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The Max U Approach: Prudence Only, or Not Even Prudence? A Smithian Perspective

  • David Lipka
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    In many works Deirdre McCloskey criticizes professional economics for too readily representing man as a maximizing agent—Mr. Maximum Utility, or Max U. McCloskey says that economic activities are not the machinations of robots or mathematical functions, but rather affairs among human beings. She prefers to approach the human being as a complex of virtues (or lack thereof). In all this, I basically concur. But McCloskey says that the Max U approach represents man in terms of one virtue: prudence. She calls the Max U approach “Prudence Only.” My concern is that associating Max U with prudence does not do justice to prudence. In treating of prudence, I draw exclusively from Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith makes many statements about prudence. It is by no means clear that they add up to a well defined notion of prudence, but it is clear that most of Smith’s important statements about prudence do not fit the Max U approach. My paper aims to correct and avoid any notion that Smithian prudence may be thought of as maximization or optimization.

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    Article provided by Econ Journal Watch in its journal Econ Journal Watch.

    Volume (Year): 10 (2013)
    Issue (Month): 1 (January)
    Pages: 2-14

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    Handle: RePEc:ejw:journl:v:10:y:2013:i:1:p:2-14
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    1. Raphael, D. D., 2009. "The Impartial Spectator: Adam Smith's Moral Philosophy," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780199568260, March.
    2. Edward P. Lazear, 1999. "Economic Imperialism," NBER Working Papers 7300, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    3. Klein, Daniel B., 2014. "Knowledge and Coordination: A Liberal Interpretation," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780199355327, March.
    4. Deirdre Mccloskey, 2008. "Not by P Alone: A Virtuous Economy," Review of Political Economy, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 20(2), pages 181-197.
    5. Deirdre McCloskey, 2008. "Adam Smith, the Last of the Former Virtue Ethicists," History of Political Economy, Duke University Press, vol. 40(1), pages 43-71, Spring.
    6. Sugden, Robert, 1991. "Rational Choice: A Survey of Contributions from Economics and Philosophy," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 101(407), pages 751-85, July.
    7. George J. Stigler, 1971. "Smith's Travels on the Ship of State," History of Political Economy, Duke University Press, vol. 3(2), pages 265-277, Fall.
    8. Searle, John R., 2005. "What is an institution?," Journal of Institutional Economics, Cambridge University Press, vol. 1(01), pages 1-22, June.
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