The Magazine

Smith's Law

The companion to The Wealth of Nations.

Jul 17, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 41 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
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It would take, literally, an Einstein to show how right Smith was.

Adam Smith intended to publish three "inventions of the imagination," The Theory of Moral Sentiments, The Wealth of Nations, and a third on those most inventive and imaginary connections, law and government. The last was never finished, and just before Smith died he had his notes and drafts burned. Perhaps with reason. Doing good and doing well should be enough for us. That we then should be obliged to listen to campaign ads and campaign speeches, make campaign contributions, and vote for idiots is asking too much. As Smith himself declared in Moral Sentiments, "We may often fulfill all the rules of justice by sitting still and doing nothing."

And it is from a certain type of sitting still and doing nothing that, according to The Theory of Moral Sentiments, our sense of right and wrong arises. The foremost invention of our imagination is morality.

Adam Smith began Moral Sentiments with the riddle upon which all our well-being depends: "How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it . . ."

The root of these principles is sympathy. Humans possess one emotion that cannot be categorized by cynics as either greed or fear. And it isn't love. One may love without any fellow-feeling, the way John Hinckley proved his love for Jodie Foster.

Our sympathy makes us able, and eager, to share the feelings of people we don't love at all. We like sharing their bad feelings as well as their good ones. We enjoy, in a daytime-TV way, commiserating with the sorrows of perfect strangers.

This sympathy, Smith argued, is completely imaginative and not, like most emotions, a product of our physical senses. No matter how poignantly sympathetic the situation, we don't feel other people's pain. In a preemptive rebuttal of a future president, Smith used the example of seeing one's brother being put to the rack. (Although the brother of Roger Clinton might have chosen a more sympathetic case.) "Our senses," Smith declared, "never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person." It is our imagination that generates sympathy.

People have the creative talent to put themselves in another person's place and to suppose what that other person is feeling. Even very stupid and frivolous people have this creative talent. We call them actors.

But sympathy by itself--be it for friends, strangers, humanity, or Clintons--can't be the basis of a moral system. Otherwise a person who watched daytime TV all day would be regarded as a saint.

Imagination, already working to show us how other people feel, has to work harder to show us whether what they feel is right or wrong. Then there's the problem of whether we're right or wrong. We'll always have plenty of sympathy for ourselves. "We are not ready to suspect any person of being defective in selfishness," Smith wrote. "This is by no means the weak side of human nature."

Our imagination must undertake the additional task of creating a method to render decent judgments on our feelings and on the feelings of others and on the actions that proceed from those feelings. Adam Smith personified these conscious imaginative judgments and named our brain's moral magistrate the "Impartial Spectator."

We envision the Impartial Spectator as having perfect knowledge of everyone's circumstance, experience, and intentions. And since the Impartial Spectator is imaginary and has no self, it has no selfish interest in any judgment that is made. Smith claimed that what we do, when we develop morality, is shape our natural sympathies into the thoughts and actions that we would expect from an Impartial Spectator who is sympathetic, but objective and all-knowing, yet still sympathetic anyway.

"When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it," Smith asked, "that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble?" The answer is "the inhabitant of the breast . . . the great judge and arbiter of our conduct." Looking at things from the Impartial Spectator's point of view instructs us in the self-discipline that we need to behave well in our condition of natural liberty. Consider how toddlers or drunks behave, who haven't yet received, or who have temporarily forgotten, their instructions.

If, Smith wrote, the Impartial Spectator did not teach us "to protect the weak, to curb the violent, and to chastise the guilty," then "a man would enter an assembly of men as he enters a den of lions." Or toddlers. Or drunks. Or Jack Abramoff's office.