Adam Smith published his ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments’ in 1759, one hundred years before Charles Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species‘ in 1859, which is almost one hundred and fifty years ago, and thus we shouldn’t expect Smith to be familiar with MRI experiments showing accelerated blood flow in children’s brains exposed to pictures of people expressing pain, and its evolutionary precedents reported by vivreladifference as just published in the current issue of Neuropsychologia. Nor should we expect Smith to be familiar with Alfred Russel Wallace’s theory of evolution, (oops – I mean Darwin’s; we must maintain our political correctness) even though both Wallace and Darwin acknowledge that they cribbed the basic idea from Smith, and Malthus. Furthermore, we should not expect anyone to understand how moral sentiments evolved until they have read Intelligent Design — of humans by humans and for humans.
A further comment on human evolution is found at The future is hard to see, even for people, which states clearly how it is “that we humans have formed ourselves into what we are” by the repeated application of the processes of artificial selection. The ease of humans acquiring moral sentiments are part of the human genome package, and as such they had to form under the same human moderated genetic constraints as did all of those other more recently evolved uniquely human qualities. Although moral traits are bred deep into human nature they are not absolute, and Smith takes that superior ethical potentiality of humans a bit too far in the quote below, perhaps comically so. There are many examples of villains who are obviously self destructive, and we should remember that these people care more for their own well being than they do for you and I, and the rest of humanity combined, and often openly speak of destroying it, and us totally. There is even a common word for those people, they are called – misanthropes.
Adam Smith writes when conjecturing about a potential risk to a person’s little finger:
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.” (TMS III.3.4: p 137)
Who is Smith referring to in this passage? It sounds like he is giving a sermon to a band of selected angels residing in a perfect heaven, or perhaps a lecture to a gaggle of hopeful politicians in a hwo-to-dupe-the-public training seminar. There was nastiness a plenty in his Scotland at the time this was being written, (but certainly lot of extremely good stuff too.) However, in this passage he is generalizing to all mankind, and that makes this piece screamingly absurd, and it appears that this paragraph may be intended as hypocritical comedy, or satire, or irony—any one of those.
I have known a lot of decent people, but I suspect that most of them would hesitate before sacrificing their little finger to save even half of all currently living human beings. Ask the question this way, “Imagine trimming the population back to what it was in 1985 when it was about 3 billion, or about half of what it is today, and before much of the current pollution problems began. Would you give your little finger to prevent that from happening?” Probably not. All of the people I have asked think it would be absurd to sacrifice a finger, even a little one, for something which a few considered to be a good thing to happen. Some might even sacrifice a finger to have it happen rather than prevent it from happening. To sacrifice only one hundred million, as in Smith’s tragedy, is only one thirtieth of the three billion, a paltry number by comparison. Perhaps a few would allow their fingernails to be trimmed to cause or prevent such a thing. But that’s about the limit of concern that the people I have talked to would have for unknown people living on the other side of the planet. The vast number of people Smith postulates in his example of unparalleled tragedy is only the annual increase at the present time on an already overpopulated planet. The tragedy he postulates is only returning to a stable population number, and where is the tragedy in that? Quite the opposite it would be a blessing.
Smith’s famous invisible hand of self-interest about gigantic unseen, even unknown, and perhaps even unknowable processes being sometimes guided by individual self-optimized decisions which in the long run function to promote the good of the whole community. This has proven to be such a fundamental idea that it is probable there are other examples of its application which haven’t yet been observed and therefore made known. Smith wrote about it relative to business, and Wallace told Darwin about it relative to life processes, and it is such an important fundamental idea that there should be entire university schools devoted to developing its various ramifications. Unfortunately, now there is a dark side to this whole concept and that is the possession, and exploitation of super-weapons by humans. When some individual or small group of people start exploiting that option of self interest we are all in for—the deep morning dew dew.
When man first spoke to man, how great the stride,
For what was learned by one was help to all;
And one in need could beckon to his side
Another’s hand to help this first man’s fall.
Then we did learn to write and bind our thoughts
Through time and space, on parchment, stone and clay,
Thus we may recall what was once forgot,
And long dead men live with us here today.
But these dead men are soon to die for good,
And live no more in future thoughts of man;
For past thoughts can not be understood,
When there is no more man to understand.
Although the helping hand seemed quite kind,
In the end it brought the end of mankind.