Adam Smith on Sympathy

Adam Smith is well known for his Wealth of Nations which many regard as the first serious treatise on economics. As an economic treatise it has many flaws, chiefly its reliance on the “labor theory of value,” which Karl Marx also mistakingly embraced. Many like to quote Smith’s notion of the “invisible hand” that is supposed to promote social improvement. In economics, as Smith saw it, if everyone pursues his or her self-interest the ensuing competition among all will raise the level of quality in the work and eventually, as though led by an “invisible hand” all will benefit, “an end which was no part of his original intention.” The key here, which many simply ignore, is the marriage of this theory with Smith’s notion the “moral sense.”

In a word,  before Adam Smith was an economist he was an ethical theorist. He wrote a treatise on the” Theory of Moral Sentiment,” which must be viewed as a part of his overall coherent system. In fact, his economic theory is couched within his moral sense theory: total economic competition with no sense of the importance of the other, no moral sympathy, would result in brutishness in Smith’s view. So while many on the political right embrace Smith’s view of “free self-interested activity” they ignore the vital element of moral sympathy which tempers his position considerably. Smith thought all humans have an innate moral sympathy brought out by their proximity of others.

One of the passages in his treatise on the Moral Sentiments is especially interesting and I will quote it at length:

Were it possible that a human creature could grow up to manhood in some solitary place, without any communication with his own species, he could no more think of his own character, of the propriety or demerit of his own sentiments and conduct, of the beauty or deformity of his own mind, than of the beauty or deformity of his own face. All these are objects which he cannot easily see, which naturally he does not look at, and with regard to which he is provided with no mirror which can present them to his view. Bring him into society, and he is immediately provided with the mirror which he wanted before. It is placed in the countenance and behaviour of those he lives with, which always mark when they enter into, and when they disapprove of his sentiments; and it is here that he first views the propriety and impropriety of his own passions, the beauty and deformity of his own mind. To a man who from his birth was a stranger to society, the objects of his passions, the external bodies which either pleased or hurt him, would occupy his whole attention. The passions themselves, the desires or aversions, the joys or sorrows, which those objects excited, though of all things the most immediately present to him, could scarce ever be the objects of his thoughts. The idea of them could never interest him so much as to call upon his attentive consideration. The consideration of his joy could in him excite no new joy, nor that of his sorrow any new sorrow, though the consideration of the causes of those passions might often excite both. Bring him into society, and all his own passions will immediately become the causes of new passions. He will observe that mankind approve of some of them, and are disgusted by others. He will be elevated in the one case, and cast down in the other; his desires and aversions, his joys and sorrows, will now often become the causes of new desires and new aversions, new joys and new sorrows: they will now, therefore, interest him deeply, and often call upon his most attentive consideration.

What is interesting here is the stress on the importance of others and of society in general in helping to develop the moral sentiments which help build character and promote virtue. But if we read Smith carefully in the above passage we will realize that in describing the attitude of those raised outside of society he seems to be describing so many of those of us who are very much a part of society. It’s as if we have turned so much into ourselves that we act as though we are alone on this planet. It’s all about “me,” and I care not about you because I am not fully aware that you are there — unless you cross me somehow. Then, look out! By himself, Smith notes, a man lacks in character, propriety, a sense of demerit or the “beauty or deformity of his own mind.”

One does wonder if we have become so distanced from the others with whom we share this planet we are well on the way toward losing any sort of moral sensibility — a sensibility that requires that others are aware of us and we are aware of others and are concerned about them as well as ourselves. Instead, for us “the objects of our passions, the external bodies which either please or hurt us, occupy our whole attention.” We are “brought into society” but we seem to be lacking the mirror that will allow us to see ourselves as others see us. This results, according to Smith, in a reduced — if not absent — moral sensibility.


8 thoughts on “Adam Smith on Sympathy

  1. Hugh, I appreciate greatly how you tie his two pieces together in a more appropriate context. If we were all left unfettered to maximize our own value without recourse, we would be back to the Robber Baron period, which is where the GOP oligarchy wants to take us and the haves and have-nots would be even more strained.

    We have to believe in a greater good to make everyone’s life better. This was a key tenet of the research leading to the book “Built to Last,” which noted the most successful companies over time were more than about profits; they were community minded. Great post, Keith

      • Hugh, good question, but I do think it exists. It just gets outgunned in political debate and media coverage, as we would rather discuss the sensational (what Trump and Cruz are doing with comments about each other wives for example) than the tangible and more pertinent issues. I should add it also gets run over by zero sum politics.

        Using a Republican as a good example, Governor Kasich should be commended for expanding Medicaid in his state under the ACA as it helped people, it helped rural hospitals and it helped the Ohio economy. He said it was a no brainer as it brought $13 Billion into the state. Yet, his greater good move is getting him vilified by Ted Cruz and Donald Trump as he agreed with the President.

        Sadly, the one adult left in the GOP race, is way behind in third and he is a far better candidate than the top two. Keith

  2. Professor Curtler,

    Your reference to Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments is apt. It is not only an important early work of a great moral philosopher, it is the foundation upon which The Wealth of Nations rests. It is precisely because humans are fundamentally social — a point emphasized by a number of Scottish Moralists — that society has little to fear from individual ambition and accomplishment. (Allow me to set aside fanciful notions of “Invisible Hands” at this point.)

    The Theory of Moral Sentiments is an essential foundation for modern conceptions of philosophical anthropology, sociology and social psychology. Sadly, it is seldom studied or referenced. Not so The Wealth of Nations, which is seldom studied and often referenced.

    Those who defend the “free market” (another fanciful notion) and cite Adam Smith in so doing would do well to actually read The Wealth of Nations. In it one will find more scathing comments about capitalists as individuals and as a class than Karl Marx ever put to pen in Capital. I offer but a few examples:

    “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

    “Our merchants and masters complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price and lessening the sale of goods. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with respect to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people.”

    “Wherever there is great property, there is great inequality.”

    “The interest of [businessmen] is always in some respects different from, and even in opposite to, that of the public….The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order…ought never to be adopted, till after having been long and carefully examined…with the most suspicious intention. It comes from an order of men…who have generally an interest to deceive and oppress the public.”

    Suffice it to say that Adam Smith did not advocate a society in which the business class was unfettered by laws, taxes, rules, and regulations. Far from it. He argued that public oversight and skeptical regulation of business was essential to the common good. What ultimately prevents society from being torn apart by economic competition is the moral sentiment of the public, or what Abraham Lincoln referred to as “the better angels of our nature”.

    Smith appears to be convinced that moral sentiment not only makes society possible, it also protects it from the excesses of the business class.

    I wish shared this conviction.

  3. Even after saying all that, reading between the lines and perhaps breathing slowly to give pause….there remains no excuse for personages of the like of Donald Trump, nor those who embrace him, and neither those who made that character possibility possible. None. At. All. Reasonable accountability was and is no where in sight. Pass the blame. I’ll take mine….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s