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Posts Tagged ‘Adam Smith’

16 JUNE, 2015

Adam Smith’s Underappreciated Wisdom on Benevolence, Happiness, and Kindness

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“Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love.”

“Spiritual health and material well-being are not enemies: they are natural allies,” wrote E.F. Schumacher in his timeless clarion call for “Buddhist economics,” penned amid the hippie counterculture of the early 1970s. But it was another visionary economist, as far from hippie culture in both time and ideology as possible, that made the most convincing case for this very concept two centuries earlier — a mind, paradoxically enough, presently celebrated for just about the opposite sentiment.

The great Scottish moral philosopher, political economy pioneer, and Enlightenment maven Adam Smith (June 16, 1723–July 17, 1790) is best known for authoring the 1776 masterwork The Wealth of Nations — a foundational text of behavioral economics two centuries before behavioral economics existed. It originated the famous “invisible hand” metaphor for how socially beneficial outcomes can be traced back to the self-interested actions of individuals. True to our modern incapacity for nuance, Smith’s “invisible hand” has come to symbolize a rather bleak view of the human spirit as bedeviled by inescapable selfishness. And yet Smith’s own views were more generous and elevating — something he explored in his eclipsed but excellent earlier work, the 1759 treatise The Theory of Moral Sentiments, full of timeless wisdom on ambition, success, good personhood, the far-from-linear relationship between money and happiness, and that wonderfully old-fashioned notion of “benevolence,” so urgently needed in our divisive world today.

The book’s opening sentence alone is a masterpiece of prose and philosophy:

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

That misunderstood aspect of Smith’s philosophy and its applications to our everyday lives is what Russ Roberts explores in How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness (public library). I share a certain kinship of spirit with Roberts, who hosts the EconTalk podcast, in dusting off forgotten and often misunderstood ideas, restoring their original dimension flattened by our sound bite culture of superficial familiarity, and recontextualizing them as timeless technologies of thought that help us live happier, more ennobled lives — which is precisely what he does with Smith’s text.

Roberts recounts chancing upon this obscure book and being, to his own surprise, deeply enchanted by its relevance to so much of modern life:

The book changed the way I looked at people, and maybe more important, it changed the way I looked at myself. Smith made me aware of how people interact with each other in ways I hadn’t noticed before… [He] helped me understand why Whitney Houston and Marilyn Monroe were so unhappy and why their deaths made so many people so sad. He helped me understand my affection for my iPad and my iPhone, why talking to strangers about your troubles can calm the soul [and] how morality is built into the fabric of the world.

[…]

The Theory of Moral Sentiments is a book of observations about what makes us tick. As a bonus, almost in passing, Smith tells us how to lead the good life in the fullest sense of that phrase.

Roberts disentangles one of our most chronic confusions — that between self-interest and selfishness. Citing Smith’s famous line — “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” — he unpacks the deeper, more dimensional meaning:

People are fundamentally self-interested, which is not the same thing as selfish.

[…]

Yes, you are profoundly self-interested. But for some reason, you do not always act in what appears to be your self-interest… Given our self-love, why do we so often act selflessly, sacrificing our own well-being to help others?

One answer would be that we are inherently kind and decent, filled with what Smith calls benevolence or what we moderns call compassion. We are altruistic; we care about others and hate to see them suffer. Yet Smith reminds us that losing our finger bothers us more than millions losing their lives.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from 'The Lion and the Bird.' Click image for more.

When we are altruistic, according to Smith, “it is not that feeble spark of benevolence … capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love.” Rather, we are compelled to behave honorably before an “impartial spectator” — a kind of unconscious stand-in for conscience, a form of secular accountability that displaces the vice-policing gods of organized religions; or, as Roberts puts it, “a figure we imagine whom we converse with in some virtual sense, an impartial, objective figure who sees the morality of our actions clearly.” When faced with a moral choice, we answer to this imaginary arbiter of righteousness. Smith himself writes:

It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct. It is he who, whenever we are about to act so as to affect the happiness of others, calls to us, with a voice capable of astonishing the most presumptuous of our passions, that we are but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it; and that when we prefer ourselves so shamefully and so blindly to others, we become the proper objects of resentment, abhorrence, and execration.

Roberts terms this “The Iron Law of You,” which he illustrates with a relatable modern example:

You think more about yourself than you think about me. There’s a corollary to the Iron Law of You — the Iron Law of Me. I think more about myself than I do about you. That’s just the way the world works.

Ever send someone an e-mail asking for a favor and he or she doesn’t respond? It’s easy to forget that the recipient, like you perhaps, gets way too many e-mails to respond promptly. Your e-mail means more to you than it does to the person whose help you need. There’s no reason to take it personally. When I don’t hear back from someone, I assume that the person never received the e-mail in the first place. I resend it a few days later without mentioning (or complaining) that I sent it before.

[…]

The impartial spectator reminds us that we are not the center of the universe. Remembering that we are no more important than anyone else helps us play nicely with others. The impartial spectator is the voice inside our head that reminds us that pure self-interest is grotesque and that thinking of others is honorable and noble — the voice that reminds us that if we harm others in order to benefit ourselves, we will be resented, disliked, and unloved by anyone who is looking on impartially.

Illustration by Benji Davies from 'The Storm Whale.' Click image for more.

Smith himself elegantly captures this dual role of the impartial spectator in both our self-reliance and our sense of belonging:

It is not the love of our neighbour, it is not the love of mankind, which upon many occasions prompts us to the practice of those divine virtues. It is a stronger love, a more powerful affection, which generally takes place upon such occasions; the love of what is honourable and noble, of the grandeur, and dignity, and superiority of our own characters.

Roberts explains how this drives our actions and reverberates across the essential arts of living, from personal growth to a capacity for presence:

The modern calculus of economics that looks at material costs and benefits alone is a flawed calculus. It’s perfectly rational to tip in a restaurant that you’ll never visit again, donate anonymously to charity, give blood without expecting to use blood in the future, and even donate a kidney without being paid for it. People who do those things do them gladly… Smith believes that our desire for approval from those around us is embedded within us, and that our moral sense comes from experiencing approval and disapproval from others. As we experience those responses, we come to imagine an impartial spectator judging us.

Whether or not honorable behavior is really motivated by people’s imagining a watchful and judgmental impartial spectator, the concept gives us a powerful tool for self-improvement. Imagining an impartial spectator encourages us to step outside ourselves and view ourselves as others see us. This is a brave exercise that most of us go through life avoiding or doing poorly. But if you can do it and do it well, if you can hover above the scene and watch how you handle yourself, you can begin to know who you really are and how you might improve. Stepping outside yourself is an opportunity for what is sometimes called mindfulness — the art of paying attention instead of drifting through life oblivious to your flaws and habits.

The impartial spectator, far beyond enhancing our standing with the non-imaginary spectators in our lives by steering us toward behavior that is perceived as decent and kind, actually helps us reach the intrinsic rewards of taking comfort in our own decency and kindness. Smith himself puts it best in one of his most famous and enduring passages:

Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love. He naturally dreads, not only to be hated, but to be hateful; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of hatred. He desires, not only praise, but praiseworthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be praised by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of praise. He dreads, not only blame, but blameworthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be blamed by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of blame.

In a complementary sentiment, Smith writes:

What so great happiness as to be beloved, and to know that we deserve to be beloved? What so great misery as to be hated, and to know that we deserve to be hated?

Roberts translates this in the language of our most intimate rewards:

Loveliness isn’t an investment looking for a return. That’s why you don’t keep score in a good marriage — I did this for you, so now it’s your turn to do something for me. I went to the grocery, so you have to run the kids to soccer. I was nice to you when you were under stress. Now I’m under stress, so you have to be nice to me. Or I’m up four to one, so the next three tasks fall on you…

If you think of your actions as a husband or wife as an investment or a cost-benefit analysis, you don’t have a marriage motivated by love. You have a mutually beneficial arrangement. I can have that with my butcher or my baker. I don’t want that arrangement with my wife. In a good marriage, you get pleasure from helping your spouse simply because that’s the kind of partner you want to be — a lovely one.

[…]

Smith’s ideal is achieved when your inner self mirrors your outer self.

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce's Ulysses. Click image for more.

This convergence of being lovely in one’s private person and being publicly beloved is what we might call “authenticity” today. This harmonic symmetry, Roberts points out, isn’t revealed in our grand gestures but in our small daily choices — the nanoscale of the-right-thing-to-do — which add up to our larger character. That’s why we often fail, on the small and practical level, to live up to the ideals we espouse philosophically — and yet we continue to think of ourselves as highly moral people, thanks to the uniquely human talent of self-delusoin. Roberts writes:

One explanation for selfishness — or, worse, cruelty — is that some people don’t imagine an impartial spectator, have no desire to imagine one, and in fact have no interest in being lovely. This is a tempting way to view our fellow human beings: people who don’t act the way we think they should are immoral or evil.

But Adam Smith had a different idea of why we fail to live up to the standards an impartial spectator might set or the standards of the people around us whose respect and affection we’d like to earn: we are prone to self-deception. The impartial spectator whom we imagine and whose counsel we hear isn’t quite as impartial as we’d like to think. In the heat of the moment, when we are about to act, our self-love often overwhelms any potential role for the impartial spectator, “the man within the breast,” our conscience: “…the violence and injustice of our own selfish passions are sometimes sufficient to induce the man within the breast to make a report very different from what the real circumstances of the case are capable of authorising.”

[…]

We want not only to be loved, we want to think of ourselves as lovely. Rather than see ourselves as we truly are, we see ourselves as we would like to be. Self-deception can be more comforting than self-knowledge. We like to fool ourselves.

In the remainder of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life, Roberts goes on to explore how this quarter-millennium-old text can teach us to fool ourselves less and, in doing so, enhance rather than compromise our happiness. Complement it with the psychology of how our delusions keep us sane and Albert Camus on happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons.

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16 JUNE, 2014

How to Navigate the Murky Waters of Workplace Friendships: Wisdom from Adam Smith and Aristotle

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“Is not mistaking relationships for what they are not — that is being blind to their ambiguity — arguably the greatest cause of disappointment and failure?”

“A condition of friendship, is the abdication of power over another, indeed the abdication even of the wish for power over one another,” Andrew Sullivan wrote in his beautiful meditation on why friendship is a greater gift than romantic love. “As soon as a friend attempts to control a friend, the friendship ceases to exist.” This is why one of the greatest challenges to any friendship is the emergence of a power dynamic, especially when it is perceived by one or both parties as uneven or unfair. That’s precisely what British journalist and Church-of-England-priest-turned-atheist Mark Vernon explores in a chapter of The Meaning of Friendship (public library).

Vernon, who echoes Rilke’s memorable words and notes that “the value of asking about friendship lies in the asking, not necessarily in coming to any incontestable conclusions,” argues that one of the defining characteristics of friendship is its inherent ambiguity — unlike social institutions of belonging like marriage or the workplace, it doesn’t operate by clear social norms or contractually defined roles, it comes with “no predetermined instructions for assembly or project for growth.” In fact, it can’t even be automatically derived from within these other social contracts — a marriage, Vernon notes, may or may not foster true friendship, and even more so a workplace. He laments:

Is not mistaking relationships for what they are not — that is being blind to their ambiguity — arguably the greatest cause of disappointment and failure? … The corollary of friendship’s ambiguity is that it is packed with promise and strewn with perils.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'I’ll Be You and You Be Me' by Ruth Krauss, 1954. Click image for more.

That ambiguity gets especially perilous, Vernon argues, at work, where our relationships with colleagues may take the guise of friendship but are ultimately shaped by other forces — forces that often have an implicit power dynamic. It’s a modern predicament especially poignant in our culture where “productivity often counts for more than perspicacity, the professional touch more than the personal touch, being praised more than being praiseworthy.” What this produces is an air of “pseudo-intimacy” between colleagues, whose relationships, at the very core, are premised on their usefulness to one another. That utilitarian basis, Vernon argues, is the “fundamental source of the ambiguity of many friendships at work”:

People’s utility at work extends way beyond just being a welcome distraction or even performing a role or a function. It goes to the heart of the working environment, underpinning why people are there at all. They work to do something, for a client, for a team, for a boss. And work is not without one key utility to the employee, namely, the paycheck. Ideally the work is rewarding, doubly so when there’s a sense of achieving something with friends. And if you receive what you believe you are due that generates friendly feeling too.

Vernon takes care to point out that people can and do feel authentic friendship toward each other at work — in fact, he points to Gallup research indicating that “a friendly working environment” leads to an increase in employee satisfaction by nearly 50% and people with good friends at work are twice as likely to feel like they’re well-compensated by the company. He dives deeper into the research:

Those 30% of people who report having a best friend at work gain in unexpected ways. They will have fewer accidents, engage more customers and work more productively. They also feel that what they are doing is well aligned with the company’s aims, in other words their work feels more purposeful. They are better at being innovative, and are more prepared to share ideas. Further, friends at work provide a sense of belonging: they make you feel that you are informed about what’s going on, that your opinions are being heard across the organization.

And yet shared activity within the framework of an organization is the glue that holds these friendships together. Vernon writes:

Take that shared activity away, which is what happens when people leave work, and the friendship withers like a cut flower.

Another phenomenon further illustrates this utilitarian nature of work friendships — the awkwardness that often ensues when two coworkers bump into each other in their off-work lives, say, at the grocery store or the park. Vernon breaks down what’s going on:

The reason for the discomfort is that stripping work relationships of their utility, and the environment in which the relationship makes sense, simultaneously removes their raison d’être. So outside work, people find it hard to know how to relate to one another… [They] become awkward because the framework within which they conduct the relationship is gone.

A large part of this has to do with the aforementioned ambiguity of friendship, or more specifically with our tendency to mistake friendliness, which can have a wide range of practical motivations, for friendship, which in its highest form is far less conditional and self-interested. And yet the difference between the two is one of degree, not kind — which makes the ambiguity all the more challenging to handle as it slides across the spectrum between these two poles. Vernon proposes a way of navigating the mire of ambiguity better, considering how we can not only cope with but even overcome the “powerful culture of instrumentality” the modern workplace cultivates:

We need a more subtle language to describe the conditions of friendship in these highly structured environments. It’s good to be able to draw distinctions between the ways in which we might profit from the friendliness of other people, on a scale from out-and-out exploitation, through mutual benefit, to an encounter we might come to count as providential. Unmoderated exploitation is never going to provide fertile grounds for friendship. But soft mutual benefit is not only bearable in work relationships but also actually common to all friendships. Indeed, even best friends are, in part, a good thing to have because of what they can do for you, for the function they can perform — from small kindnesses like feeding the cat, to being there to pick up the pieces when life falls apart. Some would say that the defining mark of a good friend is that they are always there for you and thus have a kind of unconditional utility… That sounds like a blessing. The difference between that and most relationships at work is that in the office people are friendly generally because of the mutual gain. You are liked first, not for who you are, but for what you give.

Art from 'The Lion and the Bird' by Marianne Dubuc, a tender illustrated story about loyalty and the gift of friendship. Click image for more.

Still, Vernon is careful to point out, this doesn’t automatically eliminate the possibility of genuine friendship at work. If anything, a common project is a great centripetal force that brings people together around it, and sometimes friendships might and do blossom. And yet without the utility that set that centripetal force in motion in the first place, that outcome would not have happened. Vernon writes:

Work may be one of the best sources of friends, as well as one of the most desirable places to have one. The point is that these relationships are always, at least initially, influenced by the utility factor. The trick is to ensure any nascent friendship is not determined by it.

Aware of this fruitful ambiguity, many modern companies now deliberately fuel it by filling their offices with “locations for the forging of friendships” — gyms, cafés, pool tables, the LEGO “play room” at Google’s New York office. But the true test of a friendship’s motives, Vernon suggests, is not when things are going right but when they go wrong. An especially common Achilles heel of workplace friendships based on mutual benefit is the havoc that ensues when one party begins to feel that the benefit she is receiving doesn’t measure up to what was promised or feels entitled to. This bespeaks the fundamental folly — our tendency to mistake friendliness for friendship. Vernon writes:

If friendship is about knowing someone truly and being known by them, it is also about knowing which relationships are likely to foster good friendships; the relationships that contain the seeds of deeper friendship, as opposed to shallow, instrumental friendliness. It all depends on the attitude people have to their tasks and what they expect of others. And perhaps when genuine good feeling rises above the request for jolly camaraderie or devious influence, an admiration for character over professional achievement — a virtual spiral of regard — can blossom into friendship.

One of the trickiest workplace “friendships” is that between a boss and her employee, where there is an implicit imbalance of power, money, and status. Vernon turns to Aristotle, perhaps our civilization’s greatest philosopher of friendship, who divided such relationships into two parts — contractual, based on the terms of employment and the respective expectations regarding responsibility, time, and compensation, and goodwill, “the human bit of the working relationship, or the extent to which you’re prepared to gift your talents free of charge to the boss.”

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House of Butterflies,' by Ruth Krauss, 1960. Click image for more.

Vernon writes:

The first part being contractual is, by definition, impersonal. The second, goodwill, is where the potential for friendship lies. Unhappiness stems from the confusion of the two.

Confusion arises, Vernon argues, when it’s unclear whether a boss-figure makes a demand to the contractual part or a plea to the goodwill, for instance in asking her employee to work late on a project. This brings to mind David Foster Wallace’s timeless definition of a great leader whose “real ‘authority’ is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily.” Yet at the same time, it shines an uncomfortable light on contemporary startup culture, built to a large extent on the expectation — usually informal, unspoken, and unpaid — that people will work well into the night and on weekends, which even sprouted the term “startup hours.” All too frequently, the contractual and the goodwill parts of the relationship between the employee and the boss or founder bleed into one another, which over time can cause precisely the kind of resentment Vernon describes when one party feels unfairly compensated — whether it’s the designer toiling away for a year’s worth of 100-hour weeks without a tangible reward, or the founder feeling that the designer who goes home at 6pm on a Friday isn’t pulling his weight per the unspoken expectation.

Art from 'The Lion and the Bird' by Marianne Dubuc. Click image for more.

This already jumbled equation gets even more complicated, Vernon points out, when it comes to people doing fulfilling work or laboring at something that gratifies their sense of purpose, since we often assume that the work itself is, or should be, its own reward. This, in turn, leads to the assumption that “friendship can flow more freely between managers and subordinates because financial gain is not such a big issue.” Once again, Vernon turns to Aristotle to illustrate the hitch:

[Aristotle] tells the story of a lyre player at a party who was promised payment and more, the better he played. When dawn came, he asked for what he thought were his dues. However, his employer regarded himself as something of a connoisseur. After hearing such beautiful music he could not comprehend the demand for more cash: “Surely, the beauty of the playing is payment enough,” he reasoned. “Your playing is its own reward.” Unsurprisingly, the lyre player did not see it that way, and departed bitter and disappointed. The moral of the story is not that the lyre player did not enjoy making music: he may have taken more pleasure from it than anyone. Rather, it is that whilst the party-giver sought music the lyre player sought a living, and though the former received what he wanted in good measure, the lyre player did not. Work may include its own rewards but for the employee working for someone else it is still a means to an end.

Illustration from 'Herman and Rosie' by Gus Gordon. Click image for more.

It’s worth pausing here and going on a slight tangent from Vernon’s writing to note that what is true of such employer-employee complications around meaningful work is also true in the larger artist-patron, or even artist-society, context — we, as a culture, often expect artists to work for free because they’re doing what they love, which somehow makes it less of a “real” job; they’re not allowed to ask for the same compensation as someone doing “real” work. (For a beautiful articulation of this unfortunate paradox, I recommend Amanda Palmer’s TED talk.) Somehow, we’re okay with business men and women making a ton of money helming companies that do little more than profit from people’s proclivity for buying carbonated sugar-water — not only are we okay but we put those CEOs on the covers of our magazines and list them among the Most Powerful People in the world. But we’re not okay commending artists and writers and other creators for making a ton of money by putting things into the world that enrich our souls. The lyre player of today may have changed her instrument, but she has hardly made progress since Aristotle’s time.

But back to Vernon’s narrative about the intersection of friendship and work — he cites his own experience of working for a friend, only to end up working without pay for a while once his friend’s company went into a “deep cash-flow crisis.” Cash-strapped himself, Vernon was unable to keep contributing for free, so he had to quit and find a paying job. The friendship never quite recovered from this perilous blurring of the contractual and the goodwill part. He cautions:

Work for your friend at your own peril.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Let's Be Enemies' by Janice May Udry, 1961. Click image for more.

To prevent a similar fate for friendships that form at the workplace, he offers a sound strategy:

If friendliness is a feature of the office, as you might hope, you’re best either not to expect too much or quickly establish ways of deepening the friendship that have nothing to do with work whatsoever — perhaps by trying a drink together after work, or making an arrangement for the weekend. This will show the relationship up for what it is, so start small: if it is merely a work relationship then the attempt to form a deeper friendship with flounder; if it is truly a friendship, it will flourish. The philosophical principle is that friendships which depend upon doing something together also depend upon the mutual benefit that comes from that. If the benefit is cut for some reason then the relationship will be curtailed too. Such is the fragility of utility-based friendship.

If this sounds depressingly cautious, Vernon argues it’s not our fault — rather, it’s a toxic byproduct of consumer culture:

The underlying ideals of a commercially-minded society — in which utility, competition, profit and exchange are highly valued — shape a socio-economic climate that people’s friendships must contend with, too.

In many ways, Vernon argues, pioneering political economist Adam Smith — he of “invisible hand” fame — had one of the most lucid explanations of friendship in the history of philosophy, in large part because he was “that rare thing among modern philosophers as a thinker who takes friendship seriously.” In his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith applied the basic cost-benefit model to such metaphysical concepts as sympathy, compassion, and platonic love. Vernon explains:

[Smith] interpreted the goal of wellbeing to mean a culture of flourishing cooperation. If that seems a mediocre thing to aspire to then that is not to say that the virtues of sociality are themselves mundane: if anything quite the opposite, since social cooperation requires individuals to act justly, beneficently and prudently. Moreover, when individuals act in this way, Smith argued, they should attract friends.

But social cooperation is bedeviled by the same inherent challenges as altruism — unlike happiness which, as Vernon puts it, “makes its own case as a goal in life,” cooperation doesn’t contain the inherent guarantee that people will want to aspire toward it. To solve this problem, Smith came up with a concept that he thought would motivate people — an imaginary figure he called the “impartial spectator,” which served much the same purpose Santa does in motivating little kids to be nice rather than naughty. Vernon outlines Smith’s idea:

An impartial spectator is a fictional presence that sees everything an individual does, not to pass judgment, but in order that the individual, believing that they are being watched, will act in the best way they can. If the idea of such an observer seems somewhat fanciful, its very shadowiness is part of Smith’s plan too. The point is that the impartial spectator will not satisfy the individual merely by praising them when they behave well; it is not an internalized father-figure. Rather, it operates more like a mirror to encourage the individual to see themselves as they truly are. That, surely, is a frightening thing to behold, quite enough to nudge anyone’s bad behavior in the direction of the good…

As Smith puts it, “Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely.” This, then, is what he believes will inspire individuals to act according to the values of social cooperation: they will seek to be praiseworthy, not merely praised. And in turn, because that praiseworthiness makes them lovely, they will find genuine friends, who are lovely too.

Illustration by Giuliano Cucco from 'Winston and George' by John Miller, an illustrated ode to an unlikely friendship. Click image for more.

So what does this have to do with the question of friendship at the workplace? Much of the conundrum stems precisely from this notion of praiseworthiness and the ambiguity — yet more ambiguity — of defining that. In commercial societies, which Vernon points out are pluralistic, multiple standards exist to evaluate the same behavior — what one person may consider the admirable ambition of a Type-A go-getter another might judge as the reckless bulldozing of anything and anyone in the way to a goal. When morality is a relative matter, deciding what is praiseworthy becomes tricky. It gets even more complicated:

A more practical problem stems for the need Smith has for praiseworthiness to itself be thought praiseworthy. If commercial culture is confused about that too — compromising it in favor of utility, profit, exchange and so on — then his theory collapses. The shadowy observer dissipates, as it were, in the harsh winds of what people might call the real world — the realpolitik of commercial activity. People then inevitably return to seeking praise for its own sake…

It seems … that this is what happens at work. The determining instrumentality of the workplace means that praiseworthiness is typically secondary to delivery. At work people are praised for the things they do, and chastised for the things that they fail to do: remuneration comes to those who impact the bottom line; people act out of utility — their “role.” Even intangible qualities that might be thought praiseworthy, like entrepreneurialism or simple human pleasantness, must indirectly prove their worth in terms of profitability to be valued. Employment is not like school where people are rewarded for trying hard regardless of what they achieve…

If a commercial society, of which the workplace is a microcosm, is one in which praiseworthiness is in fact a marginal concern, it seems that friendship will in turn struggle: people will on the whole be merely friendly with each other, rarely truly friends in the sense of loving someone with no thought of gain.

Our cult of productivity, Vernon argues — as I have lamented previously — is a particularly potent culprit in prioritizing utilitarian outcomes over human ones. He writes:

The huge emphasis on productivity in the modern economy … is nothing if not self-interest with a vengeance.

What emerges is a bleak picture of the despotism commercial society exerts on friendship, especially as workplaces continue to demand more of our time under the guise of letting us do “cool work” that is its own reward. (Tom Sawyer’s famous fence-painting scheme comes to mind.) And the more we immerse ourselves in work, the less we avail ourselves to the gifts of friendship because, as Vernon eloquently notes, “apart from the adverse effects of time constraints, good friendships depend too on individuals nurturing a range of interests.”

Illustration from 'Herman and Rosie' by Gus Gordon. Click image for more.

Where this leaves us may be uncomfortable, but it’s also a reminder that we’re invariably a product of the choices we make and the priorities we set. Reflecting on where we are 250 years after Smith, Vernon writes:

The specter of utility still haunts the workplace today. Whilst the poles may have shifted, there is little reason to think that the challenge posed by it is any less strong. Perhaps it is stronger because it is more subtle: if social cooperation in commercial society has mutated into social productivity under capitalism, our work culture is at least as indifferent toward friendship as it ever was. [It’s] a problem that has a tangible impact on us all, living as we do in a culture that assesses much more than just our productivity via cost-benefit analysis. Deeper friendships may form yet, but perhaps in spite of, not because of, commercialism.

The Meaning of Friendship (public library) is a fantastic read in its entirety, exploring such facets of human connection as friends and lovers, the politics of friendship, online friendships, and more. Complement it with Andrew Sullivan’s indispensable treatise on friendship, Love Undetectable, then revisit Aristotle’s timeless wisdom and some thoughts on the subject from Francis Bacon.

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