Saturday, October 29, 2011

Adam Smith and Christian confession

I've been reading some Adam Smith (to try and understand the philosophical underpinning of our society).
It is interesting. Though he is generally pointed to by free-market evangelists, because his focus on self-interest as a force for good, he notices problems and tensions in his own position.
In his final revision of "A Theory of Moral Sentiments", he added a section called 'Of the corruption of our moral sentiments, which is occasioned by this disposition to admire the rich and great, and to despise or neglect persons of poor or mean condition'.
The problem was, this 'disposition' messed with his theory of why people act benevolently. Smith knew that some (much) charity was manipulative and self-serving, and even proposed a kind of 'charity market', where people gave to the poor in order to gain the approval of a third party. But even this was not enough, and so Smith required an internal imaginary observer that benevolent people were trying to please. His system of self interest reduced the capacity (though hopefully the need too!) of people to feel the necessary sympathy for other human beings. (and not just the rich either, he saw that the increasing specialisation of labour reduced the poor and middle classes moral imagination too)
Though Smith advocated for self interest, he expected the wealthy to also have 'self command', to be able to put aside self interest in order to act nobly. There was a tension in his thought however. The conditions that lead to charitable giving were usually financial security, but the conditions that lead to 'self-command' were hardship and struggle. How could a person both be generous (from security) and display self command (from embracing hardship), all in a context of self interest.

As I read through, it all makes me think of James, and the extremely basic christian confession we make each time we have communion.
Christ has died
Christ is risen
Christ will come again.

Christ has died, and we are called to share in his crucified life, to share, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in his selfless 'self command'
Christ has risen. This self command however is in the context of the abundant generosity of God in raising the dead (chief among his many other blessings). Christians stand in the ultimate place of security and so can be ultimately generous.
Christ will come again. Living generously to the needy is, in the end, in our best interests, because God will give grace to the humble and destroy the proud. Jesus will return as judge to condemn those who have not lived lives of cross and resurrection hope, who have not lived lives of love. Though earthly governments may or may not be wise to legislate beneficence, God does, and we are absolute fools if we disobey him.

No comments: