Sunday, March 13, 2011

Should we lose sleep over the Japanese earthquake?

Don Arthur at Club Troppo has done what I think a great post on Japan's earthquake and the moral response.

"If 18th century philosopher Adam Smith is right, you probably slept just fine. In his book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments he imagined what would happen if the whole nation of China was swallowed up up by an earthquake. How would "a man of humanity" in Europe respond? According to Smith, he might express great sorrow, reflect on the precariousness of human life, speculate how the disaster might affect trade and then go happily about his business ..........
 
So is Smith saying it’s OK to just ignore other people’s suffering and do nothing to help? No he isn’t. What he’s arguing is that in situations where there is something practical we can do to help, moral behaviour doesn’t depend on strong feelings of sympathy. We don’t need to respond more strongly to other people’s suffering than we do to our own to do the right thing. If there is something we can do to prevent or ease other people’s suffering, most of us won’t sit by and do nothing."

Many confine Adam Smith to a naively narrow economic view. Entirely disregarding The Theory of Moral Sentiments and preferring to focus on a reference to the 'invisible hand' in The Wealth of Nations as a fundamental ideology. Which it was not.
 
Update: Peter Martin gives a good economic summary of A human, more than an economic tragedy.
 

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