14 November 2015

Compassion, lighting up the human heart...

This semester, I have been teaching jurisprudence, taking our law students through centuries of ideas about justice and mercy, of morality and law. It has been a fascinating - and sometimes challenging - process, reacquainting me with thinkers whose work I last considered in earnest some years ago. Just this week, we were talking about states of emergency, and the suspension of law in the name of security. I had no idea, when I took to my feet on Tuesday, that the end of the week would again make our discussion so bloodily, so horrifically concrete. 

There will be a raised voices today, arguments, anger and sorrow, for Beirut, and for Paris. I don't propose to add my half-formed thoughts and reactions to the multitude. But I did want to share this passage with you, which has been bouncing around my skull this morning. It is from Adam Smith's (1759) Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith argued that fellow-feeling is the root of our ethics. He returns - again and again - to the figure of the sympathetic spectator, who participates in the joys, and the sufferings, of others.

But Smith recognises that bystanders, even empathetic bystanders, do not fully enter into the anguish or the animation of others. We feel - but we feel at a lower pitch, lower and lower as social distance multiplies. More proximate calamities can strike us with overwhelming force, remote crimes more remotely. Smith's point is not a cynical one. He is not defending the idea that we should be unmoved by the sufferings of far-away countries, or of people of whom we know little. Far from it.  

But in a world where it has become easier and easier to become a willing - or unwilling - spectator to the evils and calamities and wickedness of humanity, in a world demanding sympathy and compassion, this sometimes neglected Scottish philosopher still has something to teach us all. 

In the same manner, to the selfish and original passions of human nature, the loss or gain of a very small interest of our own, appears to be of vastly more importance, excites a much more passionate joy or sorrow, a much more ardent desire or aversion, than the greatest concern of another with whom we have no particular connexion. His interests, as long as they are surveyed from this station, can never be put into the balance with our own, can never restrain us from doing. whatever may tend to promote our own, how ruinous soever to him. Before we can make any proper comparison of those opposite interests, we must change our position. 
We must view them, neither from our own place nor yet from his, neither with our own eyes nor yet with his, but from the place and with the eyes of a third person, who has no particular connexion with either, and who judges with impartiality between us. Here, too, habit and experience have taught us to do this so easily and so readily, that we are scarce sensible that we do it; and it requires, in this case too, some degree of reflection, and even of philosophy, to convince us, how little interest we should take in the greatest concerns of our neighbour, how little we should be affected by whatever relates to him, if the sense of propriety and justice did not correct the otherwise natural inequality of our sentiments. 
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. 
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.  
When the happiness or misery of others depends in any respect upon our conduct, we dare not, as self-love might suggest to us, prefer the interest of one to that of many. The man within immediately calls to us, that we value ourselves too much and other people too little, and that, by doing so, we render ourselves the proper object of the contempt and indignation of our brethren.


  1. Well spotted as an appropriate thought at this time.

  2. The Vow. The Smith Commission. The Final Dilution. A deformity of injustice?

  3. A very well founded sentiment, and classically exposed, from Adam Smith. Thank you. Excellent

  4. I have to say, though I agree with Smith's sentiments, it is rare, so rare, for anyone to think like this nowadays. Ask the women who buy cheap clothes they know have been made in sweatshops, for example.

    1. Yes - as a campaigner to stop shark finning has just observed, telling people that their taste for soup is leading sharks to extinction just isn't working.

      Not that we can talk. Knowing that the sugar they loved was produced by slaves didn't stop most of Smith's contemporaries from adding another spoonful.


  5. Adam Smith - greatly misrepresented by many. In "Capitalism's Achilles Heel" Raymond Baker (written 10 years ago) argues we need to return to Smith of the "Sentiments" and discard Benthamite Utilitarianism and it's successor neoliberalism if we are to create a more equal, fairer more caring society.

  6. A daring quote, because, as Geejay commented above, Adam Smith is often misrepresented. And, in fact, this quote is often misrepresented or partially quoted to give it a different meaning.

    As this was not a natural disaster but an act of human calculation, and, given the long-historical context, we are not innocent bystanders, and the values Smith espoused are what will be lost in the endless cycle of violence and recrimination, we should also note Smith's savage attack on the East India Company in Wealth:

    "It is a very singular government in which every member of the administration wishes to get out of the country, and consequently to have done with the government as soon as he can, and to whose interest, the day after he has left it and carried his whole fortune with him, it is perfectly indifferent though the whole country was swallowed up by an earthquake."

    Earlier in the book he had already informed his readers that the Company's desire for opium resulted in a famine in Bengal that killed three or four hundred thousand people. (Current estimates are 10 million or about a third of the population.)