Wednesday, April 15, 2009

How high was Adam Smith's jen ratio?

Jen is apparently the central idea in the teachings of Confucius. In his book, “Born to be Good”, Dacher Keltner tells us that the numerator in the jen ratio is actions that bring the good in others to completion and the denominator is actions that bring the bad in others to completion. For example, if a writer misrepresents the views of others he would tend to lower the jen ratio.

I have been looking forward to reading “Born to be Good”. I have previously considered on this blog the question of whether the inner nature of humans is good and I want to explore this topic further.

However, after reading a few pages I began to wonder whether reading this book will do much to improve my jen ratio. The problem is that it seems to me that Keltner’s discussion of the views of Adam Smith is uncharitable. Keltner claims that Smith portrayed Homo economicus as some kind of ideal of human evolution who was designed to maximize self-interest in the form of experienced pleasure and advances in advances in material wealth ( p 8).

Smith had a realistic view of human nature. I don’t think he saw humans as rational maximisers of anything, but it is true that he did make some famous observations about self interest as a motivating force. Smith stated: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest” (“Wealth of Nations”, I.ii.2). It seems to me that this is an observation about the way the world works rather than a statement advocating selfishness.

I think the closest Smith got to advocating selfishness is his claim that by pursuing his own interests an individual frequently promotes that of society: “I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the publick good” (W.N., IV, ii, 9).
It is arguable that Smith was being too cynical at that point. It is possible to think of examples of a great deal of good being done by not-for-profit organisations e.g. in running schools and hospitals.

Anyone who had an interest in presenting a fair picture of Smith’s views of human nature, however, would also take account of the views he presented in “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”. For example: “The virtues of prudence, justice, and beneficence, have no tendency to produce any but the most agreeable effects. ... In our approbation of all these virtues , our sense of their agreeable effects , of their utility, either to the person who exercises them , or to some other persons, joins with our sense of their propriety, and constitutes always a considerable, frequently the greater part of that approbation” (TMS IV, iii, 59).

It is not fair to portray Adam Smith as promoting an “ideology about human nature ... with a jen ratio trending toward zero”.

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