Adam Smith: The Theory of Moral Sentiments

After spending some time reading first Freire and then Marx, trying to determine their understandings of human nature, I figured it was high time to read someone with a totally contrasting view, and who better to contrast with the sage of communism than the high priest of capitalism, Adam Smith?  Instead of his more famous – and lengthy – work, The Wealth of Nations, I thought I might start with his lesser-known The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS).  I made this selection not only because the title promised more direct access into Smith’s view of human conduct and human nature, but also because I’d encountered intriguing quotes from TMS in more than a few books I respect.

The Theory of Moral Sentiments is one of those books that it takes some time to learn how to read, and to learn to appreciate – largely because so much of it, at least on first reading, seems like – dare I say – common sense.  Part of the problem is that with so many of these old books, particularly some of these Enlightenment-era books, there is this initial layer of what seems like such pedestrian, every-day humanism that find yourself dismissing.  There’s this voice in your head that says, “Yes, yes, but everyone knows that.” You have to push through this.  You have to remember, first of all, that this sort of thing was radical and noteworthy in its day because it was pushing back against the hegemony of Christian practice.  You also must persevere because it’s only after you slog through some of this initial authorial foundation-building that you can finally step back, gaze up around you, and begin to see the whole structure the author is constructing finally starting to take shape around you.  It takes time.

It took me almost a full reading of TMS before I really understood what was so interesting about it.  It’s just so commonsensical at first, and Smith just drops you in so quickly, without much set up, that even by the end of the first reading, I had trouble understanding what was so interesting about the whole book I’d just read (with a few brief exceptions, which I’ll describe below).  But then – after you finish it (and by now it has been at least a week since I’ve finished), you find yourself not only still thinking about it, but having trouble picturing human nature without Smith’s lens.

Part of why I wanted to read Smith, and why I want to start in more on the Enlightenment-era writers, is that they actually tackled the question of human nature head-on – and descriptively rather than aspirationally – and that seems to me the fundamental starting point for answering any questions about the form of government, or the form of education best suited to a society populated by humans.  Too many later thinkers, in my view, tried to skate around the question of human nature by speculating as to what man *could* be – given the right institutions, education, etc. – rather than training in on what he actually *is*.  Following Rousseau, they believe that civilization and society have constrained man, and that his natural impulses (or “essence,” as Marx might say) – those which make him distinct from animals – should be allowed to flourish by creating new institutions and new modes of governance in order to achieve “humanization.” 

It is this idea which both Marx and Freire seem to push, as I tried to describe in several of my previous posts.  (I say “seem to” because it is difficult to determine just what either of their views of human nature really are.)  Marx draws a line between humans and animals, skims one of (not even all of) the elements that humans possess and animals do not off the top, and then sets out to design a society that allows that and only that element to flourish.  In Marx’s case (and Freire follows him in this), it is the ability to do “work” upon the world according to a conscious plan, and to thereby change the world, the social structures, the political governance and the like in his image.  Any example of work done by a man that is not entirely of his own conscious plan, any work undertaken at the behest of another man, is therefore turning the first man into something less than fully human, and Marx’s goal in establishing communism is to have the ownership in *all* plans presumably shared by each man.  Freire is even more vague about it.  Once again, there is surely truth in the observation that oppression, especially economic oppression, exists and turns men into drones rather than conscious agents of their own destiny.  But even on this limited ground, Marx goes way too far with this observation in my view.  I think Dewey’s insights on countering the exploitation of the Industrial Revolution are far more realistic, achievable, optimistic, and – frankly – aligned to reality.  Dewey’s belief is that it’s okay that some men work in factories for bosses, as long as the men who work in factories do so consciously, with their own sense of purpose, and that they are able to derive meaning from their work.  Dewey’s blending of the Aristotelean dichotomy between thought and action means that men working in factories take back their work, are no longer just drones, but find true interest and purpose in this work.  They may not even stay in one line of work forever; their factory job may simply be one step on the way toward something different; or, following Dewey’s understanding of political society, at least the factory may be but one “group” to which they belong and from which they derive meaning and fellowship: their church, their hobby-groups, their family groups, etc.  Paired beside this vision, Marx’s vision seems overly harsh (any labor that is not entirely their plan is “alienating”), and seems to offer no viable way out other than dramatic political upheaval (“seizing the means of production”).  

The problem of course is that Marx’s understanding of human nature, at least in my view, tries to throw out most of those characteristics that really do make us human beings, while emphasizing just one or two isolated elements almost entirely at the expense of the others.  As a result, his analysis of society and his prescriptions for improving it are ultimately based on extremely shaky ground.  Freire seems to mostly follow Marx.  So do the neo-Marxists, the Critical Theorists, as best I can tell.  They seem to make the question of human nature just as little of a priority in their work as Marx did.  For example, Horkheimer’s famous definition of a critical theory – that which seeks “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them” – has that same Rousseauian or Marxist feel: to change the structures of society in order to liberate humans to be able to live more in accordance with the aspects of human nature that the authors believe are most laudatory or vital – rather than all of the aspects of human nature, including the ones the authors would wish to rid us of.  In my view, these authors seem to me to sidestep so much of what makes us human to begin with, and as a result, their prescriptions for improving the world are more aspirational rather than realistic.

But Adam Smith is something else entirely.  

The Anti-Marx

If anything, Adam Smith is sort of the anti-Marx and the anti-Rousseau in that he might be open to the charge of believing that man in society is “perfect” as he is – that there is a natural harmony to human existence.  While this is somewhat misleading, there is a grain of truth to it.  Any reader of Smith notices that right away there is a much stronger focus on – if not man’s perfection, then man’s being perfectly evolved for his world – especially as compared to authors like Marx, Freire, or Rousseau, who believe that the world is in need of dramatic transformation in order to suit natural man (Rousseau), or so beaten-down version of man (the oppressed, or the proletariat, as in Marx, or the oppressed and the colonized, as in Freire).  In all of these thinkers, it is as though man has some natural tendencies that are good, but other natural tendencies that are evil (such as oppressing others, and erecting stifling forms of governance) – and the latter constrains the former.  In this sense, some elements of human nature are to be lauded as natural (Rousseau) or humanizing (Marx and Freire), while other elements are to be pathologized as the practice of just some beings (the proletariat, the oppressors, etc.).  These latter desires are thus considered less “natural” or perhaps not natural at all – perhaps conditioned by tradition or socialization.  

Smith on the other hand seems to take in all of human behavior – including the silliness, brutality, and folly – as part of the package.  His emphasis is less on prescribing how to improve man’s lot, and more on simply describing what man is like.  His approach is naturalistic, even proto-Drawinian (as I’ll touch on later).  This is why it’s easy to be lulled into complacency as you read this book; everything he is saying seems like such basic insight, so obviously true, that you find yourself asking when the real action is going to start.  His observations and his tone are gentle, too – so much so that it can be hard at first to tell whether he is telling us what is, or what should be.  There’s none of the fire of Marx, none of the wit of Burke, none of the drama of Freire.  But don’t be fooled.  The action is coming.

Our Natural Sympathy

The question that Smith takes on is a big one: How do we form our moral opinions?  Do they come from God?  Do they come from cultural convention?  Do they come from education, or from somewhere else?

It’s a fascinating question, and here the view of the postmodernists, the heirs to Foucault, have sharpened my interest in this sort of question, as their response – that all moral understandings are the product of cultural convention, with all of the radical possibilities that his entails – can be a hard one to accept, but a hard one to laugh off.

Smith believes we form our moral beliefs – what is right and wrong, who is deserving of praise or blame – not through exercising our reason, nor strictly through religious teachings, nor even through an innate moral sense.  Instead, Smith proposes a naturalistic, proto-Darwinian understanding of human nature that is based on a built-in sense of feeling – sympathy, he calls it – that we possess for other people.  We innately sympathize with others, meaning that we inherently take notice of and care about what others are thinking and feeling.  

This was strange of course because I came into this book expecting Smith, whom I knew to be the inventor of the modern understanding of self-interest-based economics, as an advocate for a kind of human nature based on a frank understanding of self-interest as the core of our actions.  But the book’s first sentence shifts the emphasis from self-interest to sympathy: “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” (11).  

This instinctual feeling we have – this impulse we have to worry when we see a man balancing on a high wire, this cringe we feel when we see someone about to be hit (both examples that Smith cites) is what he calls our “sympathy.” He defines “sympathy” differently than the normal definition – “fellow-feeling” not only “with the sorrow of others” but “with any passion whatever” (13).  This sympathy, this interest in others, is something natural, in Smith’s view, although its influence varies across a wide range of situations and contexts, many of which Smith details in the early section of the book.  

One point worth noting is that because we are unable to directly understand another person’s hardship or pain, we must undertake an act of imagination in order to imagine the experiences of others, which leads us to have sympathy with them:

“As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation. Though our brother is on the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations.”

Still, Smith is frank about the limits of this act of imagination.  Humans’ abilities to sympathize are inherently limited; we may be naturally inclined to sympathy, but only so far.  He writes, “That imaginary change of situation, upon which their sympathy is founded, is but momentary” (27) – and this limited sympathy is in turn something which the original sufferer knows and is enraged by – “He [the original sufferer]longs for that relief which nothing can afford him but the entire concord of the affections of the spectators with his own.” It doesn’t usually come.  

But at the same time, just as the spectators are naturally trying to put themselves in the sufferer’s situation, so is the sufferer putting himself in theirs.  This makes him realize that he must tone it down, lay off the crying and blubbering in order to receive the real sympathy he craves.  As Smith puts it, he must “flatten . . . the sharpness of his natural tone, in order to reduce it to the harmony and concord of the emotions of those who are about him” (27).  Smith goes on to explain ratherly offhandedly that this imperfect sympathy is “sufficient for the harmony of society” (27) – quite a harsh observation!

Again, this fairly sophisticated analysis of the interplay between perspective-takers was not what I expected from the icon of capitalism.  Time and again, Smith defied my expectations.

Now, does Smith believe humans are self-interested?  The answer is yes – but with an important caveat.  For Smith, self-interest is something natural in humans, but not something we can naturally get away with.  Again, we are inherently social; we need other people for sympathy, understanding, fellowship.  That’s what keeps our self-interest in check.  We must, writes Smith, learn to view our own passions a little more coolly, to understand that we are less important than we sometimes think we are.  He says, “So as to love our neighbour as we love ourselves is the great law of Christianity, so it is the great precept of nature to love ourselves only as we love our neighbour, or what comes to the same thing, as our neighbour is capable of loving us” (30).  It’s hard not to look for the slightest bit of irony there, but I don’t think it exists.  Once again, I was struck by the straightforward manner in which Smith delivers this kind of bracing, unsentimental advice.  And this insight – this adult’s lesson in humility that we must all learn painfully over many years – is so very, very true.  This is where you start to see why we’re reading Smith centuries later.

Meanwhile, this is where Smith makes the leap, almost without you noticing it, to the origin of our moral judgments.  This natural impulse of ours to relate to others is the genesis of our understanding of virtues or flaws.  We naturally admire, for example, those who demonstrate self-possession in the face of hard times, because we know how much we all want to give in to our own inner sorrows.  We naturally admire those who show us great compassion because we know what an act of imagination and focus is required to do this.  Conversely, we recoil from those who put themselves first in all situations and treat others poorly during their struggles.

Once again, Smith seems to take it as a simple given that humans naturally judge each other.  There is no chafing, in his account, at our inability to fully relate to another’s suffering.  It’s simply taken as a starting point that humans are only capable of so much, and no more.  Although we consider it virtuous when others do not judge harshly, Smith does not expect this to be the norm.  The idea that one person is capable of caring for others just as much as he does for himself – the seed of so many utopian dreams – is dismissed out of hand as unworkable given human nature.

The Impartial Spectator

At the same time, Smith theorizes an even deeper explanation of the regulation of our conduct.  We are not only concerned with actual spectators observing our behavior, but we also posses consciousness of an imaginary “impartial spectator” – a kind of moral conscience inside of us – an imagined objective observer to whom we try to shape our behavior and self-conception in order to better fit in with society.  Smith writes: 

“Though it may be true, therefore, that every individual, in his own breast, naturally prefers himself to all mankind, yet he dares not look mankind in the face, and avow that he acts according to this principle . . .  When he views himself in the light in which he is conscious that others will view him, he seems that to them he is but one of the multitude in no respect better than any other in it.  If he would act so as that the impartial spectator may enter into the principles of his conduct . . . he must . . .  humble the arrogance of self-love, and bring it down to something which other men can go along with” [emphasis mine] (97).  

While Smith hardly writes off self-interest – most people see this as normal that a man should put his own interests first – he does believe that should we begin to put our interests so far ahead of others’ that we act unjustly, our fellow humans’ tolerance is at an end.  We in turn care enough about their opinion of us, to regulate our conduct accordingly.  We practice economy, thrift and responsibility – all aimed at feathering our own nest – and are admired for this.  But when we become Gordon Gekko-style corporate raiders, hellbent on ravaging Mom and Pop industry for no other reason than to buy bigger helicopters, the tide of opinion will quickly turn against us.  In this sense, our conduct is regulated, according to Smith, half-because of our true sympathy for others, and half-from our desire to *appear* righteous in others’ view.  This innate concern over what others think of us should we act unjustly, is something nature has instilled in us as a natural corrective to our inherent self-possession.  We both fear the censure of our fellow humans, and we also crave their respect and admiration.

Specifically, Smith makes a distinction between our love of praise, and our love of praise-worthiness.  He believes we appreciate being praised for actions we have done, but we also care to be esteemed, at least by the impartial spectator, for our conduct or our virtues, even when no one notices.  Smith makes the same distinction in the reverse, too: we fear being blamed and we fear being blame-worthy.

It’s as though Smith believes that we are, in some sense, perfectly evolved for our world: we’re self-interested enough to feed and cloth ourselves, but we care enough about what others think of us that we can’t get too carried away and start gunning down our neighbors.  But is it all that rosy for Smith?  

Perhaps the answer is yes – and even more rosy than what’s described as above.  For example, partway through the book Smith engages in the classic “natural man-in-the-state-of-nature thought experiment”: what would man look like all by himself in the wild?  Where Rousseau would see a flourishing noble savage, or Marx might glimpse a communist Garden of Eden, Smith sees something that doesn’t make sense.  Oh man would still exist, Smith says.  He just wouldn’t really be doing what he’s built for, which is existing in groups.  Smith tells us that a human who grows up removed from other people would simply have no reason to know or to care about the judgments of others.  Presumably this entire apparatus of his mind, this one that is set up to be innately sympathetic of others and to judge others’ actions and conduct, this portal in his brain that is so vital to his nature, would sit unused.  Therefore the whole idea that man’s nature is evolved for something other than society is quickly dismissed.  The natural order does not involve escaping human judgment; the natural order involves humans trying to live together harmoniously according to their natural principles of sympathy, judgment, and their innate sense of justice deriving therefrom.  “Nature,” he writes, “when she formed man for society, endowed him with an original desire to please, and an original aversion to offend his brethren” [emphasis mine] (135).  Man was formed for society, not for a solitary, judgment-free pastoral life.  Several times after this Smith references “society for which [man] was made” (136).  He wastes no breath imagining the world as it might be, but concentrates on – as he often alludes to – what nature has created humans to be and to do.

There is a famous passage – the first I’d encountered from this book, tucked inside Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions – that crystalizes this theme: the tension between man’s natural self-interest and his natural sympathy that checks his conduct.  Here Smith begins by highlighting man’s innate selfishness by juxtaposing our indifference to the fate of millions of strangers with our consuming anxiety over the slightest injury to our self.  It’s worth quoting in its entirety:

“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 connection 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 tranquility, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall 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.”

“He will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren.” Now that’s a frankness that you don’t find in Freire!  I especially love how Smith, the economist, throws in that detail about men immediately speculating about how this awful tragedy will affect the business climate.  How true!  And doesn’t this same scenario play out every day on social media when there is a tragedy in the world: lots of sanctimonious statements, much of it posturing, then back to business as usual?  It’s the same as it ever was.  

To his credit, Smith immediately asks the all-important question:  “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?” (158).

Yet watch how he answers it.  Because it is here that I believe the core of Smith’s whole approach is to be found:

“But what makes this difference?” (158).

In other words, what’s the difference?  There’s no need to speculate about such questions because this situation rarely occurs.  Human nature, unchecked, would be monstrous, but it is not unchecked.  The force which checks us is the impartial spectator, the internal avatar of social judgment, the Freudian superego, the guardian of our sense of proportion and justice.  It is not humane and passionate appeals to our sense of feeling for others that keeps us from simply turning the other cheek toward the suffering of others, but an internal desire to be the sort of person who appears to society as more compassionate than that.  Smith writes, “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 . . .  It is . . .  the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct . . .  It is he who calls to us . . .  that we are but one of the multitude” (158).

He continues:

“It is not the love of our neighbour, it is not the love of mankind . . .  It is a stronger love . . .  the love of what is honourable and noble, of the grandeur, and dignity, and superiority of our own characters” (158).

Smith’s point here comes as a rebuke to those who ask for justice based on the moral belief that we must internalize all others’ sufferings as though they were our own.  In fact, Smith specifically repudiates several other schools of philosophy that artificially attempt to get us to become more compassionate by, in the first case, asking us to care more about others, and in the second case, getting us to care less about ourselves.  The first he dismisses as “whining and melancholy moralists” but in countering the second case, he again seems to advance his proto-Darwinian sense of our fitness for our world.  He explains that our fundamental lack of concern for others – especially those for whom we can do little – “seems wisely ordered by Nature; and if it were possible to alter in this respect the original constitution of our frame, we could yet gain nothing by the change” (161).  

This connects back to an earlier quote:  “Nature, it seems, when she loaded us with our own sorrows, thought that they were enough, and therefore did not command us to take any further share in those of others, than what was necessary to prompt us to relieve them” (58).

As a result, we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves.  If all of these natural (and for Smith, beneficial) impulses that we possess were considered morally repugnant, our life would be dreary and intolerable:

“But whatever may be the case with the Deity, so imperfect a creature as man, the support of whose existence requires so many things external to him, must often act from many other motives [other than benevolence]. The condition of human nature were peculiarly hard if those affections which, by the very nature of our being, ought frequently to influence our conduct, could, upon no occasion, appear virtuous, or deserve esteem and commendation from any body.”

Once again, one is struck by Smith’s approach.  He is first of all descriptive, attempting to describe man just as he is, not as he should be, and second of all Smith is – not appreciative, but at least quick to note that even man’s apparent shortcomings have benefits for his survival. 

The Invisible Hand

And it is this theme that inspires Smith to his most piercing insight in the book.  In Chapter IV, Smith pushes back against the belief that humans make moral decisions based on the utility of these decisions to the broader society.  Instead, Smith counters, most people don’t actually value utility itself, they value their perception of it.  Smith often discusses in the book the “sympathy” that humans have for the wealthy; it is almost the same as how we instinctively smile when we see others smile.  We naturally admire the wealthy and do not, no matter what we say, feel the same for the poor.  He is quite frank about this.  Yet in this section, Smith hones in on the fact that we value objects that promote utility – wealth itself, and all that wealth can buy – not for the intrinsic utility of it, but because of the perceived utility and the life we imagine we would lead while enjoying this utility.  Smith thinks the average person values a huge beautiful home not for the actual comfort it will provide, but for the perceived comfort.  Once we own this large home, we will still find ourselves coveting further luxury.  It is for this reason that the rich often own many things that they do not end up using; it is their perception of how much they will enjoy these items, not the actual experience of needing or using them.  In this sense utility – wealth, really – is a phantom that we chase, that does not necessarily make us happier, and frequently destroys the inner peace we really covet.

While this is insightful, suddenly Smith makes an even more more original point, the sort of insight that was fresh then and is still fresh now.  It is an observation that is both perceptive and also optimistic at the same time in the way in which the most timeless insights – particularly those that reveal to us why a thing works the way it does – usually are.

Smith tells us that although the pursuit of wealth is often undertaken because on a misperception, this quest is not necessarily wasteful and vain.  In fact, to the contrary, it is socially productive.  In Smith’s view, our desire to be rich drives us to be industrious, to work hard, to innovate, and ultimately to produce a surplus of goods that cannot be enjoyed by the producers alone and which therefore must be dispersed to others.  This, in Smith’s view, lifts the fortunes of everyone.  Here is the famous metaphor – which I absolutely did NOT expect to encounter in this book:  

The rich “divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements.  They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species” (215-216).

This is obviously an iconic insight, and one that is notable for its many and varied implications, most of which are outside the scope of this book and this post.  But I do think it’s notable insofar as it accords with Smith’s unstated theme in this book – that of recognizing both the inherent limitations of man’s nature, as well as the benefits of these limitations for his sustenance as a species.  This short passage surely points toward even greater insights along these lines in Smith’s even more famous work, The Wealth of Nations.

Products of Nature, or Products of Culture?

Another interesting question that arises for me in reading this book is whether Smith’s ideas about human nature should be taken at face value – as universal human nature – or should be taken as the product of culture.  Do we express sympathy naturally, or is it culturally-conditioned – greater in some cultures and less so in others?  Smith traces the origin of our moral judgments in a very naturalistic, almost biological fashion.  But surely our judgments of others are also influenced by where and how we are raised.

This whole question – the notion of humans as tabula rasa – was in the back of my head for most of the book, but then Smith writes a whole section about the influence of customs on moral judgments.  He explains quite insightfully about the different emphases of different cultures, the way that different groups prize different virtues depending on their circumstances.  But Smith seems to answer this by claiming that even these varied reactions happen from a shared human nature.  He explains away the differences in moral sentiments among different groups in a characteristically naturalistic, almost proto-Darwinian fashion, and he ends by insisting on a basic commonality: Even though various societies push differing ideas about morality, human beings are basically the same in their basic sense of moral values emanating from their inherent sense of sympathy.  In other words, humans are pretty much the same no matter the culture or society: “We cannot complain that the moral sentiments of men are very grossly perverted” (245).

Was Smith a Darwinan Before Darwin?

What I expected to find in Smith was a defender of man’s right to narrow self-interest, a straightforward account of why, to paraphrase the aforementioned Gordon Gekko, “greed is good.” But instead I found a naturalistic account of man’s nature as a combination of inherent self-interest balanced against a need to coexist in a group.  This group-mindedness is watched over by an innate (though limited) sympathy we have for others, as well as an internal conscience (the “impartial spectator”) and an accompanying desire to please it.  All of this precedes any sort of cultural or political apparatus; we don’t need a government or a cultural voice in our heads.  We already have a natural one.

Given this naturalistic account, it’s hard not to read Smith’s constant mentions of “Nature” as creator and orderer of man’s tendencies as a kind of proto-Darwinian evolutionary argument.  It often seems as though Smith is describing how man is perfectly evolved for his survival.  There are number of quotes in the book that seem to speak directly to this.  For example:

“With regard to all those ends which, upon account of their peculiar importance, may be regarded. . . as the favourite ends of nature, she has constantly. . . not only endowed mankind with an appetite for the end which she proposes, but likewise with an appetite for the means by which alone this end can be brought about, for their own sakes, and independent of their tendency to produce it. Thus self-preservation, and the propagation of the species, are the great ends which nature seems to have proposed in the formation of all animals. Mankind are endowed with a desire of those ends, and an aversion to the contrary . . .”

Again, this is very naturalistic – it is our “appetite” which often guides us toward nature’s purpose, and which, by extension, forms our moral sentiments – not reason.

“But though we are. . . endowed with a very strong desire of those ends [propagation of the species], it has not been entrusted to the slow and uncertain determinations of our reason, to find out the proper means of bringing them about. Nature has directed us to the greater part of these by original and immediate instincts. Hunger, thirst, the passion which unites the two sexes, the love of pleasure, and the dread of pain, prompt us to apply those means for their own sakes, and without any consideration of their tendency to those beneficient ends which the great Director of nature intended to produce by them . . .”

It is not so much, I think, that Smith does not believe we are rational – or that rationality does not largely separate us from animals (as Marx or Freire would say).  This is not a point he particularly considers.  But it’s worth noting how low-down on the totem pole reason is in determining so many of our moral judgments, or even in guiding our conduct.

The Political Implications

So what are the political implications of this view of human nature?  Smith does describe some political takeaways, yet he does so not to describe the ideal political system, but more offhandedly, on his way to describing how our natural sympathy affects our esteem for different types of political figures and even political arrangements.  He describes the different virtues inherent in public spirt and in politics, and his discussion of what happens during times of rancor and faction seem to sharpen some of his opinions about political arrangements.  

For example, he contrasts the opposition party, as he sees it, with the more established party.  His insights are brief but penetrating.  Of the opposition party, whose beliefs are born out of a “love of humanity, upon a real fellow-feeling with the inconveniences and distresses to which some of our fellow-citizens may be exposed,” Smith writes that these leaders inflame existing tension, presenting “some plausible plan of reformation which, they pretend, will not only remove the inconveniences . . . but will prevent, in all time coming, any return of the like . . .” (274).   The plan to alter the constitution itself which, Smith points out, has brought peace and glory to most citizens for centuries.  These leaders paint such beautiful pictures of the imaginary future that soon even they believe it themselves, becoming “the dupes of their own sophistry” (274).  Because this party is so inflexible, they refuse to compromise, and often end up with nothing.  This whole section seems like it is right out of Burke – particularly the part about trashing the constitution that has served so well for so long.

Sometimes these people do win enough influence to institute their vision, which they do absolutely, without heeding any advice or input.  This is a mistake, in part, Smith points out, because these visionaries forget that human beings are unique and different creatures who respond to policy in ways that are difficult to anticipate.  The visionary “seems to imagine that he 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” (275).  He forgets that in real life “every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse [sic] to impress upon it” (275).  Above all, Smith considers this sort of leader “arrogant” (276) and a danger to any society, particularly in the form of powerful princes, who seek only to remove any restrictions to their power.

Smith contrasts this vision with a more moderate political participant whose vision includes a kind of proto-Burkean moderation and incremental reform.  “He will content himself,” Smith writes, “with moderating what he often cannot annihilate without great violence” (275).  Meanwhile, he will “accommodate” the “prejudices of the people” as far as necessary, while all the while trying to “remedy” what he can.  Here again Smith sounds like Burke: “When he cannot establish the right, he will not disdain to ameliorate the wrong” (275).  The ruler in this mold “will endeavor to establish the best that the people can bear” (275).


“The best that the people can bear.” Again, this is not a sentence that you would find in Marx, but surely one that would be at home in Burke.  It represents a humility about what can be accomplished by conscious, rational plan when dealing with complex, inherently limited creatures such as human beings.  It is this sense of humility about what man can be and do that will stick with me from Smith:

“The administration of the great system of the universe, . . . the care of the universal happiness of all rational and sensible beings, is the business of God, and not of man. To man is allotted a much humbler department, but one much more suitable to the weakness of his powers, and to the narrowness of his comprehension – the care of his own happiness, of that of his family, his friends, his country” [emphasis mine].

I have come a long way on this book.  As I said, at first as I was reading it – and almost until the very end – I felt underwhelmed about the commonsensical nature of Smith’s observations.  But as I have thought about this book and written more than six thousand words about it (!!), it has started to seem more and more fundamental to my understanding of human nature.  I think of Smith’s simple observation that when we see a smile, it makes us want to smile, too.  We posses a kind of nature that not only informs our reactions, but also informs our moral sentiments.  We judge, but we also try to understand.  We are naturally self-interested, but also sympathetic.  We idolize the wrong people, but that drives us to be industrious.  Altogether this book has the ring of truth to it: Smith surely caught something of the real complexity of human nature, and many of his conclusions, though they flirt with envisioning man as perfectly evolved, are at the same time pretty frank about his limitations.  It’s a book whose vision is going to be hard to shake off for me, and I look forward to reading his even more famous work some day soon.