What I have been thinking about

My posts over the past couple of months have been a bit irregular, quite possibly because I’ve been thinking about some pretty big topics that I’m still grappling with. I like to feel like I’m able to add a bit of clarity to a topic when writing a blog post, and I probably need (at least) a few months more to digest these questions.

But in the meantime, I thought a post on some of what I’ve been reading over the past 3-4 months might be of interest, even if I haven’t yet distilled it into any great insights ready for sharing.

I’m a regular listener to Russ Roberts’ podcast Econtalk, so when I heard he had written ‘How Adam Smith can change your Life’, I was keen to get the audiobook. Unfortunately, the audiobook isn’t allowed to be sold in the UK so after 6 months of waiting I decided to buy the book. I thought it was an excellent guide to the moral philosopher’s ‘Theory of Moral Sentiment’ – which I think has more lessons to teach us today than his ‘Wealth of Nations’. Roberts brought the Smith’s ideas and language to life, showing just how relevant they are to the 21st century:

  • That we don’t just care what people think of us (i.e. to be loved) – we actually want to know ourselves to be good people (to be lovely)
  • Why we care more about ourselves than others, and more about those close to us than those further out of mind
  • Why we obsess about celebrities and the latest gadgets (for Adam Smith it was the latest model of nail clippers!)
  • How we moderate our emotional states to fit in with others (and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing)

Following on from the UK election, and hearing an Econtalk interview with the author Michael Munger, I read ‘Choosing in Groups’. It was a tough read, covering the challenges of converting complex individual preferences into a group decision, so I’d only recommend reading it if you’re really interested in the theory of analytical politics, but it did get me thinking.

I heard about ‘Freedom Regained’, by Julian Baggini, on a Guardian Books podcast, and it sounded quite an interesting practical discussion of free will. It did provide some good insights, particularly on the interplay between conflicting internal desires, and between intrinsic and extrinsic desires. But a lot of it felt a bit disappointing, with great focus on dismissing arguments that I didn’t have.

I am struggling with the question of how to reconcile religion with the right of all people to seek well-being. I see that religion often obstructs people’s well-being, but restricting religion can also reduce wellbeing. Related to this question, I read ‘The Third Choice’, by Mark Durie, which looks at freedom of religion in the context of Islam. I don’t agree with the main contentions of the book (that we need to be afraid of Islam), but I found it helpful to think about why I feel this way, and thinking about how people respond to the ideas and beliefs of institutions and people around them.

The most thought provoking book that I’ve read recently is ‘Change Everything: Creating an economy for the common good’, by Christian Felber. This book looks at different ideas to radically change how our economic and political system works. His ideas were certainly a lot more radical than I’ve ever thought about, but when forced to think about them, I came to the conclusion that they’re far less crazy than a lot of aspects of today’s system. This is definitely an area I intend to explore more.

Interestingly covering a lot of similar topics, though from a different perspective, Pope Francis’s encyclical ‘Laudato si’, primarily on the environment was a much tougher read. I believe it is definitely right on a lot of aspects, though it struggled with simultaneously arguing a truth that makes sense with or without a belief in God, and arguing that God is essential to finding that truth. But there’s definitely a lot of wisdom in it that I’m still to digest / unpack.

As I walk to work most days, I’m always on the lookout for audiobooks worth listening to. I discovered some series of lectures offered by The Great Courses that looked interesting, so decided to give them a try. The first I tried was ‘The mysteries of human behaviour’, which in 24 half hour lectures looked at a lot of aspects of human behaviour from an evolutionary perspective. The ideas were fascinating, and I was pleased to discover that human behaviour doesn’t become any less complex or rich on close examination.

Having finished (and enjoyed) ‘The mysteries of human behaviour’, I moved on to ‘Thinking about Capitalism’. This ties in with some of the other reading I’ve done, and I’m finding that most of the course is completely new to me. So much to learn and think about, and the ideas interact with many other topics like philosophy, politics, the role of institutions. I’m about half way through the 36 lectures, so still lots more to learn.

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