Thoughts on “How Adam Smith can Change your Life” by Russ Roberts.

“How Adam Smith can change your life” by Russ Roberts is a commentary on the less known book of Adam Smith, “The theory of moral sentiments”, first published in 1759 and went through 6 editions the last of which was published in 1790. The book is an attempt to answer the question, “what is the good life?” Religions have been offering their own version of this answer as long as they existed. This is not a religious book, thus this review is about one man’s opinion of the good life.

Russ Roberts did a fine job in providing a commentary to Smith’s book, for although Smith was a fine writer, the English and style of writing of 18th century Britain is not easy for the modern reader. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and gleaned some insights on how to be good and lovely (in Smith’s language). Some of these are discussed below.

1. The futility of pursuing money with the hope of finding happiness and that money is not the only thing that matters in life.

2. We feel worse about the prospect of losing a finger than about the death of strangers far away. Think of how you felt about the victims of the Japanese Tsunami compared to a serious injury you suffered. Therefore, remember that people care more about themselves when next you want them to do something for you, and appeal to their self-love.

3. Despite the above, we do care about people even when there is nothing in it for us, sometimes sacrificing our own well being to help others. Pure self-love is ugly and thinking of others is honorable and noble and we are not the center of the universe much as we would wish it to be so. Smith invoked the idea of an impartial spectator, the idea that we are held in check by the judgment of an objective observer, to explain why we are unwilling to do morally reprehensible things.

4. Smith counseled that if you want to get better as what you do, if you want get better about life in general, if you want a good life, then you need to pay attention. This will allow you to remember what really matters, what is real and enduring rather than what is false and fleeting.

5. “Man naturally desires not only to be loved, but to be lovely”. What Smith means by being loved is being respected, cared about, appreciated, praised, taken seriously and paid attention to. According to Smith, when our peers love us for what we do and who we are, and when we earn their admiration honestly, by being generous and kind, we are happy. “What so great happiness as to be loved, and to know that we deserved to be loved? What so great misery as to be hated, and to know that we deserve to be hated”? Being loved is a natural result of being lovely.

6. It is hard to be objective when you have a horse in the race, that is when your own self-interest is at stake. We like to deceive ourselves that we are lovely when in fact we might not be.

7. “What can be added to the happiness of the man who is in good health, who is out of debt and has a clear conscience”?

8. We imagine we would be happier if we had more money or had a better job or are famous. Greed, vanity and ambition are vices that push us further away from contentment with what we already have. The grass is always greener on the other side. Smith counseled we should keep money and fame in perspective as neither deserved to be pursued so relentlessly that it makes us violate the rules of prudence and justice.

9. By prudence, Smith means our ability to discern the remote consequences of our actions and self-command by which we are able to abstain from present pleasure or to endure pain, in order to gain pleasure or avoid pain in the future.

10. The world generally pays more attention to rich and famous people, hanging onto their words whether they have any expertise on the matter or not, and pays smaller attention to wise and virtuous people. This is why we tolerate the abuse of politically powerful people and mourn their deaths even when they treated us with disdain. Therefore, people desire money and fame so that they can be loved and admired by others. But according to Smith, you can still be loved if you pursue wisdom and goodness and that it is a far more enduring love than being loved for being rich and famous.

11. To be lovely, you need to act appropriately, to meet expectations of people concerning what is proper which allows others to interact with you effectively. To be lovely you also need to be virtuous by which Smith means you need to exercise prudence, justice and beneficence. By prudence, Smith means taking care of ourselves, by justice he means not hurting others and by beneficence means being good to others.

12. A prudent man is genuine; he takes care of his health, his money and his reputation and is modest about his skills and successes and says little but does much.

13. To make the world a better place, be good, be trustworthy and honor those who are trustworthy which is entirely within your power. With your actions you encourage others to be good, our individual acts may be negligible in themselves but their sum is a potent force which results in the creation of a moral, trustful and civilized society. This is a less glamorous way to make the world better but it is potent and within our reach.

I recall reading a review of a book by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, in which he wrote, “Gai Eaton is to be congratulated for creating such a work which warms the soul, illuminates the mind …”. I feel the same about “the theory of moral sentiments.” It is one heck of a book. Read it or Russ Roberts’, “how Adam Smith can change your life” and get marching on with your journey of being lovely and loved.

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