Monday, November 28, 2005

Gratitude Compatible With Market Economies

Gregory Rodriguez writes in Los Angeles Times (27 November) on “An attitude of gratitude”, broadly around the US National Holiday of Thanksgiving and raises an interesting point from Adam Smith’s “Moral Sentiments”:

But perhaps most compelling are the words of Adam Smith — yes, the very economist who argued that self interest was a more powerful force for good than benevolence. Smith considered gratitude to be a crucial source of social civility and stability. He wrote that "the duties of gratitude are perhaps the most sacred of all those which the beneficent virtues prescribe to us." And while he believed that the market should be driven by self-interest, Smith nonetheless knew that a healthy society required its members to be more intimately linked. He even seemed to understand that the cold calculations of a market economy sometimes undermined the conditions that gave rise to the spontaneous expression of thanks.

Perhaps this is why — in our hyper-capitalist society — Americans appear more eager than ever to claim the simple pleasures of gratitude. Over the last decade, there has been an explosion of books on the subject. Psychologists are now finding that an attitude of gratitude can have beneficial effects on an individual's emotional well-being. In 1998, a Gallup poll found that 95% of respondents said that expressing gratitude made them feel at least "somewhat happy," and more than half said that it made them "extremely happy."


First, be clear, Smith’s assessments of the virtue of benevolence had to do with the human condition of living under conditions of scarcity. Nobody – other than the Deity - had sufficient goods to spread thick enough to donate to others at a level that would make much of a difference, and certainly no where as near as much as are provide by markets and the division of labour. This did not make markets morally superior to the virtue of benevolence; only more efficient.

The virtues, as Gregory Rodriguez notes, were a powerful “source of social civility and stability” and no society without them would be as pleasant as one that had them. Smith did remark that society could, however, endure for some time without “any mutual love or affection” and could still be “upheld by a mercenary exchange of good offices according to an agreed valuation” (TMS II.ii.3.2, Page 86).

Smith’s approach to the duty of gratitude was to deny the proposition that humans should be motivated by religious principles alone (just because others say that God commands it). The duty of gratitude and the other virtues, instead, should be decided according to “from regard to general rules” and from the ‘natural agreeableness or deformity of the sentiment or affection”, subject to “the looseness and inaccuracy, of the general rules themselves” (TMS III.6.i. page 171).

It is not just a question of duty alone, but also from the “passions themselves”. Gratitude, as with the other virtues, the general rules which determine their “good offices” “are in many respects loose and inaccurate, admit of many exceptions, and require so many modifications, that it is scarce possible to regulate our conduct entirely by a regard to them” and “a very strict and literal adherence to them would be the most absurd and ridiculous pedantry.”

Smith said gratitude was “perhaps” the virtue in which the “rules are most precise and admit of the fewest exceptions” and he then elaborates on the difficult questions of how to apply the general rules to all the circumstances in which we may ponder on their suitability for each occasion.

The quotation that Gregory Rodriguez includes in his article follows these questions (TMS III.6.9, page 174) and Smith goes on to point out that the “actions required by friendship, humanity, hospitality, generosity, are still more vague and indeterminate” than those applying to gratitude. This sets him up to make clear that the virtue of justice is different in that it “admit[s] of no exceptions or modifications” and for an elaboration on this theme in the rest of the chapter.

Rodriguez asserts that Smith “even seemed to understand that the cold calculations of a market economy sometimes undermined the conditions that gave rise to the spontaneous expression of thanks”, which I think creates a non-issue because Smith makes very clear that he thoroughly understands the roles of the virtues, especially that of gratitude, in society and that nothing in commercial society, ‘cold or hot’ modified their application and practice.

That US society, in its “hyper-capitalist society”(?), people “appear more eager than ever to claim the simple pleasures of gratitude” is not surprising to anybody acquainted with his “Moral sentiments” and “Wealth of Nations”. That readers of the Los Angeles Times may need to be reminded of these points is understandable – US academe is the main source for misleading ideas about Adam Smith emanating from Paul Samuelson of MIT and Chicago University. They have only been told about one version of Adam Smith (Homo economicus) who differs in great measure from the Adam Smith of Kirkcaldy.

Read the excellent article by Gregory Rodriguez in LA Times at,0,5488236.column?coll=la-sunday-commentary


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