Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Once More on Adam Smith's Earthquake Teaser

D. S. WRIGHT writes Book Review: "A Conflict Of Visions" (Part 1) in Daily Kos HERE

Here Sowell focuses on the notion of the limitations of human nature or rather a vision that factors in our inherent inability to change certain attributes about ourselves, a natural constraint. Sowell illustrates this in a unique way by highlighting the most cruel application of this vision - he references Adam Smith's Theory On Moral Sentiments in particular the passage claiming that a European man would be more concerned and distressed by the loss of his pinky than if all of China was swallowed by the sea. I have to give style points here, this is a considerably bold reference if not a preemptive strike on the rejoinder to the constrained vision - that if people acted so dispassionate towards their fellow man they would all be selfish bores. If, as King Henri-Quatre claimed, Paris is worth a mass then surely China is worth a pinky.

Sowell trumpets this very eventuality by selecting (or is our busy bee pre-selecting?) an example that discards any care for self-flattery and moves on to make a larger point, principally made by Smith though also buttressed by Burke and Hamilton, that the constrained vision casts man as deeply and irredeemably narcissistic. To Smith, as relayed by Sowell, people are incapable of loving one's neighbor as oneself and only make sacrifices to abstract concepts such as moral principles and personal honor.”

This article caught my eye because it is based in a ‘massage’ of the facts about the alleged views that Adam Smith supposedly expressed in his Moral Sentiments (1759) that “a European man would be more concerned and distressed by the loss of his pinky than if all of China was swallowed by the sea”, which is about a rather too complex presentation of Professor Sowell’s on A Conflict of Visions”.

From the review (follow the link), I confess that I had difficulty following the argument of the point made by D. S. Wright in this review of Thomas Sowell’s book. But in so far as it may be an important contribution to the outer-reaches of philosophy, I think we should clear up what exactly Adam Smith said and what it meant.

Either D. S Wright or Thomas Sowell misrepresents what Adam Smith actually wrote; it is not clear which of them is the main source of the error embedded in ‘quoting’ Smith’s chapter ‘of Duty’ in Moral Sentiments. Smith makes the point that “a man of humanity in Europe”, considering the situation where “the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake” (TMS, Part III, chapter 3, paragraph 4: 136) and discussed the possible reactions of that “man of humanity”. In short, it is a ‘mind experiment’ of the kind that tutors of young university students of moral philosophy, some as young as 14 at that time in Scotland, might happily express to get them thinking morally, and, typically for Smith, he offers some alternative choices for them to think about.

One reaction, is for him to ‘express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people’, which would not ruffle anybody’s doubts – would not we all think thus? But Smith goes on to push his mind game further. He suggests that a “man of speculation” would contemplate how the disaster would affect “the commerce of Europe”.

Modern readers need to bear in mind that this is not a 24-hour news channel, with news within minutes of such an event happening. This was 18th-century Britain, with a sea-journey time of over a year for the news of such an earth quake to arrive in Europe. Smith then increases the pressure, no doubt grabbing the close attention of his young listeners, suggesting that when the “fine philosophy was over” and the “human sentiments had been once fairly expressed”, this European man of humanity” would “pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose of his diversion, with the same ease and tranquility, as if no such accident had happened”. No doubt, the ‘know-alls’ and young cynics among the audience, would smirk knowingly the way the world works.

To force his apparent point, Smith goes on to claim of the "man of humanity" that ‘The most frivilous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance”, and twists the knife deeper by further asserting that “If he was to lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep tonight; 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, than the paltry misfortune of his own”.

Smith probably had the wrapt attention of his audience at this point. But he is not finished yet. He poses the likely consequence, that if this “man of humanity” was offered the chance to “prevent this paltry misfortune to himself” (by the loss of his little finger”) to avert the hundred million victims of the distant earthquake, would he be willing to sacrifice his “little finger” instead? By now, his audience is of the mind that this was a no contest: the “man of humanity” would not sacrifice his finger avert the distant disaster.

But was this Smith’s point? It certainly is taken that way, judging by the number of times this is what most readers continue to think every time there is a distant earthquake in the news, today, and Smith’s first part of the quotation is reproduced as if that is what he said.

This is what Adam Smith actually wrote here:

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 quite a different Smithian conclusion! Hence, I am disappointed that either Thomas Sowell or his reviewer, butchered the quotation from Adam Smith, and gave spurious credence to whatever point they were making.

I hope readers from now will correct false quotations from Smith on “distant earthquakes” and how a “man of humanity” would react in practice.

[I am grateful to Sandra Peart (University of Richmond, Virginia) for pointing out to me the pitfalls from misreading Adam Smith.]



Blogger Ross B. Emmett said...

Thanks, Gavin, for posting this. We were just discussing Smith's comments about the Chinese earthquake the other day in class and your entry will help me in teaching it in the future. Very nicely done.

Ross Emmett

8:16 pm  
Blogger Ross B. Emmett said...

Thanks, Gavin, for the greater exploration of Smith on the Chinese earthquake and the man of humanity. We were just discussing this the other day in class, and your blog post will help me when I teach it again.

8:17 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Hi Ross

Many thanks for your comments.

I am pleased that the post is useful for your teaching.

That, after all, is what Lost Legacy is about.


5:13 pm  

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