Monday, October 06, 2008

Adam Smith on Regard for the Elderly

Daniel Bulone contributes an interesting piece on Adam Smith’s Tunnel Vision (‘observations on exchange’) HERE:

He discusses the relatedness of ideas in Smith’s Moral Sentiments with Matt Ridley’s ideas in The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation (1996). He writes:

Though what he [Smith] is saying is technically true, Smith's points on the elderly seem somewhat appalling. "In ordinary cases, an old man dies without being much regretted by any body." Caring for the elderly does not fit into Smith's idea of pure self-interest, and it certainly does not suit Dawkins' scenario of protecting future generations. It does, however, fit Frank's reevaluation of altruism. In The Origins of Virtue, it states that "the virtuous are virtuous for no other reason than that it enables them to join forces with others who are virtuous, to mutual benefit." Caring for the old is not logical, but neither is giving blood or mentoring children. All of these activities inspire, as Ridley says, a sort of awe at the kindheartedness of the individual. By appearing altruistic, people open themselves up to new connections and resources.”

I think this may be misleading. The full paragraph in Moral Sentiments reads:

This sympathy too, and the affections which are founded on it, are by nature more strongly directed towards his children than towards his parents, and his tenderness for the former seems generally a more active principle, than his reverence and gratitude towards the latter. In the natural state of things, it has already been observed, the existence of the child, for some time after it comes into the world, depends altogether upon the care of the parent; that of the parent does not naturally depend upon the care of the child. In the eye of nature, it would seem, a child is a more important object than an old man; and excites a much more lively, as well as a much more universal sympathy. It ought to do so. Every thing may be expected, or at least hoped, from the child. In ordinary cases, very little can be either expected or hoped from the old man. The weakness of childhood interests the affections of the most brutal and hard-hearted. It is only to the virtuous and humane, that the infirmities of old age are not the objects of contempt and aversion. In ordinary cases, an old man dies without being much regretted by any body. Scarce a child can die without rending asunder the heart of somebody.” [TMS VI.ii.3: p 219]

This is somewhat different in its implications that Daniel Bulone draws from its last but one sentence. One’s children are more cared about than other’s elderly relatives. It is in the ‘eye of nature’ through which ‘a child is a more important object than an old man’. In the interests of the propagation of the species (one of Smith’s fundamental animal drives common in the species) it must be so: no children, no future propagation; no ‘old men’, life continues.

He adds: ‘It is only to the virtuous and humane, that the infirmities of old age are not the objects of contempt and aversion.’ The ‘virtuous and the humane’ qualifies Smith’s approach to the elderly, manifested in his lifetime devotion to his frail mother who died in his house, aged 90, and was cared for by him and his cousin Janet with tender love. He inconsolable as seen in his correspondence:

I should have immediately acknowledged the receipt of the fair sheets; but I had just then come from performing the last duty to my poor old mother; and tho’ the death of a person in the ninetieth year of age was no doubt an event most agreeable to the course of nature; and, therefore, to be seen and prepared for; yet I must say to you, what I have said to other people, that the final separation from a person who certainly loved me more than any other person ever did or ever will love me; and whom I certainly loved and respected more than I ever shall love or respect any other person, I cannot help feeling, even at this hour, as a very heavy stroke on me. Even it this state of mind, however, it gives me very great concern to hear that there is any failure in your health or spirits.’

Correspondence of Adam Smith, Letter no 237 to William Strahan [MP; Smith’s publisher] 10 June 1784, p 275 [Strahan died 9 July 1785]

Daniel Bulone reads into Smith’s observations of how people regard elderly people (not necessarily how they are treated by the ‘virtuous and humane’) that ‘Smith's points on the elderly seem somewhat appalling.’ If they are appalling, it is an observation, not a recommendation.

Even today, in a much more ‘virtuous and human’ age, a report that an old man dropped dead in the street would not attract the kind of regard that a report that a child had dropped dead. Read any newspaper, watch any tv news channel for confirmation. Personal grief overrides impersonal observation.



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