Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Barney and the Theory of Moral Sentiments

It's taken a while for me to think this through, and I may not have it right yet. But let me relate an incident and then you can tell me if I'm analyzing it correctly.

About a year ago, I was a social function at our church. It included a wide variety of foods to sample. My wife, my step-sons and I helped ourselves and found a convenient place to sit and try the various items that were piled on our small paper plates.

One of my step-sons has a disability and is below grade level in his reasoning and behavior for just about anything. In fact, I often point out to people that, because he is 16 he acts like any teenager. He comes home...he goes to his room...he turns his music on, LOUD. It's just that his music is Muppets, Disney and Barney (especially Barney).

Anyway, he and I were sitting side by side and I noticed something on his plate that looked interesting. I asked if I could have some and was told "no." I said something to the effect that it's nice to share and Barney says we should share. At which point I was told "Barney not here."

Since then, I've thought about this incident from time to time. This past weekend, the connection came to me. As frequently is the case in my mind, there is a connection to economics (although many may find it tenuous).

As you may know, Adam Smith not only wrote An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations; he also wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In the latter work, Smith maintains that our actions are governed, in part, by a need for acceptance by our companions and society. And he frequently writes about actions as viewed by an "impartial spectator." It is this "impartial spectator" who is the judge of what is good and just in our actions, and we measure our acts against the spectator's view.

Was framing the issue in terms of Barney's preferences an attempt to give substance to the "impartial spectator" in a way that my son might understand? (To some extent, yes - but let's also be honest - there were goodies at stake.) Was his statement a rejection of the concept, or just an insightful way to guard what was his?

To take this further, many critics speak of the "impartial spectator" as the anti-thesis of the "invisible hand" of the marketplace. Others, like me, believe there is more in common between the two than is immediately apparent. A true impartial spectator (even a purple one) may disapprove of both my son's refusal to share, and my attempt to invoke the judgment in an effort to get something that was not mine. And my attempt would not be so much an example of the "invisible hand" (which looks after the best interest of BOTH parties), as a failure to appreciate the "impartial spectator."

Your views are welcome.

Posted by TSchilling at June 13, 2007 3:08 PM

‘Our actions are governed in part, by a need for acceptance by our companions and society’, and this is brought about by a learning process from childhood and from when we enter the company of others, such as at nursery, school and eventually the wider world, or what Smith called the ‘great school of self-command.’

That a young boy was not willing to share his ‘goodies’ with an adult indicates that the socialisation process was not yet fully operating, a not uncommon feature in a child’s behaviour.

The impartial spectator is the ‘judge within the breast’ and is not heard by the other person ‘outside’, so to speak. The impartial spectator in this case may not be ‘fully formed’ and may indeed be operating within the boy and without the outside person knowing of it.

You do not report if the boy was comfortable with his decision not to share, or if he justified his actions, but you have no way of knowing what he was thinking. Acts of selfishness that we all have committed over our lives, including memorable one’s as a child, occasionally surface in memory, if only to embarrass us.

You say that ‘many critics speak of the "impartial spectator" as the anti-thesis of the "invisible hand" of the marketplace’.

As you are discussing Adam Smith’s two books, could you explain what is meant by ‘the invisible hand of the market place’ in the context of anything Adam Smith wrote about? I know of no reference by Smith to ‘an invisible hand’ in relation to the ‘market place’.

That is a construction placed on the metaphor (which he used only three times in all of his writings) and on no occasion was he referring to the market place. Of course, I speak of the Adam Smith born in Kirkcaldy and not the ‘Adam Smith’ supposedly ‘alive and well and living in Chicago’ (according to George Stigler).

On these grounds, Smith’s impartial spectator (the nature of which he detailed in Moral Sentiments) and his use of a well-known (at least to educated men like Adam Smith in the 18th century: Homer, Augustine, Shakespeare, Glanvill, Defoe, Rollin, Bonnet, Robinet, Voltaire, etc.,) literary metaphor of ‘an invisible hand’ have nothing in common or in ‘antithesis’ to each other whatsoever. That is a wholly false trail to set out upon, and compounds the errors in your formulation of the problem you discuss.

The young boy’s actions are explained by his youth (an unfinished development of his conscience/guidance of his impartial spectator), which, as an outsider, you cannot ‘listen’ to – he could have overridden its advice, as many do. No outsider can decide if another person’s impartial spectator is a ‘true’ spectator, whatever judgment is involved in such an odd construction. Neither has the ‘impartial spectator’ concept anything to do with an "invisible hand", which incidentally does not look ‘after the best interest of BOTH parties’ (at least, the “Kirkcaldy” Adam Smith’s use of the metaphor did not do so).

Posted by: Gavin Kennedy at June 14, 2007 4:15 AM

I think that your step son was acting economically. More is preferred to less and by not sharing, he moved to a higher indifference a nationally certified TESA teacher, I always teach to get students out of Maslow's basement and motivate students with affective needs such as acceptance...I loved this blog and will research Smith's theory and intelligently reply then...Thanks, Tim

Posted by: mike fladlien at June 14, 2007 7:07 AM

Mr. Kennedy,
You are correct, of course, that the invisible hand metaphor is nowhere used in connection with "the marketplace". There I am in error. I thank you for your observation.

The "impartial spectator" is, indeed, within. However, in the case of my son, it is hard to know what he is thinking, given the circumstances. I was using a figure he would be familiar with in an effort to get him to develop a sense of giving/sharing, in a sense to help him develop that "judge within the breast."

As to the connection between the spectator and the invisible hand, perhaps I will have to study this further. In my readings of Smith and of books about his work and life I have come to a conclusion that the inner force that governs our actions towards others and, hopefully, helps us to act justly; is not far removed from that invisible hand that brings us to serve the larger society when serving ourselves.

I will continue to study. I thank you very much for your comment and observation. It has given me much to think about.

Posted by: Tim at June 14, 2007 10:51 AM

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