Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Dangers in Relying on P. J. O'Rourke's Version of Adam Smith

It’s time to address the ‘little finger’ and the Chinese earthquake that kills 100 million question once again. This time, the ‘reader’, Nick Thorn, asserts that Adam Smith’s example, or at least the bit he quotes, provides an interesting ‘insight into human nature’.

To be sure it isn’t a very flattering insight at all, especially linked to Nick’s unhappy association of it with ‘capitalism’ (and the ‘Daily Mail’, the voice of lumpen middle-class England...).

Nick writes ‘Nick Thorn Home Pages’ (‘technology for business’ sake’) HERE:

“Adam Smith, Human Nature, Capitalism and Realism

Three of my holiday reading books put together came up with an interesting insight into human nature. The books were “The Genome” by Matt Ridley followed by “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man: The Shocking Story of How America Really Took Over the World” by John Perkins, then followed up with “On the Wealth of Nations” by P.J. O’Rourke. (I did chuck in an Andy McNab from the library too ).

“The Genome” basically said that nature wins out over nurture a lot more than we realise.

“On The Wealth of Nations” has an Adam smith quote on human nature. From “Moral Sentiments”, part 3. I quote:

“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. 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…”

[Nick inserts a link to Moral Sentiments; leaving it to reader, presumably, to read on beyond the truncated bit he quotes.]

Interestingly, Adam Smith complains bitterly about big business, globalisation, poor government, feckless people and could have been writing for The Daily Mail today. In other words, nothing much changes. For that matter, the Romans also had pretty much the same list of complaints.”

However, Adam Smith goes on to discuss an imaginary dilemma for that same man who ‘snore[s] with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren’ in the same paragraph quoted by Nick.

The whole paragraph completely changes Nick’s presentation of the man being a close imitation of a psychopath.

Smith asks: what would the man do if he was offered a choice of losing his finger or saving the 100 million from the earthquake?

On Nick’s current prediction he would prefer to save his little finger.

Not sure? Right pose the hypothetical question to people who have read the piece that Nick quotes but who have not read the whole quotation.

Now read the full quotation, which Nick does not quote (it might spoil his conclusions about human nature):

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 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: pp 136-7)

Yes, the man would choose to lose his little finger rather than 100 million ‘of his brethren’ are killed in the Chinese earthquake. This gives a somewhat different picture of the man from reading the first part of the paragraph alone.

I think this point is sometimes lost on ‘quick’ readers, who miss Smith’s description of the man in question here – he is a ‘man of humanity’ (check the first sentence), and not a miserable, selfish person, that Nick (a ‘man of the world’?) portrays, which rather spoils Nick’s (and many others’) forced example.

Always read Adam Smith, a moral philosopher, in context, which is why so many quotations from his books lead to false conclusions.

[Nick got his quote from P. J. O’Rourke’s version of Adam Smith, which is proving to be a poor source for Adam Smith’s actual views….]

[As always, my thanks to Sandra Peart for drawing this assessment to my attention.]


Blogger Jim Leitzel said...

That TMS piece on the earthquake in China is often used out of context, I think. For instance...

I agree with you that the O'Rourke book is not a good guide to the thinking of Adam Smith (especially for TMS, I believe). O'Rourke knows Smith well, but somehow the picture that emerges is fairly distorted. I think that the best part of the O'Rourke book is at the end, where the biographical chapter (curiously) is placed.

10:27 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...


I am not totally opposed to O'Rourke's book on Smith; but I do think the pressure to be funny sometimes gets in the way of accuracy.

7:12 am  

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