SOCY 151: Foundations of Modern Social Theory
|Transcript||Audio||Low Bandwidth Video||High Bandwidth Video|
Foundations of Modern Social Theory
SOCY 151 - Lecture 7 - Mill: Utilitarianism and Liberty
Chapter 1. Smith in a Historical Context [00:00:00]
Professor Iván Szelényi: Good morning again. Well I made some adjustment today to the syllabus, and I hope you don’t mind. I do make this adjustment to make the test more enjoyable for you. So I decided that I will start today with Adam Smith, and I will spend roughly about half of the class on Adam Smith. So I will bore the hell out of those of you who are in Varieties of Capitalism, because this lecture was given there, but it was a full class. It will be just–I will skim it. And then I will move on to John Stuart Mill and finish John Stuart Mill Tuesday, sort of midway of the class. And what I would like to do Tuesday, to take the questions, and what I will do for you, I will show how I would answer the questions. Okay? So I’ll just go through question by question and will show you where I see the dilemmas are and how I see it to be engaged. All right?
Student: Thank you.
Professor Iván Szelényi: Good. So anyway, my apologies to those who take Varieties of Capitalism. As I said, out of the fifty lectures I give this semester, there is only one which is the same in the two courses. And I actually figured out that I was, by the way, wrong doing the syllabus and putting John Stuart Mill after Adam Smith. We better start with Adam Smith because not only precedes him in time, but a number of ideas are more mature in John Stuart Mill. He has thought out a number of problems which were raised by Adam Smith, but Adam Smith did not quite arrive at the kind of precision and logical consistencies–what I think John Stuart Mill achieved and utilitarianism achieved. Now let me also, before I get into Adam Smith, very briefly do some household chores.
So Adam Smith. And this is what I want to rush quickly through. His life–we don’t really know all that much about his life, and it is not as colorful as Jean Jacques Rousseau. And then his major contributions: his theory of self-interest and how self-interest is related to the common good, his labor theory of value, his idea of distribution of value between labor capital and rent, and finally (what is the most often cited) with his theory of the invisible hand.
So here it is, Adam Smith. About his life, he was born in 1723 in Scotland, Kirkcaldy, just outside of Edinburgh, which is a beautiful city. If you did not visit it yet, I recommend that you do. He entered the University of Glasgow, and interestingly at that time, in the mid-eighteenth century, for reasons which is beyond me, next to Paris and in a way London, Edinburgh was the center of the Scottish Enlightenment. Then he also went to Oxford, in Balliol College, and in 1751 he was appointed at the University of Glasgow as a–Glasgow I would not recommend as a tourist destination, by the way–he became a professor of logic, and then he became a professor of moral philosophy, believe it or not. Right? The person who is known about self-interest and the invisible hand, his major first job was professor of moral philosophy, of ethics.
And, in 1759, he published a book, the book called The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which is a book on ethics. Well we will see this is a big issue, whether this book was written out of expediency; he wrote it just because he wanted to justify that he’s a professor of moral philosophy and he didn’t really believe in it because he was an economist, a rational choice economist, or was he really a moralist? That’s one of the big questions I think what scholars on Adam Smith are debating. He traveled in Europe, and this may have been a turning point in his life. He meets Voltaire and Quesnay, a major economist of his time, and other representatives of French Enlightenment. And French Enlightenment may have actually influenced him and pushed him, after the return of Glasgow, to Kirkcaldy for awhile; he went back and that’s where he mainly wrote The Wealth of Nations, and that’s the most important book.
But I think in order to understand Adam Smith, we have to come to terms with the apparent tension between The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations. Is this the same author, or these are two different authors? Is it the same theory, or there are two different theories offered to us? And that’s I think very complicated. He passed away in 1790. Well I wanted to find you some figures about–pictures about his life. The only thing what I could find is a memorial on the site where the house stood in Kirkcaldy, where he wrote The Wealth of Nations. So it’s not only Yale University which is turning buildings down; even the British do turn all buildings down, even if they should not have done so. Right? It would be so nice to visit the house where The Wealth of Nations was written. But if you go to Kirkcaldy, well you can visit that site and to have a look.
Okay, so as I said, Adam Smith seemed to have two faces. Regularly, normally today, if you take economics classes, he is presented as the person who is advocating the self-interested individual and a committed theorist of the self-regulating markets, of the invisible hand– as little government as possible, pursue just your self-interest, and your self-interest will lead to the common good. So he is the sort of inspiration for neoclassical economics and rational choice theory, and methodological individualism, to put it this way.
But he has this book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which he is writing about sympathy as an important motivation for human action. And is this just a concession to his job, or is there something deep in him which also saw the need for a helping hand by the public authorities? That’s the big puzzle we have to struggle with. Well there are other people who are more qualified to give you the most authentic interpretation of Smith. I’ll try to do my best. Okay?
Well and indeed The Wealth of Nations looks like about self-interested individuals and the invisible hand. I will present you enough citations that you see it. I will also show you why it is possible. Some of Smith’s interpreters will suggest that this is the same Mill [correction: Smith], and in fact The Wealth of Nations is just an extension of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, rather than a contradiction to it. This is not the majority view. Right? Today, among economists in particular, the majority view is that you should not really pay much attention to The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The Wealth of Nations gives you the real source and inspiration, and this is what guides neoclassical economics. But you may find some economists who disagree, and you will find a number of political philosophers who will disagree and will say that this is not the real Adam Smith who is presented to you by neoclassical economists. And I don’t want to take a position in this. I’m not sufficiently a Smith scholar to be able to do so. But I will present you the argument both ways, and you can make up your mind where you stand on this.
Chapter 2. The Theory of Moral Sentiments: Major Themes [00:07:04]
So The Theory of Moral Sentiments–just very briefly what this is. He does ask the central question: How can we make moral judgment? How can we tell good from evil, good for bad? Well it’s a very important issue and question. Many founding theorists of modern social theory were dealing with this. The most important one, we will talk about him at great–in fifteen minutes–is Frederick Nietzsche, of course; the genealogy of morals. This is the central question: Where does our conception of good and evil come from? But Adam Smith already here asked this question, and he said, well “what’s the solution?”
That inside you there is an inner person. You are two people. You act, and there is somebody inside you who is watching you, and that inside you will tell you, “You did something wrong; that was not the right thing to do.” And I think you should be able to relate to this. I can. There is very often inner self, in myself, which tells me that was a mistake I did, that was a foolish thing I did, I should not have done so. I know people who have a very small impartial internal spectator. I know people who have very great difficulties telling ever that I made a mistake. There are some people who always blame others if things go wrong. Well I think they have a moral problem, I would say. So what about yourself? You may have a moral problem if your inner self never tells you that you were wrong, and you are always liking to blame others if things went wrong. Then you have a problem, an ethical problem; at least this is Adam Smith’s argument. Right? Simple and persuasive.
Then he says–this is something which is kind of inspired by Hobbes–we are led by passion. But now he is not emphasizing fear. He said, “also by sympathy.” That’s crucial, and that’s the crucial notion for those who emphasize that in fact Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations is the same Adam Smith as in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Because Adam Smith, those who argue for one Adam Smith rather than two Adam Smiths, say that he has a theory of humans which is a sympathetic theory of humans. What drives us, that we have sympathy for others, other people’s sympathies, that in interacting with others we are seeking other people’s sympathy. Right? We try to please people. We want to impress people. We want to have a reputation; we want to have a good reputation. We want to act honorably. So we are seeking sympathy. We have a sympathy–we have an understanding of other people’s human conditions–but we are also expecting others to understand us and value us. Right?
And I think this is a very important and intriguing idea, which I will show, try to show you later on, may not be completely inconsistent by the idea that seeking self-interest is leading to the common good. Right? Because indeed, if self-interest implies that I also want others to respect and evaluate [correction: value] me, the self-interest also implies that I want to do good to others. This is in your self-interest, that you can say at the end of the day, “I am a good person.” Then, in fact, pursuing these self-interests may not be all that different from the common good because it is inside you. And this, I think, is the way how he is being read.
And he introduces the notion for the first time of the concept invisible hand in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. But here the invisible hand is not what you are told Adam Smith’s theory of the invisible hand is. It’s not the laissez-faire free market. It’s the hand of God. Right? God guides us to have a proper balance between passion and sympathy, and that is somehow God’s will, what we follow. In fact, I will talk about this later on. A big deal is made out of Adam Smith’s theory of the invisible hand. The term, the word, invisible hand, the term, comes up three times in his work. Right? And in each time he’s using it in a different meaning. The way how we understand invisible hand comes from a section once, in one sentence, in The Wealth of Nations. And in fact it is specifically about foreign trade and international trade, not about the role of the government in domestic affairs, but it’s about free trade, free international trade. And this is the context in which he’s using the invisible hand, as it is being interpreted mostly today by Adam Smith theorists. Right? So it’s intriguing, isn’t it? Watch yourself when you are coining a term because a term occasionally can stick and then it will be always attributed to you, even if you use it once in your life. Okay?
Chapter 3. The Wealth of Nations: Major Themes; Self-Interest and the Common Good [00:13:29]
Well The Wealth of Nations. Well these are kind of the Table of Contents. He writes about the division of labor and determination of prices, accumulation of capital. He writes about the evaluation of societies: hunting, raising agriculture, and commercial societies. He never used the term capitalism; modern economy was commercial industrial society for him. And then he offers a criticism of mercantilism. That’s where he offers an argument for free international trade, and that’s where he introduces the notion of the invisible hand. And then something is on taxation, what I will not talk about.
So self-interest and the common good; one of the big issues we have to discuss when we are faced with Adam Smith. And the arguments are if you are interacting with each other, do not expect benevolence. Right? Do not expect that somebody else will be charitable to you. There is also saying if you are seeking self-interest–specifically in the citations I have; for instance, choosing your employment. If you chose it rationally, this will be in the common good. And I will try to explain why you seeking self-interest in finding the job which is best for you is also the best for society. And then he says, well the individuals are the better judges of their own interests than any statement or lawgiver. As little state as possible–that’s where it is coming from, and we will see how he argues the case. So do not expect benevolence.
Okay, this is a very frequently cited sentence from Adam Smith. It’s not in the text I assigned for this course. Well, “It is not the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner from, but the very self-interest of the butcher.” I go to the restaurant, I do not expect the cook to prepare me a good meal because I need a good meal and I expect the cook to like me. Right? I want him to cook a good meal because then I will give a tip. It is in the self-interest of the waiter to serve me well and serve me good food. Otherwise I will not go back again and I will not give a tip. I will punish. It is appealing to the self-interest of the person for whom I expect something, and not is benevolence.
Well he said well we address ourselves not to the humanity of the people, not to their self-love, but we want people to take advantage of this. This is an interesting issue, by the way, even in everyday life. I’m sure in this room there are people who think about this differently. Just to give you a very personalized example. My wife occasionally tells me, “This person is not a good friend of yours because this person only calls you when that person needs you.” And this does happen. And my answer always is–and I think in this way, deep in my heart, I’m a Smithian–“I don’t want friends, I don’t want anybody, who do not see an advantage in interacting with me. I want people who actually act out of self-interest seeking my relationship. It will be a bad relationship if my friends always think that it cost them to talk to me, and they do not benefit from the relationship with me.” Right? I don’t want my children just to act out of love and sort of be a pain in the neck for them. Right? I want my children to see that having me as a father is beneficial for them. That’s a good relationship. Good relationships are always based on self-interest. You don’t want to have a lover who does not enjoy being your lover. Therefore you want people acting out of self-interest. And I think that’s what he’s getting at here. He said even the beggar–here actually the citation says, “The beggars are the ones who are dependent only upon benevolence.” But then he qualifies it, he says, “But even for the beggar it is not quite true.” Right? The beggar will make some tricks in which, in fact, actually will appeal to your self-interest, that you are a charitable person or what.
Now self-interest in employment. He said well it’s a very good example. He said when you are choosing an occupation, of course you want to have a big job, you want to be well-paid. Right? Those of you who are an economics major, you may want to have some nice job at some brokerage firm in Wall Street, and with a Yale Bachelor’s Degree you would like to earn $100,000.00 a year. Right? But why would you earn $100,000.00? Because the employer gets a lot out of these skills what you get out of Yale, and therefore it will be in the interest of the society that you get the highest possible salary because you make the greatest contribution to the common good; otherwise you would not be paid that high. Okay? So therefore you will try to find that occupation in which you get the highest possible reward, but you will get only the highest possible reward because you make the utmost contribution you can, with your talent, with your hard work, and with your skills, to the common good. This is Adam Smith’s argument. It’s a persuasive argument actually. Right?
Well I can go on; it’s not all that important. Now this is very important too, I find. “Individuals are the better judge of their own interests than anybody else.” Right? And well this is I think again extremely important, and I’m sure this classroom is divided fifty/fifty percent along these views. Right? He said well the individuals in the local situations are simply better judges to what is their interest than any statement or lawgiver. Right? People should judge for themselves what they want and it should not be a government which imposes it on them. Right? This is a big debate right now, for instance about the healthcare insurance, the healthcare reform. Should we let it up to people to decide whether they want to have an insurance or not? Should we expect people to be individually responsible for themselves, to take charge of their life? Or should it be the government, or should it be a statesman, the lawgiver, the Congress who takes care of people? And he clearly takes a position no, I think people are the best judges of their feelings.
Chapter 4. The Labor Theory of Value; The Invisible Hand [00:21:24]
Now the labor theory of value. And let me rush through of it. This is important. His point of departure comes from John Locke, as we have seen, and it is leading directly to Karl Marx. Karl Marx radicalizes his position, but the point of departure is clearly Adam Smith. And the argument about the labor theory of value: the labor is the measure of all values. And then he said, “The whole produce belongs to the labor.” And so far Marx completely agrees with him; and we will see when we will be discussing Marx. But then he departs from it because he asks the question, where does the profit and rent come from? Marx asked this question as well, and he says exploitation; those who earn profit exploit the workers. But Adam Smith has a different view. He says well those who will lend capital and those who offer land also deserve part of the value.
Now let’s see how this contradiction can be resolved, how he’s dealing with this. How can that all value is created by labor and belongs to the laborer, and nevertheless the capitalist pockets profit and the landowner pockets rent for the land? Then here this is very much John Locke: “The value of any commodity belongs to the person who possesses it, and if it is not for use or consumption but exchange, then the value of this commodity is equal to the amount of labor which has to be put into this.” “Labor is therefore,” he said, “the real measure of the exchangeable value of all commodities.” Right? Commodities can have a use value, they can be very useful, and they can have very little labor in it, like fresh air; though by now we know fresh air needs quite a bit of labor too. Right? But the exchange, how the exchange it, will be guided, according to Smith, by labor.
Few people accept today the labor theory of value; Smith or Marx, no matter what. And it belongs to the whole laborer. This is a very interesting argument. He said–and this is again John Locke–“The property of every man is his own labor, and therefore every value is created by this labor, and therefore it has to belong to the person who owns the labor.” “But.” he said, “this is true for societies before capital is being accumulated and before land is privately owned.” Right? So this is really an argument for ancient societies, without capital accumulation and without private ownership of the land. In these conditions, if there is no capital accumulation and no private ownership, land is commonly owned, then the whole produced labor belongs to the laborer. This is where he, Marx, will depart dramatically from Adam Smith.
So where does the profit and rent come? Well are capitalists simply exploiting the workers? He said, “No, there is a distribution of value [correction: income] between labor, capital and rent.” Right? And this is reasonable, because the capitalist offers capital in order–in fact, advances capital to the laborer, takes risks with this advancement of the capital, supervises the labor process–and therefore it should claim some profit from capital; otherwise would be a fool not to advance its capital. And the same goes for land actually. Landowners also will have to give the land a site in which production takes place, and therefore they really should be able to collect some rent on this land.
Well finally the invisible hand. There are three conceptions of this–I briefly pointed this out–in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. He said this is really God which gives us a sense of sympathy and creates a balance between passion, desires, and hunger for more, and self-restraint to respect others and earn respect from others. Right? And then, of course, in The Wealth of Nations, this appears to be the free marketplace. And then finally he had a manuscript, History of Astronomy, and he said the invisible hand is the hand of Jupiter; the hand of Jupiter because people, as long as they are ignorant, phenomena–lightening for instance, what they don’t–cannot explain–attribute to the will of Jupiter. Right? Superstition; the invisible hand is superstition. Okay? So what is fun, that three instances where the notion of the invisible hand is used, in each case a different meaning, and in none of the cases exactly the same meaning as we normally understand it.
Chapter 5. Mill in a Historical Context [00:27:17]
Okay, I think I’m now moving over to John Stuart Mill, and to utilitarianism. And he’s a wonderful man and makes a lot of–Okay, so this is all about utilitarianism and liberty, and the long road from Jeremy Bentham to John Stuart Mill. Utilitarianism is a fundamentally important proposition. It informs modern economic theory, and it informs political and social theories which are in the kind of rational choice mode of theorizing. And the point of departure is Bentham, who in many ways is the Founding Father of utilitarianism, though he never used the term, and he influenced the life of John Stuart Mill in a major way. Mill’s father was James Mill, quite an intellectual. He wrote a big three volume history of India and the British involvement in India. He met Bentham in 1808 and he fell in love with the theory of utilitarianism, and he asked him to supervise the education of his son–what he did.
And sort of poor John Stuart Mill grew up under the influence of a very strong father and a very strong teacher. And he invented the term, John Stuart Mill, the term utilitarianism in 1822, at a very young age. Then he suffers a nervous breakdown. When you see what utilitarianism is, you will not wonder; I mean, if you are really a strict utilitarian, difficult to survive without a nervous breakdown. All right, so what is Bentham’s theory? He published a book, The Principles of Morals and Legislation, in 1789, and there are some very important claims in this book. And at first instance they sound very reasonable, but he may be pushing his luck too far.
He said, “Well we are created to seek pleasure and to avoid pain, and therefore if we can minimize the pain and maximize the pleasure, that’s when we achieve the greatest happiness.” That’s what will be called utility. Right? So action is right if it is leading to happiness. Right? We all want to be happy. Okay, well and this can be actually quantified. The action is right, morally right, if the sum of pleasures minus the sum of pains, multiplied by the number of persons affected by action is positive. Right? Sounds reasonable, right? If more people are happy in society than unhappy, then the society does as well as it can. Right? That’s really the argument.
Well there are a couple of citations. I don’t want to dwell on this too long. I will put it on the web; and it’s not in the text I require from you to read. So, he said, “The two big masters are pain and pleasure”; somewhat a kind of similar argument to Hobbes. And he said, “An action may be said to be conformable with the principle of utility when the tendency is to augment happiness, and that is greater than to diminish it.” And what is utility? “Utility is that principle which approves or disapproves a reaction to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question.” Right? This is a notion of utility which is not all that far away what economists are using, even at this time. Then here comes something what I think nobody would accept now, that’s simply–he said, “Well it’s easy therefore to calculate it.” Right? And I already pointed this out, you just count the number of people who are happy and who have pain, and count the number of people who are happy with it and have pleasure, and if more people have pleasure, the sum total of pleasure exceeds the sum total of pains, then you got the good society. That’s utilitarianism à la Bentham.
Well John Stuart Mill–here he is. He was born in London. He never attended school; he was a lucky one. But not necessarily all that lucky because his teacher was Bentham and John [correction: James] Mill, who were tough people, and he had to start learning Latin and Greek when he was three-years-old. Well if there are anybody who is Asian-American in the room, Chinese, you may have to start actually to learn how to read and write in Chinese pretty early. But he did this with Latin and Greek which to my mind is a big easier than to learn all the characters in Chinese.
Anyway, ‘22, he established the Utilitarian Society and invents the term utilitarianism. And then he suffers a nervous breakdown; I mean, two domineering people in his life. And then he also becomes very sort of unhappy with the expediency emphasis on utilitarianism–instrumentalism, the coldness of the argument. He’s actually becoming–becomes interested in poetry. And then he meets Harriet Taylor, a wonderful lady, and a friendship, a very close friendship is formed.
Harriet Taylor was a fantastic intellectual, as far as we can judge; one of the very first radical feminists, and had a probably extraordinary impact on the work of John Stuart Mill. If he would have been a real feminist, he probably should have put on his work Harriet Taylor as a co-author; she probably co-authored this work. I mean, she was married, and this was an interesting triangle which did develop. I mean, in what way we don’t quite know, but they were traveling together, the threefold; anyway, quite interesting. What can I say? Well ‘51, Mr. Taylor passes away, and then John Stuart Mill immediately marries Harriet Taylor. But unfortunately she has a very short life and dies after a short marriage. So his undisturbed happiness, to put it this way, did not last very long, and he died in ‘73 in Avignon.
Chapter 6. Utilitarianism: Major Themes [00:35:34]
Now about the work, briefly. We’ll be talking about three pieces of work On Liberty, Utilitarianism. I will not talk about his role as a member of parliament where actually he was one of the first advocates for female suffrage, which did not fly at that time, and he even lost re-election probably because he’s advocating voting rights for women. And then he wrote, ‘69, Subjection of Women, which in many ways is a feminist book, quite a radical feminist book–a feminist book you can rarely read from a man, and especially not in 1869.
Okay, so what are his major contributions? He redefines utilitarianism. Right? As I said, he found it too cold. He needed more sentiments. Poetry– Harriet Taylor, gave him a sense of the world which is richer in sentiments. So he says, well there is higher happiness. Right? There is a lower level of happiness and there is a higher level of happiness. To have a good steak, well it is pleasurable. But to listen to the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven, it’s greater happiness. Right? It’s a higher level of happiness when you hear the concluding chorale of the Ninth Symphony. You are through the roof of pleasure; you have a higher level of happiness than eating a nice rare steak. Right? That’s a higher level of happiness.
And he said–and nobody argues it more forcefully than him–“Individual liberty is the ultimate value, and expediency”–and you know what he means by expediency, that you get there by using the least means and you maximize the return–“expediency cannot justify intervention against individual liberty.” A very interesting issue; a very accurate, a very up-to-date issue. Just think about 9/11; this is exactly the problem of the 9/11–how much we can act against individual liberty in the name of expediency; how much we are willing to accept the limitations in individual liberty? And well we will see, he said, expediency is not to be ignored, but when the chips come down, he said, it is individual liberty. He’s a libertarian, right? He is for the sanctity of the liberty of the individual, and he’s the ultimate of British individualism and the sacredness of British individualism.
And finally the third major contribution. He said women’s legal situation resembles those of slaves; they are only worse off than slaves are. And he argues that in a very articulate way. And women should have equal rights in jobs, in public life, the same kind of education–total confrontation with Jean Jacques Rousseau. But he believes that in marriage they can create a friendship bond with males. Well Harriet Freedman [correction: Taylor] did not quite agree with this. Though she married twice, she both times did it probably reluctantly. She did not believe in the institution of the marriage, though she did marry twice.
Okay, well let me see whether I can still do this, his stuff on utilitarianism, and leave the rest for Tuesday. I think I have some three more minutes to go. The main themes in the work Utilitarianism is the concept of higher happiness; human beings have faculties for more elevated appetites than animals have. Then he talks about justice and legality. It’s a very complex issue, but where he thinks that the law is a more restrictive notion than justice, and he stands for the idea of justice, and shows some contradiction between law and justice as such. And then he talks about justice and expediency–why justice cannot be simply explained by expediency. Well again something which speaks very much to the issues which are on our mind. Does expediency makes it just that you torture an Al-Qaeda or a prisoner, or a suspected Al-Qaeda prisoner, to get information out because this way you save lives? Some people will say, “Yes, this makes it just.” Others will say, “No, it is unjust, and therefore expediency–you should not use expediency that you get better information out from torture.” Well I think I’ll probably leave it here and then we’ll continue it Tuesday. And I hope it got you up in speed–utilitarianism and John Stuart Mill, and Adam Smith, and you see how actually John Stuart Mill and utilitarianism radicalizes one stream of thought which is in Adam Smith, but Adam Smith is not quite ready to go as far as Bentham went, and even not as far as John Stuart Mill went. Okay.
[end of transcript]Back to Top
|mp3||mov [100MB]||mov [500MB]|