Once More on China and the Earthquake
Edward Carr is the editorial director of Intelligent Life and foreign editor of The Economist writes HERE
“Adam Smith, the great thinker of the Scottish enlightenment, once speculated on how a European “man of humanity” would treat the news that China had been swallowed by an earthquake. He would express his sorrow, offer some judicious remarks on the damage to trade and reflect on the precariousness of human existence, before turning back to his own affairs. “If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow,” Smith went on, “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.”
But Smith goes on to present a quite different account leading his readers to a wholly different conclusion to that portrayed in the first part of the passage, by Edward Carr, which is all that is usually quoted as being Smith’s point. It wasn’t.
Smith goes on to say:
“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 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” 136-7; OUP ed.)
Edward Carr, presuming he has read Moral Sentiment to the end of the paragraph from which he quotes, presents an entirely different slant about the “little finger” test that Adam Smith posed to his students in his lectures and to his readers in their written form in Moral Sentiments. I am not impressed by the editor of Intelligent Life and a former editor of The Economist's use of partial quotations from Smith's Moral Sentiments (1759). What happened to 'fact checking' by editorial staff in top journals?
As an exercise to hammer Smith’s point home, I invite readers, and Edward Carr, to read the rest of Smith’s paragraph 4 and the next three paragraphs too (TMS III.3.4-7, pp 136-9). They are enlightening about Smith’s attitudes to moral standards for humans.