The Theory of Moral Sentiments

by Adam Smith

Cambridge, 446 pp., $70

As usual, free enterprise is under attack. Assaults on laissez-faire are being made by petro-commie Hugo Chávez, by the E.U.'s dirigisme regime, by Vladimir Putin's reassertion of nationalism and socialism--call it National Socialism?--in Russia. Congress thought Dubai had bought Newark and was going to move it to the Persian Gulf. The Treasury Department is having a neo-mercantilist fit over the current acc ount deficit with China. And President Bush, in his last State of the Union address, made the shameful statement that "America is addicted to oil."

But Americans don't get sick and shaky when they're deprived of oil; they get sick and shaky when they pay for it. And the price they pay is artificially inflated by our government's taxes, acquiescence to a monopoly cartel, and restrictions on exploration, drilling, and refinery construction.

The world's political leaders need to be frog-marched back to The Wealth of Nations for a refresher course. The principles therein are straightforward enough. Even politicians should be able to grasp them. Economic growth depends on division of labor. Division of labor depends on freedom of trade. Freedom of trade depends on, in the words of Adam Smith, "the obvious and simple system of natural liberty."

What politicians are incapable of comprehending is the moral underpinning of free enterprise, that "system of natural liberty." Even many of free enterprise's advocates see market freedoms solely in terms of practical economics. The government of China comes to mind. But Adam Smith was not an economist. The discipline hadn't been invented. Adam Smith was a moral philosopher.

The Wealth of Nations was part of a larger enterprise in moral philosophy. The first installment of Adam Smith's great undertaking was The Theory of Moral Sentiments, published 17 years before Wealth. Smith finished an extensive revision of Moral Sentiments the year before he died. He considered it his most important work. The book is not much read or referred to nowadays, but his theories in The Wealth of Nations cannot be understood without The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Smith devoted most of his career to the project of bettering human existence. A modern person--or a modern person who doesn't wear Birkenstocks--is tempted to laugh. It is a hilariously big job. But most of us have undertaken hilariously big jobs such as raising children. We were lured into the enterprise by the, so to speak, pleasures of conception. New beginnings are always fun. And the prospect of making wholesale improvements in ordinary life was as novel and fascinating in the 18th century as the prospect of making life simpler and less stressful and blocking e-mail spam are today.

Smith set out to discern how people achieve systems of morality, economics, and government and how, by analyzing the way these work, people could better their ethical, material, and political conditions. It was a splendid opportunity to be a blowhard. Consider a recent thinker--a Herbert Marcuse, a Newt Gingrich, an Al Franken--launching into the subject. Fortunately, Smith had a knack for posing deep thoughts without making us cringe. His secret was to be an idealist without taking that impertinent and annoying next step of being a visionary. Smith didn't presume to have a "blueprint for society" and did presume that the ignorant and incompetent builders of society--he and the rest of us--couldn't follow one.

For example, in Wealth Smith denounced the Corn Laws, the British prohibitions on export of grain, as the crass inequity they were (and would prove to be when they starved my family out of Roscommon 70 years later). Then Smith didn't proceed with the rant that we now expect from people who feel themselves to be, a little too obviously, in the right. Instead Smith--keeping the inevitable follies of politics in mind--came to a humble conclusion: "We may perhaps say of it what was said of the laws of Solon, that, though not the best in itself, it is the best which the interests, prejudices, and temper of the times would admit of."

Without this humility, reading in Adam Smith's philosophical project would be as grim as living in Kim Jong Il's philosophical project, North Korea. Smith's humble attitude extended beyond the ideal to ideas themselves, to his amour propre. In an early essay, "The History of Astronomy," Smith wrote that he was "endeavoring to represent all philosophical systems as mere inventions of the imagination, to connect together the otherwise disjointed and discordant phenomena of nature." He went on to chastise himself for agreeing too much with Sir Isaac Newton's physics, making "use of language expressing [their] connecting principles as if they were the real chains which Nature makes use of to bind together her several operations."

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.

The imagination that creates the Impartial Spectator is not the easy, whimsical imagination of young people. Nothing in The Theory of Moral Sentiments resembles the improbably colored and far more improbably uncarnivorous tyrannosaurus on PBS. And nothing resembles Bono.

The imagination that Smith described is the strenuous imagination of an Einstein or a Newton, with all the hard work that this implies. The creative effort that imagination makes links the moral sympathy central to The Theory of Moral Sentiments with the material cooperation central to The Wealth of Nations. The imagination also has to make a creative effort to divide labor and conduct trade. Sympathy and cooperation are the more-conscious and less-conscious sides of what allows civilization to exist. They are the "principles in his nature" that man has, "which interest him in the fortune of others."

Smith saw the moral potential in both our interest in others and our self-interest. When we give somebody a bottle of whiskey, we know we've benefited somebody else. When we drink that bottle of whiskey ourselves in one sitting, we've also benefited somebody else--the distiller, the bottler, the liquor store owner. Feeling disjointed and discordant the next day, we don't realize this, unless we work at "inventions of the imagination, to connect together the otherwise disjointed and discordant phenomena of nature." This apparatus of unintended benefit was what Smith meant by the "Invisible Hand," a concept he first put forth in The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

It's a mistake to read The Wealth of Nations as a justification of amoral greed. Wealth was Smith's further attempt to make life better. In Moral Sentiments he wrote, "To love our neighbor as we love ourselves is the great law of Christianity." But note the simile that Christ used and Smith cited. The Theory of Moral Sentiments was about the neighbor. The Wealth of Nations was about the other half of the equation: us.

It is assumed, apparently at the highest level of moral arbitration, that we should care about ourselves. And logically we need to. In Moral Sentiments Smith insisted, paraphrasing Zeno, that each of us "is first and principally recommended to his own care." A broke, naked, starving self is of no use to anyone in the neighborhood. In Wealth Smith insisted that in order to take care of ourselves we must be free to do so. The Theory of Moral Sentiments showed us how the imagination can make us care about other people. The Wealth of Nations showed us how the imagination can make us dinner and a pair of pants.

If we don't perform the difficult tasks that imagination requires, we put ourselves into what Smith called "the vilest and most abject of all states, a complete insensibility to honour and infamy, to vice and virtue." It is a state that Smith might also have described as "running for political office."

Villains are imaginative only in the public imagination. Recent corporate scandals might seem to be inventive schemes of evil genius. But clearing the fog of accounting and finance reveals a prosaic hand in the till. Policemen, bartenders, parents, and anyone else who has seen wrong done in large amounts can testify to Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil." Banality is the main constituent in criminal thinking.

Even less imaginative than criminals, and only occasionally to be distinguished from them, are the world's political leaders. Very few politicians would do the things they do if they had any capacity to put themselves in another person's place.

What imagination our political leaders have is spent on being visionaries. They draw their blueprints for society in their minds, building gulags in the air, fairy-weaving politics, geopolitics, and political economy into elaborate systems. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments Adam Smith was prescient in his scorn: "The man of system . . . is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamored with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. . . . He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board."

The chess hustlers in Venezuela, Russia, the United States, and the E.U. may be "the best which the interests, prejudices, and temper of the times would admit of." But, read together, The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations contain a strategy to put them in moral checkmate.

P.J. O'Rourke, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author, most recently, of Peace Kills: America's Fun New Imperialism.

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