In 1759, Adam Smith published “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”; in 1776, he published “The Wealth of Nations.” Most economists consider both books classics, and readers continue to gain new insights from them. “The Wealth of Nations” is the foundation of much of modern economics and provides timeless insights into market exchanges; “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” offers insights into the nature of human social interactions that precede and provide a foundation for market processes.
Dan Klein, an economist at George Mason University, recently wrote “Instilling Duties above Instilling Rights,” where he suggests a careful reading of “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” leads us to conclude that Smith thought society is better off when people mainly focus on treating others justly above asserting their rights that must be satisfied by others.
According to Klein, Smith distinguishes between “calling out loudly” and “proffering coolly.” When one “calls out loudly,” one exhorts others by appealing to an impending crisis and/or looming fears and usually invokes a sense of shame. When one “proffers coolly,” one tries to persuade others by appealing to reasoned arguments and empirical evidence. One allows for, even encourages, alternative views and perspectives.
While people usually don’t feel they were treated justly after being “called out loudly,” at times, it is appropriate. The scriptures of many Abrahamic religions talk about prophets calling people to repentance. Likewise, civil rights movements since the 1700s used scriptural language to demand that all people be treated as people of equal value.
Though sometimes “calling out loudly” is the best way to communicate, “calling out loudly” on all issues and at all times can also make things worse, especially when people feel bullied, shamed and excluded. Also, as in the parable of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, “calling out loudly” at inappropriate times often destroys trust, so people ignore the messenger even when they should listen.
On the other hand, “proffering cooling” more easily fits Smith’s preference to treat others justly by listening to other perspectives and appealing to reasoned arguments and empirical evidence. “Proffering cooling” also makes people feel safer and more willing to share information so that people can examine and perhaps revise their own preconceptions and prejudices.
Better information typically creates better decisions. Unfortunately, we live in a time where people feel they must “call out loudly” to be heard, often using simplified stories that misrepresent complex situations. We hope we all pay more attention to Smith’s wisdom.•
Bohanon and Horowitz are professors of economics at Ball State University. Send comments to email@example.com.