Sympathy QOTD

Guess who wrote the following quote:

“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.”


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Adam Smith! In fact, the above is the very first sentence of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. How did anyone who had ever come close to opening this book come to think of Adam Smith as a proponents of the idea of a narrowly self-interested, rational, economic, whatever you want to call it, individual? I know Marshall didn’t – the beginning of his Principles of Economics begins very similarly, arguing that even when people act in ways that appear to be selfish, they are often doing so for their immediate family.

So, I repeat a question I asked awhile ago, when did homo economicus become such a jerk? All I know is, you shouldn’t blame Smith, and you shouldn’t blame Marshall.

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2 Comments

  1. joshmccabe

     /  January 22, 2010

    My guess is that it started around the time that economics became mathematized. It’s easier to make a predictive model when self interest is an assumption rather than a variable. Of course, its an assumption with a lot of predictive power when you use big aggregate statistics, but it’s fundamentally misleading as this causes us to forget that it’s really just an unrealistic assumption.

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