Adam Smith on Loveliness

Scottish philosopher Adam Smith is well-known and well-loved for founding the study of political economy with of his famous work, The Wealth of Nations. However, he had in fact authored another book before it that is foundational to that foundation. It’s called The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and I would argue that it’s currently a more important read– especially as the culture of developed countries slumps towards moral relativism. Blatant evidence of the divorce of economics from its moral moorings is found in “the Adam Smith problem,” which encapsulates how economists (and experts alike) find it hard to understand that the same individual who wrote about becoming a good person and the origins of morality in a community was also fervently curious about the nature and causes of the wealth of nations. For a man of his time, and a moral philosopher at that, the real question is how did he get so many things right about economics? The key is that he approached human behavior with an integral view of the human person. He understood the totality of visible and invisible incentives for our actions. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he writes in the second chapter:

Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely, or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love. He naturally dreads, not only to be hated, but to be hateful; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of hatred. He desires, not only praise, but praiseworthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be praised by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of praise.

This is the crux of the intersection of economics and morality. Applied economics is a tool by which we achieve ends, and it is true that we do not necessarily need to judge those ends as worthy or unworthy of achievement when the models are used to determine whether they are achievable. From this it has been said that economics is an amoral science. Questions can clearly be formatted: Should Whole Foods make 300 more salads or 100 more cupcakes to increase profit? Should our family invest in real estate or bonds to save for our child’s college education? Should the federal government cut the income tax rate to raise revenue and increase growth?

But the interesting thing is that tool shapes not only outcomes but the craftsman himself.

With each fresh economic decision, we are also changed (the littlest bit) into someone either more lovely or more dreadful. The outcomes and outside standards of our life will determine whether we are praised, loved, and admired by our fellow man or not– but it is the inner, deep life and moment-to-moment orientation of our being that determines whether we are lovely to the core.

Thus, I would argue that economics is not merely amoral because the invisible moral reality underpinning our visible economic reality cannot be divorced from one another. The man who gives money at church is the same man who decides to pay private school tuition, is the same man who pays taxes and votes for officials. Later while describing vanity, Smith touches upon the problem that arises when they are. In contrast to doing things because they are inherently praiseworthy, oftentimes we act only for the praise and esteem of our fellow humans. The reality of “good choice” vs. “bad choice” are replaced with “makes-me-look-good choice” vs. “makes-me-look-bad choice.” Smith writes:

They look upon themselves, not in that light in which, they know, they ought to appear to their companions, but in that in which they believe their companions actually look upon them.

In the United States, this extensive phenomenon has been labeled with the highly technical term “keeping up with the Joneses” and can be observed in every neighborhood, office building, and church. If you ask around (college kids do that kind of thing) that kind of life seems to be unfulfilling and just plain boring after awhile.

The good news is that many people, from professors to Popes, are writing about this essential relationship between morality and economics again. In “Rethinking Morality,” Professor McRorie discusses a few key texts to highlight the strengthening link between morality and behavioral economics. EconTalk and Intelligence Squared (podcasts I just gleefully stumbled upon) wrestles with these topics in refreshingly open discourse. And of course, there seems to be no subject on which the light of St. Pope John Paul II the Great has not shone:

It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards “having” rather than “being”, and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself. It is therefore necessary to create life-styles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments (Centesimus Annus).

Back to Adam Smith– a real trap of free market cultures seems to be the ability to look praiseworthy without becoming praiseworthy. And here’s the real rub: there will be choices that will not gain us love, praise, and admiration by our fellow human beings. In fact, truly praiseworthy choices may even earn us hatred, blame, and suffering.

We must choose them anyway.

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The Way to Flourish at College and Beyond

“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original whereas if you simply tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” (C.S. Lewis)

Originally and politely suggested in an ISI email, it nevertheless took a long line at the DMV (sneaky payback for every speed limit I’ve ever scoffed at?) for me to finally resign myself to reading this article. For some reason, I have a hearty disdain and distrust of these kind of articles that sell sweeping fix-alls and revolutionary advice. Perhaps it’s my generation; perhaps it’s just me. But I quickly knew that this advice would be true and truly original, since the opening paragraphs were not afraid to tell me that I was very wrong in my thinking but that someone else was very right. “The Muses do not keep a calendar or follow a plan,” is the summery trap I found myself in recently, but luckily, we are given the antidote:

There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:

    a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,
    a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,
    a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,
    a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
    a time to search and a time to give up,
    a time to keep and a time to throw away,
    a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak,
    a time to love and a time to hate,
    a time for war and a time for peace.

What do workers gain from their toil? 10 I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. 12 I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-12).

Funny me for muddling it all together. The river needs strong banks to channel its energy. The author proceeds to cite the fruitful routines of Lewis and Churchill to drive the point home (just mention Mr. C.S. Lewis and I’m all ears).

So– in my funny, long-winded way I’m politely suggesting that you read this article and take it’s advice to heart. Building routines in your life is like what happens in a simple piano piece when you merge the dancing right hand with the undercurrent of the left. Art is limitation. Games only work when we play by the rules. It’s yet another paradox of this life; know first what everything is for and then the mysteries of the world will flower before you.


Source: The Way to Flourish at College and Beyond

Russell Kirk on Perfect Government

“We are not made for perfect things, and if ever we found ourselves under the domination of the perfect government, we would make mincemeat of it, from pure boredom”

–Russell Kirk, The Best Form of Government

What a funny thing to say. What could be undesirable about perfect things? Just ask anyone a week after they aced that test, about 3 days after they bought their new favorite outfit, or a month after they moved in to their dream house. It’s upside-down– things do not perfect us. Things, systems, routines…they all get boring. We perfect us. “You are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” does not mean that God has instituted the perfect system of representation and taxation amongst His angelic hosts. It means that God is love. Therefore, we are made to be perfected in love. The best form of government (of culture too) then, is one that enables us to love, to freely choose the good of the other.

This puts a whole new spin on things, no?

As mentioned before in my last post, I’m beginning to realize the deep social wisdom of the common prayer that begs for the grace for “taking this sinful world as it is…not as I would have it.” Perfect is boring; love alone is infinitely interesting.

To properly conclude, one of the most incredible passages I’ve yet encountered:

At the back of every discussion of the good society lies this question, What is the object of human life? The enlightened conservative does not believe that the end or aim of life is competition; or success; or enjoyment; or longevity; or power; or possessions. He believes, instead, that the object of life is Love. He knows that the just and ordered society is that in which Love governs us, so far as Love ever can reign in this world of sorrows; and he knows that the anarchical or the tyrannical society is that in which Love lies corrupt. He has learnt that Love is the source of all being, and that Hell itself is ordained by Love. He understands that Death, when we have finished the part that was assigned to us, is the reward of Love. And he apprehends the truth that the greatest happiness ever granted to a man is the privilege of being happy in the hour of his death. (Prospects for Conservatives, 21).

Why a Humanities Lover Loves Business School

I was raised on the Greats. I will be forever indebted to a canon of remarkable people, whose names are recounted on countless journal pages, for this gift. The epic tales of history’s saints and sinners, symbolism and allegory woven into the classic texts, and a taste and talent for the arts nourished me as frequently and thoroughly as family dinner did each night. Within the timeless conversations of the humanities I am most at home, most comfortable, and most myself.

And yet it is not enough. A lifestyle that revolves around loving to learn and learning to think reveals a distinct tragedy at the heart of our human existence. The enchantment of  learning is not in it’s satisfaction– for surely every answer contains the seeds of still more mysteries. And some mysteries cannot even be solved– they are only worth thinking about. C.S. Lewis called this bittersweetness sehnsucht, a German word that signifies “the inconsolable longing in the heart for we know not what.”It augments our activities on this earth while increasing our hunger for more. “Man cannot live on bread alone” and yet still “the highest does not stand without the lowest.” My learning needed grassier, more organic grounds.

Why business school? 

Why the marketplace?

Why move to a realm that seems unaffected by these deeper rhythms and meanings in life? 

There are many great reasons (and I’m sure I will eventually record them on here, one way or another) but the bottom-line is that I was tired of longing. I was ready for something to bite into, not just to mull over. I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but slowly and surely over the course of my semester abroad in the Dominican Republic. I realized how precious our marketplace can be. As my mind was opened to the ancient questions of poverty and the good life, I grew to appreciate the lower on which the higher must be founded. Especially when we think outside our comfortable nation, the tangible “lower” is still missing from the lives of countless numbers. It still bothers me that the children whom I taught in a makeshift school in the Dominican Republic are unlikely to ever read The Consolation of Philosophy or enjoy an afternoon perusing the local art museum. They won’t have the opportunity to discuss the merits of school choice in the public square or whisper verses from “God’s Grandeur” under their breath upon beholding a particularly illustrious sunset.

As I’ve progressed in my studies, the benefits of studying business have been amplified into three distinct purposes: 1) great theories can be very different in practice, 2) teamwork is remarkably good for people, and 3) interdisciplinary dialogue is the key to true progress. 

The theory vs. practice tension arises from the simple reality that human beings are imperfect. We are to take this world as it is, not as we would have it. Accounting problems, financial statements, and knowledge of business law will help you identify the way our messy world actually works. Anyone blessed (cursed?) with siblings can attest to the fact that, at the end of the day, the whole family is greater than the sum of its parts. In fact, I am convinced that 90% of the organizational issues can be traced to the fact that certain people never really learned how to work nicely with others. Mustering up a cheerful attitude during a meeting (even when the height of entertainment was the magical way your cream swirled through your coffee) and letting small annoyances (monotone voices…droning….on….) roll of your back are survival skills for the business world, but also for life. Considering that many children will not learn these things before school in our modern world, it is truly a blessing that business school students are forced to learn them through semesters of group projects and team presentations. Not to mention that you are essentially forced to hang out with a new group of friends– something that always opens your eyes.

Lastly, I firmly believe that conversations across disciplines are necessary for seeking truth. Again, real life is not like an amusement park where each subject has its play-area, but more like kaleidoscope lenses, where each fresh rotation is the view from a distinct department. There is undeniable strength to focusing on one portion of truth, and perfecting that as befits your skills, but it would be hilarious to think that any department has a monopoly over the right way of thinking. Yet something like this goes on in more ways than one. Senator Sasse has provided excellent insight on improving the way that we debate:

In conclusion, this humanities lover loves business school because it is refreshing. It is refreshingly real, refreshingly human, and something refreshingly solid on which to build a good life.

 

Alain de Botton on “The Art of Travel”

The first time I laid eyes upon The Art of TravelI immediately knew that I would adore it. Not only did its giver have an impeccable track record for book gifts, but travel, art, and beauty, all explained through the eyes of a witty English philosopher?* How much better could it get? If we could eat books, this would be my first course.

And now, precisely a year later, I have reopened the pages (to be welcomed by a small shower of Domincan sand) to once again meet the text for use in a short speech assignment. I’ve come to the sad realization that rarely do friends take my fervent book recommendations into serious consideration (God bless them when they do), and so the speech is a fun way to share my favorite portions. The chapters chosen were “On Curiosity,” “On the Country and the City,” and “On the Sublime.” Although my real presentation includes a notes-sheet packed with delicious verses, for simplicity’s sake I’ve included just one per chapter here, along with my Prezi:

I. On Curiosity

“Curiosity might be pictured as being made up of chains of small questions extending outwards, sometimes over huge distances, form a central hub composed of a few blunt, large questions. In childhood we ask, ‘Why is there good and evil?’ ‘How does nature work?’ ‘Why am I me?’ If circumstances and temperament allow, we then build on these questions during adulthood, our curiosity encompassing more and more of the world until at some point we may reach that elusive stage where we are bored by nothing. The blunt large questions become connected to smaller, apparently esoteric ones. We end up wondering about flies on the sides of mountains or about a particular fresco on the wall of a sixteenth-century palace.” (pg. 116)

II. On the Country and the City

“Of what moment is that when compared with what I trust is their destiny, to console the afflicted, to add sunshine to daylight by making the happy happier, to teach the young and the gracious of every age to see, to think and feel, and therefore to become more actively and securely virtuous; this is their office, which I trust they will faithfully perform long after we (that is, all that is mortal of us) are mouldered in our graves” –Wordsworth in a letter to Lady Beaumont after his poetry was initially described as “namby-pamby” and “a piece of babyish absurdity”

III. On the Sublime

“‘Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me’…When divine wisdom eludes human understanding, the righteous, made aware of their limitations by the spectacle of sublime nature, must continue to trust in God’s plans for the universe” (pg. 171)

Surely there is nothing more enthusing than the prospect of traveling, not only to new places but with such playfully enlightened eyes.


 

*If you need any more reason to read the text, consider that there is a portion entitled “The Exoticism of Shitting Donkeys.”

Cyprian Norwid on Beauty

Beauty is to enthuse us for work, and work is to raise us up    –Cyprian Norwid (Polish poet)

A girl–even a girl who cares very much about economics and school choice–can only read and summarize working papers for so long until she has to take a break for something beautiful.  Something less useful. I came across this quote in a letter from Pope John Paul II, discovered through my brother’s recent blog post, and it struck a chord. Perhaps because he goes on to discuss a remarkable Greek word, kalokagathía which signifies the incarnation of goodness in the form of beauty, or because my cottage endured a glorious bout of spring cleaning this morning, I am quite sure that beauty is the one thing that we all desperately need more of. Especially in ourselves.

But what does it mean that beauty excites us for work? Beautiful things tend to resonate with us, and when we allow ourselves to be allured, they can draw us from where we are to where we ought to be. The power of beauty is that it resonates, but just not enough. We have to change if we want to feel at peace in the presence of a beautiful artwork, musical composition, or personality.  I felt this just a moment ago during my pre-class morning procession to the coffeeshop, over the well-worn cobblestones, past spring’s sweet-smelling trees, and under the light blue and light coral sky.

Beauty will humble us, then work exalts us. I am drawing completely from my personal experience here– the best feeling that I know arrives when I rest my head on my pillow after a full day of fruitful work. Whether it’s a long, refreshing run, a completed paper, or painted canvas for a birthday gift, we humans love looking over our shoulder and seeing progress. Work was made for us. Sure, it’s terribly frustrating, and the space between where I am and where I want to be seems insurmountable at least once a day (especially during those hours right before lunch), but beauty comes in and reminds us of the reward.

“You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace.”

Beauty, truth, and goodness return us back to our right selves. They grant not only practical clarity, but pure excitement as well. It is precisely this reason why we should all care very much about surrounding ourselves with beautiful things and beautiful people, in our home, at work, and at play. It turns out that bare, useful things aren’t quite useful enough to complete the work we seek to complete.

And still the real crux of the matter has yet to be mentioned. At the end of the day, Peter Kreeft had it right in his lecture on the Sea when he spoke that we don’t want to possess beauty, but instead what we find we really want is to be entirely possessed by it. Just as the sea engulfs us as we rush into the waves, so we want to be engulfed by Beauty.


For further reading:

Asceticism: The Alternative to “Hope and Change”

Walt Whitman on Miracles

Oh God beyond all praising, we worship you today!

As I sleepily sit in a white rental minivan with my dad at the helm, zooming through the streets of Paradise Valley back to the airport, nothing seems short of a miracle. A mere three days of family Easter vacation in this desert oasis have reminded me that first things come first, and a first thing is to grab the person closest to you and give them a hug.

For me, the second thing is to share the wonderful things that strike me in the things that I read. I love poetry because it attunes our minds to the melody of the everyday. It sings from the order of leathery airplane seat rows, juxtaposed to the reckless glory of dawn unable to be held back by a thin airplane pane, the extra squeeze in a brother’s hug before we depart to our respective terminals towards our respective homes, and the unexpectedly cheery grin of the flight attendant as he dispenses breakfast cookies, lemon waters, coffees, and the occasional cocktail (oh what a mystery at 6am.) As Alain de Botton declares in The Art of Travel (a jolly brilliant book on which I frequently bubble over with mirth by quoting passages to my poor traveling companions):

Journeys are the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than moving planes, ships, or trains. There is an almost quaint correlation between what is before our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views, and new thoughts, new places (pg. 54.)

And believe me, with the mind of an economics major, I mean to grasp and share this point in all its practicality. We know we’ve found the truth when it changes something. It begins to make all things new. So what do these mini-miracles mean for the way we go about our everyday lives? It’s pretty simple: our concrete reactions. Life sweeps us up in a new dance each morning (I’m pretty sure this is the reason that music, rhythms, and poems resonate so soundly with us.) A real gem for your Easter morning:
Miracles
By: Walt Whitman

Why, who makes much of a miracle?

As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,

Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,

Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,

Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of the water,

Or stand under trees in the woods,

Or talk by day with any one I love, or sleep in the bed at night with any one I love,

Or sit at table at dinner with the rest,

Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,

Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive of a summer forenoon,

Or animals feeding in the fields,

Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,

Or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of stars shining so quiet and bright,

Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring;

These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,

The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.

 

To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,

Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,

Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same,

Every foot of the interior swarms with the same.

 

To me the sea is a continual miracle,

The fishes that swim—the rocks—the motion of the waves—the ships with men in them,

What stranger miracles are there?

Pope JPII on Economics

It is not wrong to to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life that is presumed to be better when it is directed toward ‘having’ rather than toward ‘being’, and which wants to have more not in order to be more, but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself. It is therefore necessary to create lifestyles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness, and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings, and investments. —Centesimus Annus 

 

Ronald Reagan on Heroes

Heroes may not be braver than anyone else. They’re just braver 5 minutes longer.
― Ronald Reagan

I’d classify this quote as sheer genius for two reasons. (Well actually three, if you count the fact that I’m a huge fan of Ronald Reagan to begin with). The foremost is that it recognizes that we all have the capacity for heroism. That deep-down ardor for kleos aphthiton, enduring glory, was designed as part of our humanity. I think that our prevailing fear of failure, or even worse, dull complacency, causes us to set our sights much too low, much too often. There is a reason why it is good for us to surround ourselves with extraordinary people, why athletes often prepare for a game by envisioning themselves performing their best, or why we know to encourage young kids to read and draw. Running parallel to its pleasure, the power of the imagination is that it can transform abstract hero-worship in our mind into an understanding in our hearts that we are capable and have the obligation to act heroically. The second point is worthy of daily consideration: heroes are made in the small moments. The five minutes. If you do not adhere faithfully to your principles in the little things, how can you reasonably expect yourself to be faithful in the bigger, more public matters?

Inspired by the above quotation, I’d like to conclude this weekly passage with a tidy essay I recently penned on the two political leads whom I admire the most. Not only do both Walker and Sasse exhibit heroism, but they also inspire heroic action in others.


 

Two political leaders that I hold in high esteem are Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Nebraskan Senator Ben Sasse. Both men fight for the free market and family values that are the bedrock of our great American society, though my particular admiration is sparked by how they do so. Walker is courageous and straightforward, and those virtues were demonstrated as he stood firm about making Wisconsin a right-to-work state and emerging victorious from the recall election by a greater margin than his original win. Second, he has the mind of a principled business leader, as he lowered taxes, reduced regulation, and cut funding to Planned Parenthood. My esteem of Senator Sasse arises because he has the well-rounded attributes of a great historian and communicator. Knowledge of history is necessary for understanding why our founding principles are worthy of conservation, and his scholarliness is evident in his speeches through his easy references to Tocqueville’s notion of voluntary association, Burke’s conservative principles, Madison’s view on limited government, and even Aristotle on friendship. His real wisdom is the way he presents these timeless truths with compassion and humor. An argument may be valid, but it must also be understood to be great. Lastly, exhibiting the difference between meaningful quotes and sound-bytes, Sasse once articulated the meaning of America in the best way I’ve heard:

Limited government is not an end in itself. Limited government is a way to constrain the things that could displace those institutions and those transmission opportunities that define what is fully meaningful in human life.

John Donne on Religion

What a week! Though the frigid air swirls and chills the earth ever more, I’m tempted to argue that the cozy winter months bring out the warmest times amongst friends. Since such present living has left me with little time for reflective essays, this week’s passage will be a remarkable poem that never fails to leave quite the impression. No further words are needed:
By: John Donne
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.