Just in case.

Sorry, more Ritchie. His comment at his place.


I’ll quote this from a review of On Kindness by Adam Philips & Barbara Taylor, Hamish Hamilton, £14.99 in the Guardian today:

“Kindness was mankind’s “greatest delight”, the Roman philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius declared, and thinkers and writers have echoed him down the centuries. But today many people find these pleasures literally incredible, or at least highly suspect. An image of the self has been created that is utterly lacking in natural generosity. Most people appear to believe that deep down they (and other people) are mad, bad and dangerous to know; that as a species – apparently unlike other species of animal – we are deeply and fundamentally antagonistic to each other, that our motives are utterly self-seeking and that our sympathies are forms of self-protectiveness.

Kindness – not sexuality, not violence, not money – has become our forbidden pleasure. In one sense kindness is always hazardous because it is based on a susceptibility to others, a capacity to identify with their pleasures and sufferings. Putting oneself in someone else’s shoes, as the saying goes, can be very uncomfortable. But if the pleasures of kindness – like all the greatest human pleasures – are inherently perilous, they are none the less some of the most satisfying we possess.

In 1741 the Scottish philosopher David Hume, confronted by a school of philosophy that held mankind to be irredeemably selfish, lost patience. Any person foolish enough to deny the existence of human kindness had simply lost touch with emotional reality, Hume insisted: “He has forgotten the movements of his heart.”

For nearly all of human history – up to and beyond Hume’s day, the so-called dawn of modernity – people have perceived themselves as naturally kind. In giving up on kindness – and especially our own acts of kindness – we deprive ourselves of a pleasure that is fundamental to our sense of well-being.”

Your argument that economics follows immutable laws of human nature is simply wrong. The current view of that nature has been perverted, not least by economists, and libertarians in particular, as the article goes on to note. Hobbes has a lot to answer for, but the fact is that for a great many people in the world the maxim that a person should love their neighbour as themselves (found in all the major world religions) holds true. Your view of economics and the inevitability of human nature is wrong Tim, because it is built on sand.


My response, as I don\’t know whether it will get published.

Umm. Richard, at the risk of being banned from the comments here again.
You do know that David Hume was the best (philosophic) friend of Adam Smith, don’t you? You do know that Adam Smith wrote “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”? You do know that Smith wrote about “sympathy ” (what we would probably these days call empathy)?

I am, as a Fellow at the Adam Smith Institute, a follower of Smithian (and by implications, Humean) philosophic thought. I am not a Hobbesian. I’m afraid that you are once again betraying your paucity of knowledge about such matters.

Both Smith and Hume pointed out that “sympathy” (as they called it) was indeed entirely human and entirely admirable. But that it wasn’t unlimited. There’s a passage in Wealth of Nations where Smith points out that what happens to Chinamen (his phrase, not mine) is of less import than what happens to our neighbours.

This is indeed a “law of human nature”. What happens to those socially or societally close to us is more important to us (whether it should be or not) than what happens to those who are not so. This is a simple observation of human nature. One made by Smith with the aid of Hume.

Indeed, those who worry about inequality within a society, as opposed to those worrying about global inequality, are making the same argument. When people say that “relative poverty” in the UK is a problem, they are stating that inequality here is of more import than inequality between, say Britons and Ugandans. For that inequality is happening close to us and as Smith and Hume said, empathy (or sympathy) seem to work harder the closer we are to each other.

You’re going to have to do much better than this to prove that I’m some sort of heartless bastard, sorry. In fact, you’re going to have to get a rather greater education than you seem to have in either economics or the philosophy that underlies the major economic schools before you can even critique, let alone criticise, my opinions.

As I’ve said before, you just don’t know what you’re talking about as yet.

12 comments on “Just in case.

  1. “There’s a passage in Wealth of Nations where Smith points out that what happens to Chinamen (his phrase, not mine) is of less import than what happens to our neighbours.”

    Actually, I think that’s from Theory of Moral Sentiment.

  2. Smith wrote about “sympathy ” (what we would probably these days call empathy): “we”? Speak for yourself, Worstall.

  3. I don’t think he used the word “Chinamen” either. From Wikiquote:

    Theory of Moral Sentiments

    “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 tranquillity, 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.”

  4. This is a problem with economic understanding amongst many, particularly those of the of the left; they see economists describing things in terms of “price” and “utility” and think that they are fixated only on money and profit. They forget that utility can also be derived from the warm fuzzy feeling one gets when one does something nice for other people.

  5. So Much For Subtlety:
    You may be misunderstanding Tim’s point (and Adam Smith’s).

    You stop your quotation from the Earthquake in China example too soon. The full paragraph makes the exact opposite point that you and Richard appear to be trying to make. Adam Smith took sympathy for others very seriously (both when they were in trouble and when they were happy) in his theory of moral sentiments.

    Smith, in fact, goes on to pose a moral question to his readers (and students):

    would a ‘man of humanity’ in Europe be willing to sacrifice his ‘little finger’ if it would save the victims of the Chinese earthquake? He answers ‘Yes’. in contrast to the impression given in the part that you have quoted, which is where many others stop their quotation (perhaps from the same prejudices apparently evinced by Richard):

    “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.” [Adam Smith: Theory of Moral Sentiments, III.3.4: p 137]

    Smith was a teacher and his books, Moral Sentiments and Wealth Of Nations, were drawn from his lectures at Glasgow University in 1751-6. Posing a rhetorical statement, which seems to be plausible, and then counterpoising it with the moral lesson is a well known teaching device. Hence, the danger of selective quotations, with which Adam Smith in particular is a regular victim.

    It is very clear what a ‘man of humanity’ (which both Adam Smith and David Hume considered themselves to be) would be expected to do in these circumstances, and what they would recommend readers to become.

  6. Nice one, “va”. (Sorry, I can’t see your full moniker since im’s left margin is playing up again.)

  7. Gavin Kennedy,

    Would a man of humanity be prepared to sacrifice his life for the lives of Chinese earthquake victims? To sacrifice his little finger is not much of a price to save so many lives, which is the point Tim made – that there are degrees of sympathy and that it is not unlimited.

  8. Gareth
    The last sentence just before Smith discusses the answer to his question amkes the point that “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”.

    And yet, the plausible conclusion to the question having accepted that sentence is that he would not suffer the loss of his little finger to save people about whom he snores contendly, despite their misfortune.

    As ever, it’s empirical. Try the test out on colleagues: state the ‘snoring episode’ and then ask Smith’s question. Most, in my experience (35 years university teaching) reply that he wouldn’t.

    It’s not just degrees of sympathy, it’s also the balance of moral standards.

    They forget Smith described him as a ‘man of humanity’; and most think about Adam Smith in similar terms to those of Richard, apparently.

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