HOW WOULD A "MAN OF HUMANITY" REALLY REACT TO A DISTANT EARTHQUAKE?
Pat Tomaino posts HERE on “The Invisible Hand and the Little finger: Adam Smith’s morality Tale”
Pat Tomaino casts an eye over Smith’s account in The Theaory of Moral Sentiments (1759) of an earthquake in China and the deaths of 100 million of his brethren, and carelessly misses the whole point!
Pat quotes Smith’s provisional response:
“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.”
Pat seems oblivious of Smith’s firm rebuke those who assume "a man of humanity" would react to distant tragic events that did not directly affect himself, further down the page, which was the whole purpose of Smith’s discussion of his imagined moral case.
Read carefully though, Smith shows the real, moral, response to news of tragedies among distant others, among our human brethren:
“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.7 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” (TMS III.3.4: p. 137).
This puts a whole new perspective on the purpose of Smith’s parable of the “great earthquake in China” and how a “man of humanity” apparently would react to it. Smith use this rhetorical technique deliberately to demonstrate to his readers (and, no doubt, to his students in his classroom) an application central to his approach to moral sentiments.
Readers are advised to read Smith slowly, rather than hastily, and to avoid ‘quotation hunts’, and comments from modern articles by those whose knowledge of Smith comes from modern critics who pass on their bad habits.