Sunday Thought: The Natural State

We live in an age where we question our heroes and our legends and our myths, and I think that’s lame, so I have deliberately cultivated a list of heroes. Among them is Adam Smith.

When Smith wrote Wealth of Nations, he was already thinking about the framing. It wasn’t Poverty of Nations, because after all, poverty is the natural state. Wealth is what is interesting. How do we create it? How do we help people? What are the conditions under which it flourishes?

Another hero is Renee Descartes. He was willing to start over on everything he’d ever known in order to start from first principles. What could he say he knew by logical proof alone? He was willing to abandon it all unless he could say that he knew it. I so admire his courage. Had he not been willing to put it all on the line, he never would have arrived at “I think, therefore I am.”

Recently, I read a talk given by a church member in another congregation saying that we should “be as willing to proclaim earnest doubt as earnest testimony.” He lauded the importance of “normalizing doubt” and “giving space for legitimate questions.”

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Reflections on Guilt, Shame, and Neurosis

This morning I listened to the ever-delightful Econ Talk podcast, this time featuring Mike Munger speaking with Russ Roberts on Econ Talk.

I commend the entire episode to you, as it’s a delightful little romp on the topic of how economists view morality. (Okay okay fine, I’ll give you the quick version: economists view morality as a simple set of fixed preferences. Roberts and Munger argue that we can change our preferences, and in fact, have an obligation to. In short, we have an obligation to become better people who do not merely “respond to incentives” but rather “create their own objective functions.” [That’s fancy econ-speak for “choose to desire better things.”])

Anyway, in the discussion, Munger mentioned something that caught my attention, and I think is worth repeating and elaborating on.

Munger gives two examples.
• Imagine you do something wrong. You feel bad about this.
• Imagine you do something wrong and someone finds out. You feel bad that someone found out.
Munger then calls the first guilt, and the second shame.
The conversation quickly moved on, but I kept thinking about it.

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