… is from page 229 of Russ Roberts’s splendid 2014 book, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life:
The Theory of Moral Sentiments simply has a different focus from that of The Wealth of Nations. It doesn’t represent a different view of human nature or a different theory of how people behave or a more optimistic vision of humanity. It’s about a different sphere of human interaction. The author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations is the same man with a consistent view of humanity. He is mostly interested in how people actually behave, not how he’d like them to behave. He’s interested in understanding human behavior. So in the two books the emphases are different because he is writing about two very different spheres of life.
DBx: Indeed so.
Smith understood that we humans are evolved to respond in certain ways to personal interactions, and that the sentiments that motivate us in our face-to-face interactions simply are not triggered when we are dealing with people with whom we have no personal interactions.
Consider the shoes on your feet. The number of individuals who exerted some effort to make it possible for you to wear those shoes is probably in the millions, yet you personally communicated with and saw only one or two of these people. While it’s true that the sentiments that you have for the salesperson who fitted you with the shoes differ from the sentiments that you have for your children, siblings, and friends, the more interesting point here is that the sentiments that you have for the salesperson differ also, and more greatly, from those that you have for the (literally) millions of strangers whose combined efforts made it possible for you to buy and wear those shoes. The sentiments that you have for strangers are not personal. If you have for these strangers any sentiments at all those sentiments are abstract and intellectual; they aren’t ‘natural’ or in your heart.
In An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (I love the full title), Adam Smith sought to understand and explain a modern economy one essential feature of which is that each denizen is supplied by the efforts of countless strangers and is employed in ways that help countless strangers (only some of whom are the strangers who help him or her). No such economy could possibly be governed by the personal moral sentiments that are natural and real and useful and wonderful when we personally interact with other individuals.
Grasping this reality about the two different spheres of modern humans’ interactions is a mark of intellectual and emotional maturity. Unfortunately, far too many people remain, on this front, intellectually and emotionally juvenile.