Saturday, March 03, 2007

China, Loss of a Finger, and What Smith Really Wrote (courtesy of Sandra Peart)

Dr. Michael Reksulak teaches economics and public finance in Georgia Southern University's College of Business Administration. He writes a piece today that he calls the ‘China Syndrome’ for the Savannah Morning News (Georgia).

"Adam Smith, in his lesser known book "The Theory of Moral Sentiments," used China as an example for the difficulty of truly experiencing empathy over large distances.
"Let us suppose" he wrote "that the great empire of China ... was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe ... would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity."

Smith depicts in great detail how shaken this representative European would be by the news, but concludes that "...when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business ... ."

Unfortunately Smith didn’t come to that conclusion, as Sandra Peart has reminded us. The quotation comes from TMS III.3.4: pp 136-7.

Smith goes on to say quite the reverse, coming to the opposite conclusion that that implied by Dr. Michael Reksulak (an easy mistake to make; I was convinced as he is that the western man would rather save his little finger than save the people of China, but then Sandra Peart drew my error to my attention, as I am doing now for Dr Resulak).

Dr Michael Reksulak should continue reading until the end of the paragraph from which he has quoted – the last 23 lines in fact – and he (and you) will realise that Smith is engaged in a rhetorical ‘trick’. He firsts describes the selfishness of the ‘man of humanity in Europe’, and portrays the man Dr Reksulak quotes. He then demonstrates how he will be affected by the impartial spectator to reverse his stance of indifference at the death of ‘hundred million of his brethren’ in China, to act and think entirely differently.

Go ahead. Read the reference, for yourself (if you are not familiar with the example). You’ll feel better, and also will appreciate a little more about Adam Smith’s humanity.

[Read the article by Dr Michael Reksulak at:]

[Also read Sandra Peart (scroll the archives) at:]


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