Friday, January 22, 2010

Another Half-Quotation from Adam Smith

In The Australian, Tim Soutphomassane, under the name, ‘The Philosopher’ asks:

Should we donate more to earthquake victims? (HERE):

The Philosopher ( takes his text from Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759'), and comments:

Adam Smith, better-known as the father of modern economics, may appear an unlikely source of philosophical guidance. But in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith asked his readers to imagine an earthquake swallowing up the whole of China. While "a man of humanity in Europe" would be moved to express his melancholy, he would, Smith argued, ultimately return untroubled to his ordinary life.

"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."

Smith's observations have perhaps lost part of their sharpness. Technology has made a mockery of distance. In the 18th century, the images and sounds of an earthquake's devastation could not have been broadcast into the living rooms of those on the other side of the world, as they are today.

Even so, for all the horror we may feel about the Haitians' hardship, how many of us have watched the late-night news update, only to slip quietly to bed for a good night's sleep? Maybe Smith had a point.

I do not mean to make anyone feel guilty, or more guilty, about not feeling deeply enough about the plight of the Haitians. Nor am I for a moment suggesting that we should withhold assistance or charity. If one has the means to do so, one should be giving generously to the Haiti aid appeals. Governments can afford to be magnanimous in such times.

However, Smith highlighted a truth about the limits of human sympathy. Our sense of solidarity with those who suffer is strongest when we consider someone else as "one of us" where "us" means something smaller and more local than the human race. Philosophers of obligation would remind us that we owe a special concern for the welfare of our families and compatriots

Regular readers of Lost Legacy will know what Tim Soutphomassane has done. He has taken a truncated quotation from Adam Smith and then made a case without bothering – or even not knowing – what Smith said next, in the same paragraph.

By misleading his readers in The Australian, a newspaper with a hight reputation as a serious and authoritative source (certainly a cut above the usual tabloids) he makes a few dollars from traducing the reputation of a real moral philosopher;

Here is the rest of the quotation about how “man of humanity” would really act in response to a calamity of an earthquake, in contrast to how Smith draws his listeners into a discussion, using the earthquake as an example (China was a year’s sailing from Britain at the time):

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: 136-37)

Quite a different picture of the ‘man of humanity’, eh?

I suggest that Tim Soutphomassane read a little more before pontificating about the point that Smith was making.

This comment arrived Monay 25 January but got 'lost' in publishing it:

"Extremely helpful towards a basic understanding of Smith's famous quote; thank you." (JMJanssen)

Thank you J. M. Jansen for writing to Lost Legacy. Much appreciated. Gavin

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