Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Adam Smith on Earthquakes and 'the man of humanity'

Stephen F. DeAngelis writes Globalization and Morality : Enterprise Resilience Management Blog HERE:

This issue carries a report of the debate over globalisation, in particular a report by Jagdish Bhagwati, the famous professor at Columbia University, New York, who has spearheaded the defence of global free-trade in academe and public commentaries.

As usual, I agree with almost everything Bhagwati writes (I have often called for him to be awarded a Nobel prize) with a reservation about this paragraph:

“Bhagwati goes on to reflect on another perspective of globalization's connectivity.
"Adam Smith famously wrote of 'a man of humanity in Europe' who would not 'sleep tonight' if 'he was to lose his little finger tomorrow' but would 'snore with the most profound security' if a hundred million of his Chinese brethren were 'suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, "because" he had never seen them.' For us, the Chinese are no longer invisible, living at the outside edge of what David Hume called the concentric circles of our empathy. Last summer's earthquake in China, whose tragic aftermath was instantly transmitted onto our screens, was met by the rest of the world not with indifference but with empathy and a profound sense of moral obligation to the Chinese victims. It was globalization's finest hour."

Regular readers may recall that I have commented on the misuses of this paragraph from Moral Sentiments on several occasions. The problem comes from reading part of the paragraph and not taking in the rest of it. I was corrected some years ago by Professor Sandra Peart on my misreading (politely, of course; Sandra is a paragon of scholarly manners) of the passage.

Far from Adam Smith making his point and leaving it there (the bit that Jagdish quotes to make a good counter-point to Smith’s apparent speculation with the real life reaction of ‘people of humanity’ after the recent and very real earthquake in China. It’s a good point. But it is unfair to Adam Smith. Here’s why?

The piece Jagdish Bhagwati quotes follows in full:

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 befal 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.”
And now the true account of Smith’s alleged cynical attitude in his thought experiment. I say, alleged because those who do not read on jump to the wrong conclusions. Smith asks: “if ‘the man of humanity’, obsessed with saving his ‘paltry’ finger, of which he is highly emotional about, could save ‘his brethren’ in China from the earthquake disaster, but at the cost of losing his little finger, what would he do?

Well, if he rolls over and snores at the earthquake news it’s obvious: he keeps his little finger! But does he? Read on and find out. I think you will agree that what Smith says next turns the whole, somewhat cynical, assertion he begins with on its head, and treats us to one of his thunderous affirmations of the moral spirit, which he finds in human kind when exposed to the society of his fellows:

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.4.4: pp 137-38; 1872, Kessinger Rare Reprints edition, p 119-20)

However, the whole paragraph is an example of Smith the educator at work (remember The Theory Moral Sentiments [1759] is written up from Smith’s lecture notes in ethics that he taught at Glasgow University (1751-64).

The shocking earthquake in Smith’s time that had a dramatic affect on European men of letters occurred on 1 November 1755 in Lisbon, Portugal, and this probably inspired him to develop it as a China example (the Lisbon earthquake sorely affected Voltaire for example). Portugal is a short sea voyage from Britain; China, in those days, was more than a year away in sea time, and over a year back, and was about as far as you could get in popular imagination, which suited his example.

The clue is in his early reference to the ‘man of humanity’ who performed the subject of his questions about the little finger, leaving no doubt in a reader’s mind of the appropriate opinions of any such man preferring his little finger to the death of 100 million people.

In sum, the benevolent generosity of the genuine concerns and sacrifices to send assistance to the victims of the more recent earthquake in China does not contrast with Adam Smith’s parable the reaction of an 18th-century ‘man of humanity’; the same passion for others is common to people both then and now.

Professor Bhagwati should find another example and leave Adam Smith out of it if he is only going to quote a part of the paragraph.

The broader point is that globalisation has not made people less caring than in ancient times and it doesn't need a 'little finger' example to make that point. In fact globalisation makes it easier to mobilise real resources (not just sympathy) and get them to China in hours and days, which was an impossibility in the 18th century. By the time that news of the earthquake reached Europe it would be 'old news', over a year old.

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