Smith's Appreciation of Moral Man Triumphing Over His Selfish Inclinations
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Rob Lucas, writing in Teacher’s Lounge (‘educational technology and social entrepreneurship’) a post entitled ‘Adam Smith on Chris DiBona on Google Earth’, quotes Adam Smith on the reaction of someone to a massive earthquake in China that was so terrible that it ‘swallowed up’ the entire country and its inhabitants:
“Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance.”
Ron Lucas attributes this passage to the Wealth of Nations. It was in fact in his Moral Sentiments (III.3.4: p 136), 2nd edition, 1761.
Bearing in mind that the Great earthquake in Lisbon occurred only a few years earlier in 1755, the passage had immediacy in the minds of his mid-18th- century readers.
However, Rob Lucas may be drawing the wrong conclusion from the passage. He adds:
“I gather that DiBona thinks that with distant lands brought into clearer view, we'll feel more sympathy for people around the world. I hope he's right, but it's pretty striking that even after 231 years of communication and transporation advances, Smith's observation rings true.”
Sandra Peart (‘Adam Smith Lives!’: http://www.adamsmithlives.blogs.com/) corrected my own misreading of this passage and pointed out that it is necessary to read on into the rest of this passage to understand that Smith says the exact opposite of what Rob Lucas and I (formerly) concluded from a too hurried reading of it.
The selfish man would not sleep soundly because ‘reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant in the breast, the man within, the great judge of our conduct’ would lighten up ‘in the human heart’, making it ‘thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love’. We would realize that ‘we are but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it; and that when we prefer ourselves so shamefully and so blindly to others, we become the proper objects of resentment, abhorrence, and execration’ (TMS III.3.4: p 137).
Sandra explicitly adds in her reading that in terms of the loss of a finger compared to the loss of 100 million lives in distant China (it was really distant in the 18th century, taking over a year to sail there, and the same back), the selfish man would reverse his judgement and would willingly sacrifice his finger.
He would not ‘snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren’ and the ‘paltry misfortune of his own’ (the loss of his ‘little finger’) would not occasion ‘more real disturbance’ than the earthquake in distant China.
So, ‘after 231 [245 actually, since the 2nd edition of Moral Sentiments was published in 1761] years of communication and transportation advances’ (consider satellite television films of the latest disasters around the world arriving on your screens within minutes of them happening) Smith’s ‘observation rings true’, but hsi vuews were the reverse of the observation that Rob Lucas attributes to him.
What Smith actually wrote is indeed true - witness the public reaction to these disasters in massive amounts of money and aid that pours into those countries for the people affected.