The figure of the universally benevolent man seems in many circles to have taken a back seat to the stunted, self-centered Economic Man. We ought to ask ourselves: Are we losing a nuanced sense of self-interest rightly understood?
I have been reminiscing a lot lately, probably a sign of my age. But I recently came to recall an episode in my earlier life before I returned to St. John’s College as its president more than twenty years ago, when my second son announced: “Dad, I’m willing to talk with you about my college choices, but I’m not going to go to that school where my brother is (St. John’s College), and I don’t want a liberal education, whatever that is.”
This son happened to have an interest in automobiles, his uncle happened to be an automobile mechanic, and we happened to have an old junker in the driveway, a 1960s-something Volkswagen bug. Almost nothing worked in the car; it wouldn’t go, and my wife and her brother were working to get the car to perform its principal purpose—going. My brother-in-law saw an opportunity to engage my uninterested son when he discovered that the windshield wipers were working but the washers weren’t, and he asked my son to give him a hand.
“What would you do to fix this?” he asked.
“I’d get the manual out and see what it says,” my son responded.
“But there is no manual. What then?”
“Then I’d ask the guy at the repair shop.
“But he’s not here, and we can’t get the car there. Do you think we can figure it out for ourselves?”
“But I don’t know anything,” my son answered.
“Ah, that’s the thing. Let’s see if that’s true.”
Uncle Ken then opened the hood and asked my son to see if he could find the fluid lines to the wipers and discover how the washers worked in the first place. Could he figure out where the wiper fluid tank was, and could he tell whether there was any fluid in the tank? My son found the tank, and it was full. He tested the line as best he could to determine that it wasn’t clogged, but there was another line leading to somewhere else.
“Can you see where the other line goes beneath the hood? Can you track that back to its origin?”
Long story short: After an hour of looking, testing, failing, trying again, failing again, and thinking out loud (“I wonder if this might work”), my son got fired up and excited. In the end, he discovered that the hose to the washer was hooked up to the pressure valve of the spare tire, and lo and behold, the spare tire was flat.
“You think the spare tire supplied the pressure for the washer?” my son asked.
“Well, let’s see.”
With that, my son pumped up the spare tire. Back in the driver’s seat, he moved the controls on the dashboard, and both the wipers and the washers worked. I’ll never forget the glow on my son’s face when he announced, “I got it! The wipers are working!”
“You have now had an experience in liberal education,” I suggested to ears that were still deaf to the idea—ears that would be open to it a few years later. (This son did eventually find his way to St. John’s in our master’s degree program.)
I doubt that Volkswagens are built these days to provide such simple opportunities for basic learning by seeing and doing, but every challenge in life provides us with learning opportunities that can be just as liberating, without recourse to manuals, without seasoned experts, if we open ourselves to the possibility and apply ourselves to the search for an answer.
Why do I call this experience liberating? Because the learner, my son, had to make do without the manual or the expert. Liberated from the direction and expertise of others, he was reduced to rely on himself with only a little encouragement from his tutor uncle. He was led to find for himself the answer to the problem by a series of questions alone. The turning point was his willingness to continue the search for an answer only after acknowledging “but I don’t know anything.”
Understanding his ignorance was necessary for learning to begin because he had to be open to the possibility that he had something to learn, and that he was willing, even eager, to find the answer. He was open to an experience of truly “wondering” how he might find an answer. This wonder did not come from any knowledge that he had but from a desire to know, born not in understanding but in ignorance. This was a kind of “knowing ignorance,” an intelligent perplexity that came from embracing his ignorance and then discarding false notions and failed experiments as he went on. Our innocence or ignorance of the world about us may be the one certainty in life, and recognition of this is the pathway to learning.
Another thing happened to this blossoming mechanic. He turned from boredom with a problem that was put to him, to perplexity over the difficulty of solving it with meager tools, to excited engagement because he wanted to discover the answer. He wanted to know the answer for its own sake, not just to fix the wipers. He wanted to “get it!”
Yet one more lesson! My son had begun to discover the interconnectedness of apparently unrelated apparatuses, and this helped him understand a little better how the car was assembled, even how it was conceived to operate in the first place. (Today, he is in his residency in osteopathic medicine, still working on body mechanics.)
This case is the barest expression of what we ought to wish to see in our students at our colleges. And it may be as good an example as any of the utilitarian or practical argument for a liberal education—the kind of education employers want to see in their new recruits: employees who have an independence of mind and openness to engage in problem solving and solution finding with others across traditional disciplines; young men and women who can make their way in a world of innovation and change; individuals who are liberated from boundaries rather than defined by them.
What has this story got to do with our project at the nation’s liberal arts colleges? Just this: The free mechanic is a subset of the free human being. We now ask ourselves not what it takes to be a free mechanic, but what it takes to be a free human being. This is important to us not just because it is natural for us humans to wish to know more about ourselves and the world we live in but because knowing more about ourselves, about those around us, and about our world, helps us make better choices about what to do with our lives. And let’s face it, the big question that each of us has asked himself or herself during those formative years, often while in college, is just what should I do with my life? How shall I live my life? What shall I commit myself to doing that will make me whole and happy?
Of course, you in this room know better than anyone that having some understanding of human nature and what lies behind a lot of human behavior will also help you in your professional work as investment advisers. I will return to these questions, but first I’d like to pursue our exploration of liberal learning a little further.
Many of you know that St. John’s College is dedicated to liberal education and to cultivating in our students the liberal arts, the intellectual skills, and the habits of mind and heart that they can take into the world to make it their own, to help them shape their future and chart their own course in a world that is rapidly changing—a world that requires a flexibility of intellect and richness of imagination to succeed in. We do this in part through the reading and discussion of some of the greatest texts written over the centuries.
One of the authors our freshmen encounter early in their studies is Plato, whose protagonist, Socrates, is a kind of local hero to many of us at St. John’s. Socrates is fond of taking a perfectly ordinary question and exposing it to sufficient examination that we discover how much about the question we really do not know or have failed to consider. Readers of Plato’s dialogues will recognize the striking resemblance of my son’s path to freedom and the path followed by many of Socrates’ interlocutors.
For example, in Plato’s Meno, Socrates turns Meno’s opening question from whether and how virtue can be taught to what this thing is that Meno is talking about: What is virtue? This is the kind of question we used to ask our parents or teachers when we were children but may have stopped asking when we became satisfied with the answer from a trusted authority figure—or stopped asking when we simply ceased to wonder at the world. It is these simple questions that Socrates asks as he tries to understand the nature of a thing, its being, or its essence. And it is the answers his interlocutors give that founder upon further examination. They try one answer and are led to see the weakness of it, and so they try a second and a third time until they appear to be stumped and wish to go on and understand what they missed—or until they give up the argument in anger or frustration with Socrates. What appears to be an annoying mind game to one is an awakening to another—to the inquiring student or reader who has now become disturbed by a contradiction exposed about an unexamined but deeply held opinion. We then see that we must come to grips with Socrates and his questions for our own sake, for the sake of those convictions we hold dear. Will they stand up to challenge? Do we really know who we are, understand what we believe, and comprehend what makes our lives worth living?
How well does any human being—teacher or student—understand what it means to be human in its many aspects? We are political, social, and solitary beings, at different times or in different aspects. We think, weigh evidence, and judge. We reflect upon the world about us; we wish to understand it, sometimes in order to make our way in it fruitfully, and sometimes just simply in awe of the majesty of existence, the grandeur, beauty, and mystery of the universe. We have bodies, minds, hearts, and souls. We love, act, and are moved. What are we made of? What moves us and why? We have skills we use to make a living and provide for loved ones. We are members of civic, social, and religious communities and citizens of a great country. What are our duties and responsibilities toward these and others? How well do we understand our powers and limitations? How well do we comprehend the interconnectedness of things and our relationships with fellow beings so that we may make our lives richer—for ourselves and for others too?
Before students fix upon a specialty for study or a vocation to pursue, they ought to be asked to spend a little time getting to know themselves and the world about them.
Liberal arts colleges have found many ways to help students do this. At St. John’s College, we have constructed a program of study that is designed to help our students cultivate the arts of reason and understanding and abilities in analysis, argument, and interpretation. We hope this program will enrich their imagination and nurture freedom of thought; freedom from the tyrannies of unexamined opinions, current fashions, and inherited prejudices; and freedom to make intelligent choices concerning the ends and means of both public and private life. We pursue this freedom together with our students through thoughtful conversation about great works from the Western tradition, shaped by a commitment to radical inquiry. We nourish the capacity to wonder, which stimulates such questions. Our approach is guided by a love of wisdom that transcends the acquisition of information and even of knowledge narrowly conceived.
We want our students to be well versed in the textual tradition of reason that illuminates the chief features of modern life, including democracy, technology, and the literary and musical traditions of the West. We want them to have basic literacy in three kinds of texts: verbal, mathematical, and musical. We expect them to develop skill in logical, coherent, and correct expression. And we want them to engage in a direct study of the natural world. Though often guided by texts, they develop skills of observation, dissection, measurement, and experimentation. In asking this of them, we reject at a deep level the popular distinction between the humanities and the sciences. We want our students to be able to weigh and judge the claims of science—rather than simply deferring to them as authoritative, or rejecting them as alien.
We want our students to develop the intellectual virtues of courage in inquiry, caution in forming opinions, candor about their ignorance, open attentiveness to the words of their colleagues, industry in preparation, and meticulousness in verbal translation and mathematical demonstration. We want them to be prepared to face any occasion for new learning that comes their way. We also want them to develop a life-long commitment to pondering the question of how to live well. And finally, we want them to have the experience of living in a community of learning. We expect that the moral virtues we require of them in their life on campus—consideration for their colleagues and decent and respectful dealings with others—will prove transferable to their lives as citizens of this or any country, transferable to their places of work and worship, to their lives as friends and neighbors and members of families.
We expect a lot of our students, and we imagine that our students would not be here if they did not wish to be held to high expectations.
But beneath everything I have said about what we intend at St. John’s is our shared conviction that learning is an activity fired by the desire to know, a desire to make one’s education one’s own. Michel de Montaigne, puts it this way in his essay On the Education of Children:
Truth and reason are common to everyone, and no more belong to the man who first spoke them than to the man who says them later…The bees plunder the flowers here and there, but afterwards they make of them honey, which is all theirs; it is no longer thyme or marjoram. Even so with the pieces borrowed from others; he will transform and blend them to make a work that is all his own, to wit, his judgment. His education, work, and study aim only at forming this.
If students are meant to be the bees that plunder flowers to make something that they can call their own, there had better be flowers that make this possible. The flowers are not hard to recognize; they are the great works of literary, artistic, and musical imagination. Among them are mathematical, scientific, political, religious, poetic, and philosophical books that have survived the test of time because they are timeless. They form the foundation for the thoughts and discoveries that follow; they are often deeply beautiful; they speak to the great human questions that help us understand both the world about us and the world within us.
If learning materials are considered as food for digestion, students should have a banquet set before them. At St. John’s, that banquet consists of the writings of Homer and Sophocles to Virgil and Shakespeare, from Cervantes and Milton to Austen and Eliot, from Melville and Twain to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky; also from Plato and Aristotle to Kant and Nietzsche; from Hobbes and Locke to Rousseau and Hume to the founding documents of the American republic and the writings of Abraham Lincoln; from the Bible to Augustine to Aquinas to Dante; from Bach and Beethoven to Mozart and Stravinsky, Verdi and Wagner; from Euclid and Ptolemy to Copernicus and Kepler, Galileo and Faraday, Newton and Einstein, and Heisenberg and Schrodinger; from Mendel and Dreisch to Watson and Crick and Jacob and Monod. And of course, there’s Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Karl Marx’s Capital.
Then, of course, there is also the need to give the students the opportunity to taste each morsel before deciding to accept or reject it, and the time to digest what they have taken in. To make it their own requires an environment in which their teachers exercise restraint in pressing their authority, like the mechanic in my opening story. They need to allow students the freedom to chew on their own questions and form tentative conclusions that they may later reflect upon and disgorge as ill considered. At St. John’s, we do this by banishing lectures from the classroom and encouraging wide exploration of a text in conversation with other fellow learners. The lecture is reserved for that formal Friday night occasion I mentioned earlier.
All this is another way of saying that if we want to stoke that desire to know, we need to offer our students material that is worthy of their love and in a setting that allows them the leisure to make something of it for themselves.
The reward for learning attributable to a desire to know—simply for its own sake—is something I want to call “happiness.” This is not a fulfillment that comes to an end in the gratification of a desire, but an activity, an active engagement in an ongoing project that best defines what it means to be human. Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, would define this happiness as “an activity in accordance with virtue.” And so, we return to that Socratic question: Just what is virtue? We wonder whether human virtue lies somehow coterminous with this strange path toward knowledge—that we human beings first must recognize our ignorance, that it will be a great struggle to attain deep understanding, and that we can better pursue this search in the company of fellow students, with whom we can at least share those peaks of desire and excitement that accompany the search for truth.
And occasionally, along the way, we hope that the mist will clear from the windows of our eyes and we will be able to shout out to our fellow searchers: “I got it! The wipers are working!”
Investing: The Last Liberal Art
Now this, coupled with examples of the lives our alumni are leading, would ordinarily be enough to say about the value of a liberal education to prospective parents and students at the College, but I said earlier that I would have a few things to say about its particular application to investment advisors. What peculiar virtue is appropriate to professionals in your line of work? I am confident that it is no accident that the name you have in common with one another is Arete, the Greek word for virtue. So I thought it only appropriate that I take up the question of what that “virtue” might consist.
Many of you are probably familiar with the writing of Robert Hagstrom, the biographer of Warren Buffet, author of The Warren Buffet Way and more recently of Investing: The Last Liberal Art. This latter book was inspired by a concept for effective money management belonging to Charlie Munger, Buffet’s partner and vice chairman at Berkshire Hathaway.
Back in 1994, Munger gave an hour and a half lecture to a stunned group of students at USC’s Marshall School of Business, in which he talked about “stock picking as a subdivision of the art of worldly wisdom.” (Hagstrom, Investing: The Last Liberal Art (Columbia University Press, 2013), p. 2) He challenged the students to see that their study of the markets, economics, and finance were not stand-alone disciplines but part of a larger body of knowledge that also incorporates physics, biology, social science, philosophy, literature and mathematics. According to Hagstrom, Munger then “used a memorable metaphor to describe the interlocking structure of ideas: a latticework of models” on which to apply one’s experience. You have probably used this metaphor from time to time among yourselves. Hagstrom’s entire book is a development of that idea. How does one acquire the worldly wisdom Munger recommends? By educating oneself in a latticework of disciplines, educating oneself broadly and not specializing too early.
Hagstrom argues that most people pay lip service to the notion that an education in a broad curriculum grounded in the liberal arts is a good thing. But under today’s pressures, they resist such an education in favor of a specialty major. This leaves them without a sufficiently rich and broad background to cultivate the habits of mind necessary to link together different bodies of knowledge. Hagstrom then spends the next seven chapters of his book talking about the ways that understanding several disciplines through the reading of seminal texts can help investment managers be better at their work: physics, biology, sociology, psychology, philosophy, literature, and mathematics. He closes with a chapter on how this applies to decision-making.
At the heart of the book, in the chapter on Literature, Hagstrom recalls us to the decision-making model of Buffet and Munger. Here is what he says:
You will recall that both Charlie Munger and Warren Buffet stress the importance of understanding the fundamentals of a company—the business model you invest in. And they mean real understanding, not mere data gathering; the sort of understanding that comes only from careful study and intelligent analysis. Thoughtfully choosing investments requires the same mental skills as thoughtfully reading a book.
But what books, on what topics and in what order? How do we choose, and how can we be sure we are reading appropriately to make the ideas our own? …
Let us start by dropping in on a college campus.
On Friday evenings, the entire student body at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, along with all the members of the faculty, assembles in the Francis Scott Key auditorium for a formal lecture. (Investing: The Last Liberal Art, at pp. 105-106)
At the end of the book, Hagstrom notes:
The art of achieving what Charlie Munger calls ‘worldly wisdom’ is a pursuit that appears to have more in common with the ancient and medieval periods than with contemporary studies, which mostly emphasize gaining specific knowledge in one particular field. No one would disagree that over the years we have increased our baskets of knowledge, but what is surely missing today is wisdom. Our institutions of higher learning may separate knowledge into categories, but wisdom is what unites them.
And then Hagstrom closes with an observation from the poet Lucretius, a perennially favorite author on the St. John’s College reading list:
Nothing is more sweet than full possession
Of those calm heights, well built, well fortified
By wise men’s teaching, to look down from here
At others, wandering below, men lost,
Confused, in hectic search for the right road.
And so we are coming full circle in this talk. Hagstrom goes so far as to put the entire St. John’s reading list in the book as an example of the kind of reading that is required to develop the habits of mind needed to acquire worldly wisdom.
I would close here, but Josh Rogers asked me if I could say a few words about what one of the authors on our reading list would have to say about the world of finance as we see it today with its warts and all, and considering some of the scandalous breakdowns we have witnessed in recent years. I am speaking of Adam Smith. Let me start my answer with a little prelude.
Adam Smith and the Economic Man
I imagine that we would all agree that human beings are irreducibly complex when it comes to desire, motivation, and judgment.
And yet the dominant social science, economics, until recently painted a picture of human nature that is remarkably simple. The so-called homo economicus, the Economic Man, is a perfectly rational decision-maker who aims solely at maximizing self-interest.
Economists are always quick to point out that the Economic Man is something of an arbitrary intellectual construct. And recent economic theories have begun to challenge homo economicus as being too unrealistic to produce accurate models of actual behavior. The science of complexity, or the study of complex adaptive models, has come to be more helpful in predicting market behavior and recent studies have shown how irrational are the choices made by humans as to their best economic self-interest. But for nearly two hundred years, as the science of economics expanded its sway over human activity, this caricature of human nature has worked its way into almost every institution of society. And this has made the culture at large lose sight of the fact that the perfectly rational pursuit of self-interest was only a hypothesis on which to start a science, not a true account of human nature.
Many now believe that the pursuit of self-interest is in fact the essence of human motivation. Some believe it so fervently that they regard any interference with the pursuit of self-interest as immoral. Our popular culture too contains characters, both real and fictional, who hold these beliefs—Ayn Rand and Gordon Gecko to mention only two.
No one, sadly, bears more responsibility for this situation than Adam Smith. I say “sadly” because he certainly did not want unrestrained self-interest to become an acceptable basis for human motivation, let alone the essential principle of human activity. Yet he wrote, in The Wealth of Nations, two notorious passages that brought about that very outcome.
The first was this:
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 self-interest. (Book I, Chap. 2)
And the second was this:
[The individual] intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. (Book IV, Chap. 2)
These two passages taken together were received by Smith’s audience, on the whole, as a new philosophical and moral dispensation. “We can stop worrying so much about others and pursue our private interest,” they imagined him to be saying, “because a higher power will somehow make it all turn out for the best.” It is no exaggeration to say that these words altered the entire moral landscape of the West.
The irony is that Smith surely did not mean to produce this effect. He did not believe in unrestrained self-interest as a principle of human behavior, either in public or in private life.
As far as public life is concerned, The Wealth of Nations offers several examples of situations in which the self-interest of the wealthy and powerful should be checked by government for the sake of the common good, as well as one or two cases in which labor ought to be protected by government against the narrow self-interest of capital. Furthermore, Smith says explicitly that self-interest in public life has a definite limit:
Every man, as long as he does not violate the laws of justice, he says, is left perfectly free to pursue his own interests in his own way, and to bring both his industry and capital into competition with those of any other man, or order of men. (Book IV, Chap. 9)
This means that justice is prior to self-interest. No one may legitimately pursue self-interest beyond the point of justice, and this requires both self-restraint and concern for the interests of others.
One might read Milton Friedman’s essay “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits” as one brand of this view of economics, perhaps a more limited version of it. Friedman’s thesis is not one of unmitigated self-interest, but it rejects the notion that the corporation ought to have any duty to individuals other than its owners, its stockholders. The corporate executive, Friedman would say, has a responsibility to the company’s stockholders to maximize profits so long as the company stays “within the rules of the game”—that is to say, “engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.” Social responsibility in any other guise, he says, is a “fundamentally subversive doctrine in a free society.”
But back to Adam Smith! In regard to private life, Smith was even more categorical. In his other best-selling book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he excoriates unrestrained self-interest:
One individual, he says, must never prefer himself so much even to any other individual, as to hurt or injure that other, in order to benefit himself, though the benefit to the one should be much greater than the hurt or injury to the other. (Book III, Chap. 3, Para. 6)
Moreover, he makes it abundantly clear over many chapters that the minimum standard of decent behavior is determined by justice, but the highest standard is determined by benevolence—that is, active concern for the well-being of others. Indeed, his description of the best behavior sounds very much like the opposite of self-interest:
[H]ence it is, he says, that to feel much for others and little for ourselves, that to restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent, affections constitutes the perfection of human nature. (Book I, Section I, Chap. V, Para. 5)
Whether the two notorious passages from The Wealth of Nations were poorly drafted, or whether Smith meant them to be understood differently than they have been understood, the consequences of writing them were momentous, and seem to be the opposite of what Smith actually advocated.
The figure of the universally benevolent man seems in many circles to have taken a back seat to the stunted, self-centered homunculus that is today’s Economic Man.
I might have said that I feared that the Benevolent Man had disappeared from corporate life if I had not met so many such benevolent men—and also, so many conflicted, questioning executives—in my travels across the nation. This suggests that there remains a question as to what model best describes the behavior of those businesses that show a greater interest in their surrounding communities and in their fellow man than simply their shareholders’ financial interest.
Self-Interest Properly Understood
Alexis De Tocqueville offers an explanation for this more benevolent behavior which he considered a peculiarly American phenomenon when he wrote Democracy in America, his remarkable collection of insights about the American people more than 175 years ago.
In the United States, he says, there is hardly any talk of the beauty of virtue. But [Americans] maintain that virtue is useful and prove it every day. American moralists do not pretend that one must sacrifice himself for his fellows because it is a fine thing to do. But they boldly assert that such sacrifice is as necessary for the man who makes it as for the beneficiaries.
They have seen that in their time and place the forces driving man in on himself are irresistible, and despairing of holding such forces back, they only consider how to control them.
They therefore do not raise objections to men pursuing their interests, but they do all they can to prove that it is in each man’s interest to be good.
The Americans…enjoy explaining almost every act of their lives on the principle of self-interest properly understood. It gives them pleasure to point out how enlightened self-love continually leads them to help one another and disposes them to give part of their time and wealth for the good of the state.
In other words, according to Tocqueville, Americans find that when they do good for others it also turns out to benefit themselves most of the time. There may be a logical fallacy in the reasoning that prompts Americans to think first of doing good to others because it will feed self-interest, but it is a doctrine far superior to the one that threatens to prevail these days, which says that first doing what best serves one’s own interest will be good for everyone else too. This latter view may lead to the kind of gross depravity that de Tocqueville did not see in Americans. And of course this concern is what lies at the heart of our conflict of interest rules in corporate America today.
We ought to ask ourselves: Are we losing this nuanced sense of self-interest rightly understood? Or if not, is it only to be applied to an individual’s behavior but not a corporation’s behavior? And can a man or woman leading a corporate entity retain any integrity acting one way in a corporate capacity and another way in an individual capacity? These can be troubling questions, but they demand our thoughtful consideration.
A Second Ending
We have moved from Virtue to Benevolence as the proper end of man and the highest standard for man’s behavior. Surely they both bring us the happiness that is our desire. But we got there through the study of a few of the great texts of our civilization—texts that are among the proper objects of study at a good liberal arts college. What do these words, virtue and benevolence, mean? What is at stake for us in asking about the distinction between them? These are among the questions our students need to ask for their own sake and for the sake of the world they will be entering when they leave our halls.
And along the way, we will work to see that they have acquired the skills needed to navigate an increasingly complex world so that they are able to live the life that belongs to each of them—the life they have freely chosen for themselves because they have grown to understand just how important it is to all men and women that they make for themselves lives worth living.
This essay was originally presented at the Annual Meeting of Investment Advisors organized by Arete Wealth Management (May 2013) and was first published here February 11, 2016.
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The featured image is “The Wealth of the Nation” by Seymour Fogel and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened slightly for clarity.