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Godless greed

May 14, 2012

Looking backwards in time and choosing only the bits of history that support a given idea is inevitable.  We simply cannot think of ourselves as having unlimited capacity for the cumulative knowledge of the ages. But we can agree upon the nature and number of guiding philosophical principles that lead to a universally beneficial and acceptable outcome.

A hallmark of what we call the Age of Enlightenment is, as Immanuel Kant described it, the freedom to use one’s own intelligence as a guide to belief.  But this philosophy was based on a foundation of moral behavior that arose from nearly universal participation in—or at least knowledge of—some sort of religious practice.  While religious orthodoxy was certainly brought into question, there was at the time a basic foundation of shared beliefs and an understanding of moral behavior.

Scottish philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790) was preoccupied with moral philosophy in general, but he is best known today for his theories on free-market economics.  Unfortunately, his writings on economics have been completely divorced from the broader context of Smith’s philosophy, which is really symbolic of how self-serving leaders today are choosing random writings from our founders to justify bad behavior.

In The Theory of Moral Semtiments (Glasgow, 1759),  Part IV, Chapter 1, Smith invented a concept he called the invisible hand to justify how self-interest might serve for the betterment of society as a whole:

… In spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose…be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society.

Smith’s better-known work, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, first published in London in 1776, is far too often mined and quoted with no reference to his earlier work, which was intended to provide a background for his economic theory.  Ethical behavior has somehow been hacked and hewed asunder from economics.  The invisible hand has been withdrawn and is presumably busy counting the ill-gotten proceeds instead of providing guidance.

Adam Smith also said:

“When the regulation, therefore, is in favour of the workmen, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the masters.”

“No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable”

In an opinion piece in the May 12, 2012 New York Times, entitled “Capitalists and Other Psychopaths,” William Deresiewicz gives us reason to scrutinize the behavior of those involved in unregulated capitalism.  We urge you to read the complete article but offer a few quotes:

A recent study found that 10 percent of people who work on Wall Street are “clinical psychopaths,” exhibiting a lack of interest in and empathy for others and an “unparalleled capacity for lying, fabrication, and manipulation.”

MOST important, neither entrepreneurs nor the rich have a monopoly on brains, sweat or risk. There are scientists — and artists and scholars — who are just as smart as any entrepreneur, only they are interested in different rewards.

Economics must be balanced by ethical behavior, which is currently dismissed and regarded as an externality*.  Unregulated capitalism without a foundation in morality is nothing but Godless greed.

*Externality: The side effect on an individual or entity due to the actions of another individual or entity. For example, the production of energy in a nuclear power plant benefits the owners of the power plant, but creates externalities in the form of radioactive waste for the environment and its inhabitants.
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