Write Better The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Intro. [Recording date: October 27, 2017.]

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I was introduced to Hume twenty years ago in a graduate seminar with Adam Potkay, where we read Hume and Samuel Johnson as a debate on the nature of happiness. So it was with great interest that I picked up Prof. Rasmussen's book. I was not disappointed--thoroughly entertaining and informative. Theirs was an intellectual friendship for the ages. It made me think of other such friendships that have challenged the status quo--I recently read Michael Lewis's and so Tversky and Kahneman were first in my mind, but certainly others here could provide countless examples. No doubt a fascinating book could be written on the nature and impact of friendships in intellectual history.

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Smith held that religious values could be beneficial, acting as a buttress for values he held to be right. I'm less optimistic. I have no beef with any of the mainstream religions as they are today, but history has shown that religious values change over time. Intolerance is on the rise from several quarters at the moment. Will tomorrow's religious thinking be as benign as today's?

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Dennis Rasmussen: Yeah. I just wanted to say, it really striking. He writes this whole moral theory; there's all this debate about how integral is religion on this moral theory; what kind of role does it play? I say at one point in the book in formulation I'm particularly proud of that Smith sees religion not as a foundation or even a pillar but rather as a buttress: It supports morality from the outside. Which is to say, for most people it is--he thinks religion a buttress, virtue; people are more likely to act morally if they think the general rules of morality that their society has formed come from God. He gives us more reason to hold these rules sacred. But, I don't think, in the structure of his moral theory that religion is a pre-condition--or, sorry, yes--that religion is a pre-condition for virtue. That you have to be religious in order to be virtuous. But I think the letter to Strahan really drives home how dispensable it is. 'The paragon of wisdom and virtue'; and it isn't Jesus or a Christian saint but the skeptic, Hume. And I think it's really telling.

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Dennis Rasmussen: But not for his moral philosophy. Right?

Hume thought morally "good" and "bad" judgements were subjective (perceived by the subject), but our other senses, like sight, are subjective as well. It doesn't follow from the fact that I see "red" subjectively that there is no objective truth about the nature of red. Everyone expieriences everything subjectively... that's life.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Fair enough.

I'm not sure exactly how Hume would have answered your questions because he was somewhat ambiguous on the point of culture relativism... but I think he has a way out if he wants.

Russ Roberts: There's another aspect--

I think it's fair to say Hume was aware of this problem. In fact, he might be the intellectual father of the idea (if you aren't aware of "Hume's law" you should google it because you post similar ideas a LOT).

Dennis Rasmussen: Can I interrupt you?

So did either Smith or Hume ever see or realize the problem with their systems? What did they have to say about the fact that their systems of moral sentiments apparently have no way to evaluate any group's imagined "spectator" as morally better or worse than any other group's imagined "spectator"?

Russ Roberts: Yeah, an agnostic--

The tendency to want the approval of the "spectator" works in each of these groups (cf. Matt Ridley quote above). Suppose that someone formerly with viewpoint X changes their mind and moves to viewpoint Y. Others in Y will think, "You have it right now. You have made moral progress." But those in other groups think the change is wrong and those still in group X will think "Your morals have been corrupted."

Russ Roberts: It's a great self-description of his work, yeah.

For artificial or learned morals I think there are two tacts. (1) would be to collapse these on to the natural morals, or (2) since artificial morals are created to help us live together in large groups you can judge them in the way you would judge any human creation, "is it good at doing it's job?" Which in this case is helping humans live together happily and productive.