Saturday, April 10, 2010

On Casting the First Stone ...

Richard Beck, Associate Professor and experimental psychologist at Abilene Christian University, writes on his Bog, Experimental Theology HERE:


“Adam Smith (yes, the Adam Smith) on the most problematic facet of human moral psychology, how the incomprehensible suffering of humanity cannot compete with our workday hassles and preoccupations

[Richard quotes the first part only of the passage from Moral Sentiments from ‘Let us suppose that the great Empire of China… through to: ‘and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own’ (TMS III.3.4: 136-7.

He does not complete the passage, which is unfortunate because this gives him and his readers a totally unbalanced view of what Adam Smith actually said. It is also a fairly common way in which truncated quotations, often torn out of context, have contributed to Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy.]


To assist a more balanced understanding, here is the missing half of the quotation that Richard failed to offer his readers:

‘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. kIt 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.3.5: 137).

This reverses the apparently somewhat cynical view of human behaviour from the first part quoted by Richard and, presumably misunderstood by his Blog readers. Smith held a rounded, moral view, of how 'a man of humanity' would really react to the tragedy in China (then a year or more sailing time to get there - and the same back to Britain too).

Recent earthquakes in China and other places are known within seconds via modern media and the responses from 'people of humanity' are in accord with Adam Smith's assessments.

However, the kidnapping behaviour of certain 'Christian sects' from the US (and France) leaves much to be desired.



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