Adam Smith in 1790

Portrait of Adam Smith by John Kay, 1790. Source: Wikimedia

Introduction to two talks on (i) community and (ii) work

In 1776 the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith published his book “The Wealth of Nations” a book that lays out the foundations of modern economics and of modern capitalism.

With this book, it could be argued, Adam Smith did more than anyone else to make capitalism and the pursuit of unhindered self-interest respectable.

And yet, seventeen years before the publication of “The Wealth of Nations”, Adam Smith published a very different book, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”, in which, it could again be argued,  he wrote as eloquently as anyone has ever done on the futility of pursuing money with the hope of finding happiness.

How to reconcile these two sides of Adam Smith?

In a recent book “How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life” the author Russ Roberts attempts an answer to this question.

As he says, it’s not enough to simply say that” The Theory of Moral Sentiments” represented an earlier set of views, later superseded by “The Wealth of Nations”, because Adam Smith revised “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” after the publication of “The Wealth of Nations”, without changing its substance.

Essentially Russ Roberts concludes that Smith was describing two different worlds or spheres of human interaction.

The Theory of Moral Sentiments is a book about our personal space, how others view us and how we interact with them, a space where the qualities of kindness and altruism can flourish.

In The Wealth of Nations Smith is writing about how we behave in a world of impersonal exchange, the free market, where the pursuit of self-interest, greed even, must flourish, where there is little room for altruism.

Can we simply accept the separation of these two spheres of existence, and accept that different values operate in each sphere?

Is that it?

Or, faced with the increasing encroachment of the values of the free market into all areas of life, do we resist and assert the primacy of values like kindness, solidarity, altruism across all areas of life including the economic?

If we are to resist, we need to better understand what is happening in our economic and social world, and we need to look for advice and guidance on what to do. In particular we need advice on how to integrate the ‘personal’ and ‘impersonal’ spheres of life.

We can learn a lot from outside the Buddhist world. There is a great deal happening in the world around us, and we need to be much more aware especially of what is happening on the ground outside our Buddhist lives.

We can also learn a great deal from the teachings of the Buddha, and, I believe, we can learn from the particular experience of Buddhist groups like the Triratna Community in which I am involved.

In these two talks I focus on two aspects of our economic and social life, on community, and on work, to understand and assess what is happening, and to start to come up with ideas of what we can do to change things for the better.

It’s not enough just to complain about our capitalist economic system.

We need to foster a dialogue within and across Buddhist communities, and with others not in the Buddhist world, about what we can do to go beyond capitalism, to go beyond the values of greed and self-interest that dominate our economic system.


Two talks on (i) community and (ii) work

Does capitalism lead to a decline in community and to the degradation of work? If true, what can we do about this? Vaddhaka engages with these questions in two talks given at the Padmaloka Retreat Centre in January 2015.