The Art of Paying Attention
By Amy Willis
EconTalk listeners have long known host Russ Roberts‘s fascination with Russian literature. In January, Richard Gunderman wrote an Econlib Feature Article, The Beef with Greed: Leo Tolstoy and Adam Smith, which- not-surprisingly- got Russ’s gears turning.* In this episode, Gunderman joins Russ to continue the conversation started in that piece, with a particular focus on Leo Tolstoy’s short story, Master and Man. (SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t read the story yet, you might to read it before you continue!)
The story centers on the relationship between two characters- Vasili, a wealthy businessman, and his servant, Nikita. Gunderman aptly describes how Vasili’s identity is wholly bound up in his wealth, and Roberts adds that he also revels in “keeping score” regarding how his wealth compares to others’. What does Tolstoy want us to think about Vasili? What do you think of him? Share your thoughts with us here, or use these prompts to start your own conversation offline. As always, we love to hear from you!
1- Roberts and Gunderman agree that Vasili sees himself as an exceptional person, and “operates with a sense of invincibility. Gunderman characterizes him as a zero-sum thinker. To what extent is this an apt description?
2- Gunderman argues that Tolstoy is not about showing us moral rules. So what is the moral of the story?
3- The conversation turns to Thomas Hobbes and Adam Smith. What would each think about Vasili, according to Roberts and Gunderman? How do each philosopher’s ideas about self-interest compare with respect to Vasili?
4- Roberts tries to play a “typical” economist when he says, “People choose–whatever they do is what they prefer. And so, in a way we have no right to judge Vasili. And to do so is to be paternalistic, to impose our preference function on his. And, yet, I think the key to thinking about this in an economist’s way is to recognize the possibility of self-deception.” What right do we have to judge Vasili? How is Vasili a “master of self-deception” himself?
5- What does Gunderman mean when he says that what we (choose to) attend to is a moral act? Regarding this art of paying attention, Russ thinks there are two things going on. What are these two things, and why is the second so much harder than the first? How might “commensalism” serve as an opportunity to help us foster our ability to attend?
P.S. As a follow-up to that last question, if you make a regular practice of communal meals, we’d like to hear about them. We’d also like to hear about it if this episode prompted some communal meals. Share in the comments, or you can always reach out to us at email@example.com.
*Gunderman wrote a related piece, Tolstoy, Smith, and the Perils of Loneliness, at our sister site, AdamSmithWorks.