Saturday, November 14, 2009

Michael Sandel on ethic's relation to political philosophy and public life, and the difference between 'self-interest' and 'greed'

From FORA.tv's 'Michael Sandel on Markets and Morals':

When we talk of ethics in any 'ism', aren't we talking about ethics in treating other people?

Well, the ethics of how to treat one another is at the heart of moral philosophy, political philosophy, and, for that matter, debates about justice, how we treat one another. But the most part in public life, how to distribute rights and duties, power and oppurtunities, income and wealth. So I think I agree with the questioner's suggestion that at the heart of moral and political philosophy are two questions: (1) How do we treat one another? (2) How to design social institution so that we can live together, despite our disagreements, still treating one another with decency and respect?

How do you define 'greed'?

Greed is an excessive desire for gain that crowds out other worthwhile goals. But actually I think there is challenge hidden in that question, and so I don't want to answer it too blithely.

On a certain view, and it is the view that implicitly I was criticizing through this lecture, there is no distinction between 'greed' and 'self-interest'. If you accept an economist's view of the world, the next time you encounter a professional economist, you can ask her or him about it.

On an economist's view of the world, strictly speaking, there is no principle distinction between 'self-interest' and 'greed'. It's all a matter of degree.

And Adam Smith said (he did not believe in unfettered market. He was also a moral philosopher), "We don't go to the butcher or to the brewer for our dinner by appealing to their humanity. We appeal to their self-interest." And most economists I know, would not really be able to give you the distinction between that kind of self-interest and pursuing it rather aggressively which might be called 'greed'. To distinguish self-interest from greed actually requires a moral argument, not strictly an economic one.

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