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Adam Smith on the China tragedy

Posted By Russ Roberts On May 14, 2008 @ 11:20 am In Charity | Comments Disabled

Here is Adam Smith [1] on the human capacity for selfishness and for something that goes beyond selfishness:

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.

Yes, we are selfish. Yes, many of us slept well last night in the aftermath of the death of thousands in China. But our selfishness does not tell the whole story. Yes, we are self-centered. But there is more to the human enterprise or at least we like to think so.

d

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[1] Adam Smith: http://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smMS3.html#Part%20III.%20Of%20the%20Foundation%20of%20our%20Judgments%20concerning%20our%20own%20Sentiments%20and%20Conduct,%20and%20of%20the%20Sense%20of%20Duty

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