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Come together in Adam Smith

By Daniel B. Klein


I support a classical liberal worldview. I call to social democrats and conservatives alike: Be fair. Let us treat one another like fellow Smithians and come together in Adam Smith.

321px-AdamSmithAdam Smith said we judge under the guidance of exemplars. That is a central principle of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. All moral sentiment, that is, all approval or approbation of human conduct, is enshrouded in sympathy. Sympathy with whom? Most of all, with moral exemplars as taken into our breast.

Exemplars exemplify virtue in particular instances. Smith gave us particular instances in abundance, by writing and rewriting two of humankind’s greatest works, as well as a few essays—about 1600 pages worth. We work with Smith’s sentences in developing and reforming our sensibilities about what our duties are and how we best fulfill them. Smith generously gave us a moral exemplar.

Smith is our best exemplar, better than any of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We need to work our way back to Adam Smith. He propositioned that every case of moral approval be subject to a query.

For example, Hank approves of Jim’s action. Samantha asks: Hank, wherein do you find sympathy for your approval of Jim’s action? Hank must be ready to lead Samantha to his exemplar, Jean-Jacques (an exemplar with whom Hank finds sympathy). The procedure prompts Hank and Samantha to talk about how Jean-Jacques sees matters like that of Jim’s action.

When Hank and Samantha come together in Jean-Jacques, Samantha may then say, “Sorry, I think Jean-Jacques is all wet on the matter.” “Well, Samantha,” Hank replies, “wherein do you find sympathy for that disapproval of Jean-Jacques?” Samantha answers: “In Ludwig” (Samantha’s exemplar). Now the conversation grows to the matter of Ludwig’s view of Jean-Jacques’s view of matters like that of Jim’s action. By layers, the procedure opens us up to different views of things.

Hank may then take issue with Ludwig’s view. “Oh, Samantha, you cannot slavishly follow Ludwig, your Master and Exemplar!” And Hank is right, of course.

In referring to Ludwig, Samantha does not so much identify the one with whom she finds sympathy, but characterizes that one in a way that Hank will find meaningful. The one with whom Samantha finds sympathy is the man in the breast, a figurative being she has developed during her life. By referring to Ludwig, she gives Hank a flavor of her man in the breast, as concerns matters like Jim’s action.

“Well, Samantha,” Hank might say, “even though your man in the breast resembles Ludwig in matters like Jim’s action, my man in the breast does not. Mine resembles Jean-Jacques, so where does that leave us?”

Adam Smith urges them on. He would say to Hank:

Hank, your man in the breast is the representative of an impartial, super-knowledgeable, benevolent spectator. And Samantha’s man in the breast, too, is a representative of the same spectator. (In fact, that goes for everyone, so the spectator is universal.) Now, as you and Samantha have not found sympathy in the matter of Jim’s action, there must be a problem in the representations developed in your breasts. We all know that none of us has full or direct access to the impartial spectator, that each of our man-in-the-breasts is merely human. Talk with Samantha about how you think the impartial spectator would look at your man in the breast vis-à-vis her man in the breast.

Smith’s proposition is to knowingly buy into two procedures. First, we see all moral approval as enshrouded in sympathy. Second, we mutually seek a common standpoint to address our moral differences. The procedures prompt us to come together to enter into each other’s ways of seeing, to tolerate our differences, to consider that maybe our man in the breast should change somewhat. In embracing Smith’s proposition we better accommodate our differences, maybe even resolve them to some extent.

One of the most remarkable things about Smith is how universally he is beloved. Economists, political scientists, sociologists, psychologists, historians, philosophers, and humanities scholars love him. Believers and skeptics love him. Social democrats, conservatives, and classical liberals love him.

Smith accommodates such diversity by bypassing some of the pitfalls that divide us. His proposition bypasses, for instance, the absolutism-relativism dichotomy: The impartial spectator is universal, but that which she surveys is rich and variegated, the historical tree of particularistic human contexts; she approves of “steal the bread” at one branch and not at another. The survey is universal, and it condemns many social customs—Smith condemned many. But rules are formulated in relation to situations to which they pertain. By narrowing the set of situations we make the rule more “absolute.” By widening the set so as to take in situations in which we approve of exceptions to the rule, we make the rule only presumptive, or “relative” to the situation within the set.

By being good Smithians and receiving others as good Smithians, we overcome stereotypes and come together to improve judgment and conduct in matters of common concern.

Daniel Klein is professor of economics at George Mason University, where he leads a program in Adam Smith. He is also associate fellow at the Ratio Institute in Stockholm. He is the author of Knowledge and Coordination: A Liberal Interpretation.

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Image credit: Profile of Adam Smith. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Nathanael Snow

    Dan,
    I am no Smith scholar. But the idea of sympathy as motivation for doing justice is something I have learned from my skimming through Smith, from Levy, Boettke, and you, and it is the core of what I think economics has to offer to moral philosophy.
    You may recall portions from my paper, “Abolishing Transitional Gains Traps” that tried to apply the concept of sympathy toward my idea of “doing justice.” That paper was trying to do too many things at once, primarily as a consequence of having written it for two courses and not intentionally toward publication. I tried too hard to demonstrate some mastery over the concepts I was supposed to have learned in those courses (CPE and History of Thought with Levy and Boettke).
    My favorite part of that essay is the role sympathy plays in directing the actions of individuals toward doing justice. I then tried to show that sympathy, when channeled through collective action rather than through individual action, generates factions, and reverses the effects of sympathy. When we sympathize with the slave we face the difficult decision of whether to bear the cost of that sympathy ourselves, or to act upon that sympathy. Until we act we internalize that cost. Joining a collective effort as a means for relieving that sympathy is effective in relieving the sympathy, but not effective in moving toward a pareto improved set of circumstances. I can purchase and manumit any slave I encounter, and I will do so as long as the price of the slave is less than the felt burden of sympathy. In so doing I make a pareto improvement for all involved. I am relieved, the slave is freed, and the former owner is compensated.
    The issue of moral hazard that emerges, in that the former owner can simply take the money received from the former slave and purchase another slave. But this ignores the effect that my voluntary action on behalf of the slave may have on the slave owner’s sympathies. By observing my sacrifice, although he may not have sympathized with the slave, the owner may sympathize with me. We should expect that catalactics predicts this response, so long as the exchange is done personally. In turn there is some chance that the owner will come to share not only sympathy with me, but also share my sympathies. Surely the probability of this result is less than one, but it is also greater than zero. Those who would object to my argument would concentrate on the less than one result. I chose to concentrate on the greater than zero result.
    This result, the catalectic consequence of voluntary action, is the same as talking, per your essay. So long as it is done personally, voluntarily, and at some observable cost to the one taking action, the sympathy is given an objective reality. Money talks, and is more effective than just words when talk is cheap (Levy Peart), and talk gets cheaper within collective actions, all the cheaper and more expressive (Brennan Lomasky) as the size of the collective group grows. Not only are our differences tolerated, they are compensated for and brought to friendship and agreement through voluntary transactions. My issue with the abolitionists is that their sympathies became distracted by within-group sympathy and faction, incurring dead weight losses, instead of being acted upon directly and efficiently. In the end fewer slaves lived to enjoy their manumission, fewer slave owners enjoyed just compensation, and both the abolitionist movement and parliament were sullied by dead-weight loss generating factionalism and rent-seeking. I have since I presented that paper discovered that a great deal of the money distributed to former slave owners went to MPs and that the distribution of the compensation was subject to rent-seeking activities.
    Sympathy is an appeal to the man in the breast. But there is no man named society possessing of a breast within which any “man in the breast” might dwell. Attention to what justice can be achieved must identify the proper proverbial (Levy) constraints to sympathetic action. There is no social justice. There is only doing justice.

  2. Some Links

    [...] – whose excellent 2012 book, Knowledge and Coordination, is now out in paperback – reflects on the value of reflecting deeply on Adam Smith’s moral reasoning.  (And see also this paper by [...]

  3. [...] – whose excellent 2012 book, Knowledge and Coordination, is now out in paperback – reflects on the value of reflecting deeply on Adam Smith’s moral reasoning.  (See also this paper by [...]

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