How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life

How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness
© 2014 Russ Roberts
269 pages

An economist and a rabbi walk into a bar and co-author a work on the meaning of life. That’s not the opening line to a joke, but a near-description of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life. This little book gives a modern interpretation of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, girding it with references to Rabbi Hillel. The contents are surprising, if your association of “economist” is with strictly matters financial, like stocks and trade deficits. Ironically, writes Russ Roberts,  the subjects economists are consulted most on, like the future health of the global economy, is what they’re worst at doing. The heart of economics as originated by Adam Smith is behavioral, however, judging how people use their scarce resources to make the best life possible for themselves — both as individuals, and with other people. The same desire for understanding that Smith applied to humans at the level of nations in The Wealth of Nations is applied more intimately to individual persons here. What do we really want?

The answer isn’t money, though it can help. The Theory of Moral Sentiments contends that what people want most, what actually makes us happy, is to be loved and lovely.  This isn’t about romance or aesthetics; Smith’s use of love encompasses respect, admiration and affection. “Lovely”, too, also has a deeper meaning: it is to be worthy of respect, admiration, and affection. People not only want to be held high in the esteem of others, but they want to have earned that place. Part of Smith’s argument is that each of us has an Impartial Observer in our heads, an ethereally human figure who is constantly watching, judging, and arguing with us.  A conscience, so to speak, a means through which we can evaluate our own actions  or behavior from an outside perspective, to see ourselves as we are being seen.  This conscience is not perfect — it can be lied to and argued with through justifications of our behavior — but unless its voice is smothered and distorted by our own willful actions, it is invaluable. We can strengthen the observer by reflecting on the behavior of others — when we see them acting irrationally, we can turn our analysis on ourselves, to see  that behavior which we dislike present in our own actions.  We can use this impartial observer to help not fool ourselves, to help us become lovelier — and so, loved. The impartial observer rings a bell for me in part because of past readings into primate social behavior, particularly the fact that chimpanzees and such will often act in private in ways that strongly imply they are imagining what the consequences of their being caught in unsocial behavior would be.  I suspect that this observer  is some kind of internal-audit tool of our socially-oriented brains, useful for anticipating how our behavior will be interpreted by others.

Students of schools of Greek philosophy like Stoicism — which regarded moral excellence or virtue as its own reward — will recognize the ‘virtue’ of Smith’s loveliness straightaway.  Epicureans, who regarded simple pleasures as the key to the good life, will also find an ally in Smith, when he asks: “What can be added to the happiness of a man who is in health, out of debt, and has a clear conscience?”.  Smith regarded the chase for fame, power, and gadgets and goods as self-defeating. These itches are insatiable, leading us to constant torment as we try to reach greater and greater levels. Even those who reach the top must find it a hollow victory, judging by the inner lives and outer behavior of celebrities, politicians, and such.  If we understand our core desires, however — this yearning to be loved and lovely — we can be conscious of when we are attempting to fill the real need with ersatz praise,  in admiration for our things rather than ourselves.

Those who have an interest in human flourishing will definitely find this little book worth their attention.

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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10 Responses to How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life

  1. You continue to amaze me with your eclectic reading. I always enjoy reading about your discoveries. This all reminds me of a comment and question: if I worked in a library, I would be like a chocoholic working at Hershe’s; how did you wind up working at a library, and is that your career for life? Best wishes from the sugar white sands of the coast, Tim

  2. Mudpuddle says:

    a sensitive and cogent examination… i wonder about the origins of “conscience” and whether it is actually present in everyone… it seems to me, sometimes, that much of modern society, especially the 1%, has been raided by pirates; they neither care or are aware of others, being solely concerned with their own existences… altho, i suppose that's true of most of us… and how does anomie or alienation affect their psyches? maybe it doesn't…

  3. Mudpuddle, wouldn’t Maslow say we are all self-interested creatures yearning for self-actualization? We must be taught conscience and altruism and sacrifice. Hmmm.

  4. CyberKitten says:

    This showed up on one of my (many) Amazon searches. I'd heard that Smith wasn't the hard-nosed Economist that some have made him out to be. I'll add it to my Wish List I think….

  5. CyberKitten says:

    Definitely *one* of the reasons I keep coming back here is Stephen's very eclectic reading habits (something I think we have in common) plus the fact that we are (generally) interested in the same sort of thing but tend to approach it from very different angles (mostly).

  6. CyberKitten says:

    I think both conscience and altruism (and sympathy/empathy) are genetic and are definite evolutionary pluses. You see it in all mammals and it probably goes down much further than that.

  7. Mudpuddle says:

    i think i'd have to go with RT on that: learned yes, genetic, no…

  8. Stephen says:

    @Tim: I started volunteering here after college while I was looking for regular work, and someone moved a couple of months later. I took her hours and that's it! I rarely interact with the book-reading public, however…most of my time is spent as the computer lab admin, doing tech support, that sort of thing. I also do some historical research. I couldn't possibly say if it's my career for “life”, since there's no telling how city funding and libraries will change as the years go on.

  9. Stephen says:

    Reading it reminded that I still need to re-read The Age of Absurdity, which your blog introduced me to. I've read it 3 times since 2013 and never reviewed it!

  10. Stephen says:

    I'm positive that some of the raw material of morality is genetic — our instincts for cooperation, empathy, and that anticipation of how our behavior is seen by others. Culture, however, cannot be ignored because it's as natural to us as water is to a fish. One thing I was thinking about while reading this is that impartial observers may vary a bit from culture to culture: a man born in Saudi Arabia might have a little voice admonishing him for disobeying his father by drinking wine, for instance.

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