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.