Thursday, May 13, 2010

Sen on Smith's "The Theory of Moral Sentiments"

Here's a good article by Economics Nobel winner Amartya Sen on the misconceptions regarding one of the founding fathers of Economics, Adam Smith (HT Escolhas e Consequências), who wrote not only The Wealth of Nations but also the extremely important The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Sen explains:
Beyond self-love, Smith discussed how the functioning of the economic system in general, and of the market in particular, can be helped enormously by other motives. There are two distinct propositions here. The first is one of epistemology, concerning the fact that human beings are not guided only by self-gain or even prudence. The second is one of practical reason, involving the claim that there are good ethical and practical grounds for encouraging motives other than self-interest, whether in the crude form of self-love or in the refined form of prudence. Indeed, Smith argues that while "prudence" was "of all virtues that which is most helpful to the individual", "humanity, justice, generosity, and public spirit, are the qualities most useful to others". These are two distinct points, and, unfortunately, a big part of modern economics gets both of them wrong in interpreting Smith.

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