PJ O’Rourke on Moral Sentiments

PJ O’Rourke is so funny you sometimes forget how smart he is.  I learned more about economic growth from Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics than from many a mathematical treatise.  In particular, in Eat the Rich O’Rourke pounded home the point that absence of government led to very different outcomes in 19th century America than in post-communist Albania.  Economists have only just begun to try to explain why.

Here is a recent review from O’Rourke of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Smith claimed that what we do,
when we develop morality, is shape our natural sympathies into the
thoughts and actions that we would expect from an Impartial Spectator
who is sympathetic, but objective and all-knowing, yet still
sympathetic anyway.

"When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so
selfish, how comes it," Smith asked, "that our active principles should
often be so generous and so noble?" The answer is "the inhabitant of
the breast . . . the great judge and arbiter of our conduct." Looking
at things from the Impartial Spectator’s point of view instructs us in
the self-discipline that we need to behave well in our condition of
natural liberty. Consider how toddlers or drunks behave, who haven’t
yet received, or who have temporarily forgotten, their instructions.

If, Smith wrote, the Impartial Spectator did not teach us "to
protect the weak, to curb the violent, and to chastise the guilty,"
then "a man would enter an assembly of men as he enters a den of
lions." Or toddlers. Or drunks. Or Jack Abramoff’s office.


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