The soft and amiable virtue of humanity

It is often the case that the disciples of a great master not only falsify his teachings but in his name practise the very opposite of what he taught.  The outstanding example of course is Jesus Christ, but another is Adam Smith.  Nothing is so false as that which is nearly true.   Adam Smith was not an economist at all but a professor of ethics at Glasgow University.  He gave a course divided into four sections, and of these the second, dealing with moral behaviour and later published under the title of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, was the most important.  His big idea is sympathy, although by that he did not mean feeling sorry for somebody.  He meant entering into other peoples’ minds.  We are to begin with, he says, utterly selfish creatures.  But we become fully human by our intercourse with each other.  If I cut my finger, he says, it is to me the worst pain in the world.  The bystanders – those guardians of the moral order – feel sorry for me but it is plain to them that people starving to death in China is worse.  Because I am a social being I come to adopt their point of view, and even I come to appreciate that cutting my finger is trivial compared to people starving to death in China.  I begin to become a universally compassionate human being, what he calls ‘the man within the breast’.   I begin to develop what he calls ‘the soft and amiable virtue of humanity’.   His predecessor in the chair at Glasgow, Francis Hutcheson, had believed in a special virtue of benevolence directly inspired into the human heart by the Divinity and only coming into force on particular occasions, such as when we feel inspired to give money to Oxfam.  Adam Smith disagreed.  It is through the normal comings and goings of ordinary life whereby we come into contact with other human beings, the bystanders, that we become benevolent.


This is particularly the case with trade, for nothing brings us into day to day contact with other people like trade.  The Wealth of Nations is not primarily a book about economics, it is a tract on prudence, how to put into effect the principles laid down in The Theory of Moral Sentiments.  The much-quoted sentence “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher and the brewer that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest” is often proffered to support selfishness as the right behaviour for economic agents.   But read on. We talk to these butchers and brewers on our Edinburgh doorsteps. ‘To offer a man a shilling is a form of conversation’ he says.  Gradually they begin to turn from the sharp and self-regarding operators that they were – ‘wherever you find two or three businessmen gathered together you will find a conspiracy to defraud the public’ he says – and begin to develop ‘the soft and amiable virtue of humanity’.  In time ‘the publick admiration which attends upon such abilities is part of their reward’.  The primary form of wealth, he tells us, is not financial but the respect of other people.  ‘The desire of becoming the proper objects of this respect, of deserving and obtaining this credit and rank among our equals, is, perhaps, the strongest of all our desires, and our anxiety to obtain the advantages of fortune is accordingly much more excited and irritated by this desire, than by that of supplying all the necessities and conveniences of the body…’.  How many people have actually read The Wealth of Nations, let alone The Theory of Moral Sentiments?  Yes, by selling shirts to Frenchmen both we and they grow financially richer.  But more importantly, our humanity is enriched.  We become better cooks and better lovers.   Humanity is universal in its remit.  Adam Smith has been totally misunderstood, misinterpreted and traduced.  There is no invisible hand as objective a natural force as that of Newtonian equilibrium.  What there is is human beings engaging with each other, and thus, ‘as by an invisible hand’, making each other more humane.  Economics is essentially not a relationship between inert material objects like Newton’s planets, but intelligent people.  Hands belong only to people.  It is the enrichment of our humanity that Smith is primarily after.


From my forthcoming book Our Terrible/Wonderful Future.


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