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Thursday, April 09, 2009

I Feel Your Pain

Gavin Kennedy of Adam Smith's Lost Legacy recommends this essay on The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

Cut-throat behaviour makes empathy flow, by Nicholas Gruen, Commentary, Sydney Morning Herald: ...Smith's Theory Of Moral Sentiments argued that people seeking their own interests in a society were united by their sympathy or fellow feeling for others. If that sounds a bit lame to you - a monopolist's sympathy for his customers rarely stops him exploiting them - Smith wasn't arguing that people always do the right thing. His point was subtler and more powerful. Smith observed the way we internalise others' values and live enmeshed in social meanings and expectations.

In thrall to Newton's explanation of the movement of planets via a single, uniform principle - that of gravity - he looked for a similar foundation for human behaviour in society. In modern parlance Smith argued that we were hard-wired for sympathy or fellow feeling with others, not in the sense that we always take their side, but in the deeper sense that our understanding and ultimate judgment of them depends on an imaginative sympathy, on the process of being able to place ourselves in their position, to see the world through their eyes.

We feel others' pain and elation (though not usually as strongly as them) but we do so through some act of imaginative sympathy. Horror, fear, pain and elation are all "infectious" in this way, sometimes viscerally so. ...

The whole of human sociality is built on these foundations. Indeed, armed with his theory, Smith argued that those who strive for riches do it not principally because of the utility it buys but because they crave the esteem of others. Smith despaired that we were so impressed by the wealthy. ...

[He also recommends Dan klein's podcast on the same topic- see today's daily links.]

    Posted by on Thursday, April 9, 2009 at 01:35 PM in Economics, History of Thought | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (1)


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