Thursday, April 29, 2010

Amartya Sen on Adam Smith

In this article from the New Statesman (UK), Nobel prize-winning economist, Amartya Sen, offers a clear, accessible explanation of why the 18th century moral philosopher Adam Smith's first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, is "one of the truly outstanding books in the intellectual history of the world." Critically acclaimed upon publication in 1759, his work in ethics--emphasizing the Enlightenment themes of impartiality and universality--were overshadowed by Immanuel Kant's much more influential contributions along similar lines. And his discussion of political economy in relation to ethics was overshadowed by his later Wealth of Nations (1776)--which as a result has been misread ever since as a celebration of the unfettered free market.

In his understanding of the "demands of rationality, the need for recognizing the plurality of human motivations, the connections between ethics and economics, and the co-dependent rather than free-standing role of institutions in general and free markets in particular, in the functioning of the economy," argues Sen, Smith is of continued global relevance today.

"The global reach of Smith's moral and political reasoning is quite a distinctive feature of his thought, but it is strongly supplemented by his belief that all human beings are born with similar potential and, most importantly for policymaking, that the inequalities in the world reflect socially generated, rather than natural, disparities."

In short, Sen concludes, "The Theory of Moral Sentiments is a global manifesto of profound significance to the interdependent world in which we live."

His work is also important for the question that divides modern psychologists and moral philosophers on the relation of emotions to moral judgments. See, for example, Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis and his studies in social intuitionism. For a different view, see Paul Bloom, "Why Do Morals Change?" in Nature 464, 490 (25 March 2010) at

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