Thursday, July 24, 2008

Adam Smith on Doomsdays

I come across a mixture of articles reflecting on aspects of Adam Smith which I comment upon on Lost Legacy, but today’s example is the most unusual yet.

It appears to focus on a single consequence, ‘Doomsday’, without explaining what it is about other than leaving a long list of postings all of which incorporate Doomsday into their titles and leave the inference that we are all ‘doomed’, a bit like Private Fraser in the popular “Dads’ Army” tv comedy series. However the anonymous author does not treat it like a joke.

The author writes on his Blog, “ProbawayLife HacksHERE, and includes his photograph of Adam Smith’s Tomb complete with the author’s image above the heading:

Adam Smith's invisible hand and Charles Scamahorn's all too visible one”.

“How Adam Smith’s invisible hand might help us avoid Doomsday.”
Adam Smith (1723-1790) was one of the clearest thinkers ever produced by humanity and perhaps his method of approaching problems might help us get a grip on how to cope with this modern problem of super weapons and humanity’s current rush toward Doomsday

Then follows the famous China Earthquake report, or at least part of it, from Moral Sentiments (TMS III.3.4: pp 136-7):

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 connection 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 tranquility, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.”
I hadn’t remembered this Adam Smith statement until this search but it’s apt and perfectly related to our Doomsday predicament because it shows clearly that if any idea no matter how momentous can not be made concrete and immediately applicable to a person’s life they will either ignore it altogether or give it a sentimental lip service and go on about their trivial affairs

As regular readers of Lost Legacy know, the Doomsday author has left out the most important part of the paragraph he has quoted:

To prevent, therefore, this paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them? Human nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it. But what makes this difference? When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble? When we are always so much more deeply affected by whatever concerns ourselves, than by whatever concerns other men; what is it which prompts the generous, upon all occasions, and the mean upon many, to sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others? It is not the soft power of humanity, it is not that feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love. It is a stronger power, a more forcible motive, which exerts itself upon such occasions. It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct. It is he who, whenever we are about to act so as to affect the happiness of others, calls to us, with a voice capable of astonishing the most presumptuous of our passions, 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. It is from him only that we learn the real littleness of ourselves, and of whatever relates to ourselves, and the natural misrepresentations of self-love can be corrected only by the eye of this impartial spectator. It is he who shows us the propriety of generosity and the deformity of injustice; the propriety of resigning the greatest interests of our own, for the yet greater interests of others, and the deformity of doing the smallest injury to another, in order to obtain the greatest benefit to ourselves. It is not the love of our neighbour, it is not the love of mankind, which upon many occasions prompts us to the practice of those divine virtues. It is a stronger love, a more powerful affection, which generally takes place upon such occasions; the love of what is honourable and noble, of the grandeur, and dignity, and superiority of our own characters.” (TMS III.3.4: p 137)

This puts a better slant on Smith’s point. I don’t know whether this makes much difference to the author’s focus on Doomsday or not, but it sure underlines Smith’s message about the decency of people (he was not a cynic).

I have found over the years, listening to people -laden literary culture, where everything get worse and there is no hope of a better future – that we are highly selective in our evidence. It’s the bits the doomsayers leave out that suggest that we are not quite heading for doomsday; more the case that we are heading for more of the same.


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