Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Moral Sentiment in Macrocosm

If Daniel has a cookie-cutter understanding of Smith’s thesis, then I am even less knowledgeable of the terms of this history (a fact of which readers are probably already well aware). Daniel’s suggestions for expanding economic understandings of human behavior to account for non-profit maximizing approaches seems right-headed to me. Economists run the risk of fitting reality to theory rather than vice versa if they insist on such a flat account of human action, and at this point scientific claims begin to go out the window (which is ironic but still the case… I take it that there’s some squeamishness about moral sentiment in economics as too humanist and not concrete enough… ironically, the alternative is a rather ideological clinging to a materialist justification of consumption that can be just as unrealistically theoretical as sentiment of any other sort).

Daniel lays out a broad understanding of moral sentiment that opposes a caricatured basic selfishness. Recognition of sentiment beyond self-interest would indeed broaden the perspective of social scientists, and it might also have implications for such fields as evolutionary biology; as much as the “selfish gene” has been a watershed moment in our understanding of biological development, it turns on the same basic assumption of atomized self-interest, here on the genetic level and shaking off some of the personifications of the homo economicus, though the principle remains the same. And again, a wider view of human sentiment wouldn’t marginalize the selfish gene any more than the profit maximizing impulse in human behavior. It would, however, be a valuable check against overstating the case for such a mechanical functioning that seems suspiciously easily fitted to formulae and models.

What I’d like to focus on briefly is another aspect of social thought about human behavior suggested in Smith. The contrast between self-interest and broader moral sentiment is there, and it is perhaps the most obvious thing we could take away from Smith’s work. But embedded in modern economic theory is perhaps an even more important and revolutionary shift in our understanding of person and society. What I’m thinking of here is the basic opposition between individual and collective upon which something like economic self-interest depends.

In much classical thought and carried through the Abrahamic faiths as a central theory of Western culture is the idea of the person as “microcosm” of society’s “macrocosm”. Society was often depicted as a body, whose various organs worked in cooperative fashion and depended upon one another. Or, elsewhere, the virtue or vice of an individual- often the king- was seen as having a direct causative influence on the moral status of the people and society as a whole.

This is a radically different understanding of society than is presented in modernity, and the modern understanding isn’t limited to economics. Daniel may be working with a Smithian “immoral man and moral society”, but as a theologian I’m working with a Niebuhrian “moral man and immoral society”. And usually, if a one doesn’t line up with Smith, they simply reverse the equation and stand with Niebuhr. The point in either case is that the individual and the collective offer a competitive (albeit ultimately constructive) relationship through which we must understand both.

I don’t think that this modern way of looking at things is bad. The classical microcosm/macrocosm relationship between person and society has just as many shortcomings as the modern “man v. society” theme, and probably both should be employed insofar as they make sense of the world around us. They may even share some common ground, actually. The idea that the human is humanity in miniature or in its particularity may sound a little mythical, but so is Smith’s “invisible hand”, which simply serves as a posited bond between the prosperous individual and the prosperous society meant to make sense of what at first appears to be a contradiction. Both are explanatory fictions that make something coherent of the facts, and both have something to say in an account of human behavior.

Daniel closes by saying, “If economics is really going to be a science of human decision making, it should more explicitly encompass the full range of human motivations”. Seconded. And in addition, our social scientific understanding should more explicitly encompass the theoretical models that we use to understand personal and societal action in relation to one another. Where Daniel presents the horizontal complexities of human behavior, I’ve tried to outline an approach to the vertical complexities of the same.

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