not only being respected and praised -- that Smith takes as a given. But we also want to earn that respect and praise honestly, by actually being lovely.

Smith makes a bolder claim that this urge for respect from others is the source of our well-being. He writes:

The chief part of human happiness arises from the consciousness of being loved.

So consider the following. If Smith is right and if the the chief part of human happiness arises from the consciousness of being beloved, then what happens to people who are not beloved, not loved, not respected, not honored? What happens to people who no one pays attention to, people who struggle to find respect, honor, love? What happens to people who feel as if they do not matter?

Smith's answer is that we perceive God observing us.

Posted by at March 12, 2019 9:21 AM