Saturday, March 12, 2011

Adam Smith on Earthquakes and his 'Little Finger' Parable

With the awefull Japanese earthquake in the news, I expect a flurry of Blog reports misquoting Adam Smith on the ‘Chinese Earthquake’ parable that appeared in Moral Sentiments (1759) four years after the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 that caused a public debate on its causes – the Catholic Bishop said it was God’s anger at the sins committed by the residents of Lisbon, a notion mocked by Voltaire in his novel, Candide.

I thought it appropriate to comment early, rather than await the inevitable flurry of posts from the “Book of Instant Quotes from Adam Smith for Any Day’s Media Topics for Columnists Needing to Appear Erudite While Mocking Markets”, and feel obliged to respond with what Adam Smith actually said instead.

The normal Smith on Earthquakes version goes something like this:

Adam Smith famously wrote of 'a man of humanity in Europe' who would not 'sleep tonight' if 'he was to lose his little finger tomorrow' but would 'snore with the most profound security' if a hundred million of his Chinese brethren were 'suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, "because" he had never seen them.”

Left like that the quote can be misleading, as I have commented several times on Lost Legacy over the past few years. However, try this:

But for us in today’s relentless 24-hour News-Cycle TV world, the Chinese are no longer invisible, living at the outside edge of what David Hume called the concentric circles of our empathy. Last summer's earthquake in China, whose tragic aftermath was instantly transmitted onto our screens, was met by the rest of the world not with indifference but with empathy and a profound sense of moral obligation to the Chinese victims. It was globalization's finest hour’ (a more accurate quote from Jagdish Bagwati of Columbia University, New York

Regular readers may recall that I have commented on the misuses of this paragraph from Moral Sentiments on several occasions. The problem comes from reading only part of the paragraph and not reading all of it. [Confession: some years ago, Dean, Professor Sandra Peart, of the University of Richmond, Virginia, corrected me, politely, of course - Sandra is a paragon of scholarly good manners - on my earlier misreading of the paragraph.] **

Far from Adam Smith making his 'little finger' point and leaving it as quoted, he goes on to say:

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, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.

Most commentators stop there and do not read on, and thereby jump to the wrong conclusions. Smith, they conclude asks: “if ‘the man of humanity’, obsessed with saving his ‘paltry’ finger, of which he is highly emotional about, could save ‘his brethren’ in China from the earthquake disaster, but only at the cost of losing his little finger, what would he do?”

Well, if he rolls over and snores after dreadful news of an earthquake it’s obvious: he keeps his little finger! But does he?

Read on and I think you will agree that what Smith says next turns the whole, somewhat cynical, assertion he begins with on its head, and treats us to one of his thunderous affirmations of the moral spirit, which he finds in human kind when exposed to the society of his fellows:

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.4.4: pp 137-38)

The whole (very long) paragraph is an example of Smith, the educator, at work (Moral Sentiments [1759] was based on the lectures on ethics that he taught at Glasgow University (1751-64).

The shocking earthquake in Smith’s time that had a dramatic affect on European men of letters occurred on 1 November 1755 in Lisbon, Portugal, and this probably inspired him to develop it as an imaginary Chinese example of the appropriate moral conduct. China in Smith’s day was about as far as you could get from Europe (it took a year’s sailing to get there from Britain and the same time to get back, plus the time spent there, while Lisbon was but a short day or two away. Distant China was about as far as you could get in popular imagination, which suited his example.

The clue is in his early reference to the ‘man of humanity’ who performed the subject of his questions about the little finger, and reading it leaves no doubt in a reader’s mind of Smith's low opinion of any such man preferring his little finger to the death of 100 million people.

In sum, the benevolent generosity of the genuine concerns and sacrifices to send assistance to the victims of the more recent earthquake in Japan does not contrast with Adam Smith’s parable of the reaction of an 18th-century ‘man of humanity’; the same passion for others is common to people both then and now. Those who seek to make an ideological point against Adam Smith (usually sneering about free markets as well), are mischievous, where not downright dishonest.

Professor Bhagwati’s broader point was that globalisation has not made people less caring than in more ancient times and it doesn't need a truncated 'little finger' example to make that point.

In fact, globalisation makes it easier to mobilise real resources (not just sympathy) and get them to Japan in hours and over prolonged period of days and weeks. This was impossible in the 18th century. By the time that news of the earthquake reached Europe from China, or New Zealand, it would be 'old news', well over two years old.

If you see any such misinterpretations of Adam Smith on Earthquakes and the ‘little finger’ paragraph, write or post a rebuttal in your own words (or mine) and certainly in Smith’s.

** Message for ambitious younger readers hoping to climb the ‘greasy pole’ of academe: try not to be shy of acknowledging the (inevitable) scholarly errors as you join the Republic of Letters in case your ‘rivals’ put you down. It is unedifying to see people refusing to acknowledge errors, worse, trying to deny them. Your ‘rivals’ will whisper against you anyway, but your seniors will note your sense of scholarly integrity and your defence of when you are right will impress your colleagues.



Blogger Unknown said...

My question would be, what exactly is he saying about the nature of our ethical duties in an age of globalization?

11:27 am  
Blogger dannyspeagle said...

I believe Adam Smith is telling us--as someone himself who has proven to understand man's motivations {eg, Wealth of Nations}--all men can inherently ignore the suffering of others if there is appropriate distance.

This is not to say that all men will have the same reaction of empathy if the suffering were being witnessed. That he leaves to the reader to ponder another day.

7:07 pm  

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