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Book Summary: How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life by Russ Roberts | Forces of Habit

How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness by Russ Roberts


The Essence

Russ’ spin on a classic. Taking experts from Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Russ reignites the lesson from a timeless piece which prescribes how to live with respect for others and oneself. How humans morally treat one another is based on the actions each of us takes in our daily lives. We all have a role in developing the culture of the time. How we act forms the bases for the system humanity unconsciously agrees upon. Meaning our moral senses are created through the consensual behavior of the species. We create them, but not in the regular sense of the word—through us they are created. Adam Smith’s economic theories may have been popular, yet with the help of Russ, Smiths work shows us that humans are far more complex than the classical economic models' detail. 

How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life Summary Journal Entry:

This is my book summary of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life by Russ Roberts. My notes are a reflection of the journal write up above. Written informally, the notes contain a mesh of quotes and my own thoughts on the book. The Journal write up also includes important messages and crucial passages from the book.

  • “If you want to make good choices you, you have to understand yourself and those around you.”
  • Impartial Spectator: An imaginary figure whom we converse—in some virtual sense. It is the imaginary little guy on your shoulder who comes when something is astray. He sees the intention of our actions clearer then we can. It is the figure you answer to during moral deliberation; what we consider morally right or wrong.
  • Iron Law of You: You think more about yourself than you think about another. This does not mean you are not altruistic, it is just describing the self-referential nature of thought. Thought almost obsessively things about the self. And from this subjective state, it can make sense of the world around each of us—thought it would be tough to say that it was a clear picture.
  • “Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, be to be lovely”.
    What Adam Smith means is we all want to be respected; we desire the attention of our peers. Whether it be to appreciate, admire, or cherish, a desire for loveliness means seeking the approval of the public. 
  • Moral sense is relative, depending on where you grow up and how you are raised. Or is it? Moral sense to me is a bit more than this. I believe humans all have a universal predisposition for moral senses. Which exactly that is may be is up to debate, but morality itself is held by all of us. I cannot believe that the frequency of moral sense is up to the environment. We all have been dealt temperaments that vary tremendously and are constructed from a collection of our prior experiences and genes.
  • Emergent or Spontaneous order: organization out of chaos. It is unintentional creation through a seemingly meaningful arrangement. Through a combination of factors, a force is brought to life and its life is so vibrant that it looks to be governed by a larger system. Examples include language, the economy, internet, and the evolution of our spices. We can learn a lot by accepting the spontaneous nature of many of life’s mysteries. Recently I have been using an emergent model to think about my own brain. It is far too complex to ever put a nail down on what really makes up my last choice in its totality. So instead I can stop seeking some universal order and start looking for more practical models that can help explain the parts.
  • To get the most of life we ought to make choices wisely.
    That means we ought to keep in mind two things. 
    1. Being aware of how choosing one road closes another
    2. Being aware of the impact of my choices on other and more subtle interactions
  • The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” - George Eliot
  • We are prone to self-deception. Consider us all drunk, looking for our keys under a lamppost, are key are never found, but not because we aren’t looking, we are only looking where the light is.
  • “The sea gets deeper as you go further into it.” Nassim Nicholas Taleb: As we learn more, it becomes clearer how much we really do not know. Stop pretending to know everything, it only shows others that you really do not know much or anything. Admit to ignorance, here you’ll find bliss.
  • Look around you. So many aspects of our lives look orderly but are under no one’s control. They are the result of human action, but not of our conscious design. Together we create the illusion of order through our collective action, but no one solely can plan or intend the resulting outcome.
  • All of us have an impact, it just so happens that only together do our choices determine the collective outcome. The underlying social fabric that dictates acceptable behavior collectively draws from how you and I choose to interact with our peers.
  • Adam Smith’s thoughts concerning special circumstances: “When once we begin to give way to such refinements, there is no enormity so gross of which we may not be capable.” If you give a little towards your impulses, you can gradually notice how it cascades. The example I like to think of is the petty thief who starts with small crimes. Over time, what he considers a small crime changes, and as he commits them more and more the petty thief is now a full-blown criminal. Do not justify breaking your small rules, soon what is excusable will be what was formally intolerable.
  • Propriety: The ability to act and behave while conforming to the expectations of those around you and they, in turn, conform to your expectation. It is acting and requesting action under the guides of your given social fabric. You don't ask too much of others, nor do you behave in a way that would cause others to act out. 
  • To be good:
    • Prudence: Taking care of yourself. Wise and judicious care of your health, your money, and your reputation.
    • Justice: Not hurting others. Precise, accurate and indispensable.
    • Beneficence: Being good to others. Loose, vague, and indeterminate.
  • Justice is like grammar. While Beneficence is like writing well.
    Like grammar not harming others is bound to a set of practical rules to follow. It is easy to not harm others because it is set in stone what is consider harm. Yet doing good is less clear. Just as we can acknowledge good writing when we see it, we can point out acts of beneficence.
  • “The prudent man always studies seriously and earnestly to understand whatever he professes to understand, and not merely to persuade other people that he understands it; and though his talents may not always be very brilliant, they are always perfectly genuine.” -Adam Smith
  • Adam Smith on the prudent man: “His conversation is simple and modest, and he is averse to all the quackish arts by which others people so frequently thrust themselves unto public notice and reputation.”
  • The unexpected beauty of strangers: Spend more time with them.
    Strangers affect us differently than those close to us. Because we have no attachments or presumptions of intent, they act as an emotion cool down—they help us regain our emotional equilibrium. Even with good friends, we have systems of thought that claim our interactions. The calmness of a stranger allows us to reflect on how differently we act towards our peers.
  • Pay attention to the channels you use to pursue loveliness. Wealth, power, and fame may work, but wisdom and goodness work better.
  • On Sympathy; Adam Smith finds that when it comes to sympathy small joys and great sorrows are what we lean towards. Emotional responses are asymmetric when it comes to joy and sorry. We love joy and are not too fond of sorrow. That explains why it takes a great sorrow, but only a small joy us to resonate.

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Reading Recommendations

If you liked what you saw. Here are 3 titles that I recommend based on what discussed in How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life.

1. The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith

2. The Road to Character by David Brooks

3. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

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