ONCE MORE ON ADAM SMITH AND THE "LITTLE FINGER" AND EARTHQUAKES IN CHINA
Adam Smith” taught modern economists that global governance is hard because, among much else, for most people, losing a little finger is worse than the deaths of hundreds of millions in places far away, like China.
Thing is, though, what happens when it’s China where the little fingers are – because China becomes the world’s economic centre – and “far away” is somewhere else, far away?
Danny Quah as a good sense of pithy humour that makes you think. And very Chinese too.
However, we must return to 18th century Adam Smith when China was a large country with population to match which for Europeans then was indeed a longway away (and vice versa). It took a British flagged ship over a year to sail to China and a year to get back, so visitors were away for nearly three years by the time they had completed whatever purpose they sailed there. It also undermined appropriate supervision of their behaviour.
So, by the time the news arrived in Europe from China about the illustrative earthquake used by Adam Smith for a lesson in morality and an apropriate sense of moral balance, the news the ship brought was already a year old and the notional ‘100 millions’ were all gone and no doubt forgotten by their own brethren.
First, a mention of Smith’s teaching methods as a Professor instructing his young students aged from upwards in to adulthood? Smith used stories from life and illustrated them with spoken techniques that used statements and posed questions of scenarios with ‘obvious’ answers, and then attacked his first answers with more pointed comments presented in an extempore manner and with some excitement in their delivery. I get the impression that Smith was no a monotonic, boring lecturer, for which he was also popular with his easily distracted young listeners.
So what moral lesson was Adam Smith referring to in his “Moral Sentiments” statement?
First he sets the scene:
“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.”
[Smith’s students would relax and accept the scene as presented by Smith, who would introduce some more moral pressure by comparing this 'man of humanity’s' self-centred concerns:]
“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.”
[Smith now sets the moral trap by asking a hypothetical question:]
“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?”
[Consider your own answer to Smith’s hypothetical question and the balance between you “losing a little finger” and stopping a hundred million people in a far distant land from dying in an earthquake. In the pause for contemplation of your answer, Smith moves to his directed peroration in the standard manner of a disgusted Calvinist Minister in the Sunday pulpit who could cause grown men and women to shake in their shoes at some real or imagined little sin of not much consequence that they may hav ceommitted during the week. Smith writes:]
“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.”
[Taken from Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, (1759) 1976, The Glasgow Edition, published by Oxford University Press, Oxford,. TMS III.3.5 pp. 136-7].
Can you see now what Smith was doing in this passage? Danny Quah read the passage and seems only to consider the first part in which Smith sets up his students for the real moral part, as if a loss of the finger is really more morally relevant than is made clear in the last sentence.
You can read this in Danny’s second paragraph in his implied revenge threat: “what happens when it’s China where the little fingers are – because China becomes the world’s economic centre – and “far away” is somewhere else, far away?”
Danny’s thought is not a moral sentiment at all. Nor did Smith teach modern economists - the subject of ‘economics’ did not yet exist in 1776. He was teaching moral sentiments, first to students and then to readers of his book:
“Adam Smith” taught modern economists that global governance is hard because, among much else, for most people, losing a little finger is worse than the deaths of hundreds of millions in places far away, like China.”
Now news can be relayed in bits of a second to and from China and whenever natural calamities happen “far away”. We should note how many individuals in far away places send either money or physical goods to those places in solidarity with the afflicted populations. I hope Danny Quah rethinks the real lessons of Smith on distant earthquakes and the universal moral imperatives of the appropriate international moral response to them.
[As always my thanks to Sandra Peart of Richmond University, Virginia for teaching me years ago the real moral purpose of Adam Smith's "little finger" example.]