(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 4 December 2013)
A central theme running through Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments is his belief in the soundness of the judgments of ordinary human beings and a concern to fend off attempts, by philosophers and policy-makers, to replace those judgments with supposedly better “systems” invented by intellectuals. For Smith, moral principles are not sets of pre-ordained prescriptions. They are the social rules that people have evolved through social interaction to guide their own behavior in order to live with each other.
Smith developed a moral theory out of ordinary moral judgments, rather than beginning from a philosophical vantage point above those judgments. His moral principles can be seen as bottom up rather than top down. A bottom up approach starts with the actions of ordinary people. For Smith, moral principles that guide the behavior of ordinary people emerge from the nature of people as social creatures.
In contrast, the top down approach is seen by Smith as an attempt to impose a system of prescriptive moral principles on people. These moral systems are developed either by intellectuals through rational reasoning or handed down by a higher authority through divine revelations (as in the Bible). For Smith, they are incongruent with the nature of people as social creatures and unnatural, because they do not emerge from the day to day social interactions of ordinary people. The resistance to a top down approach is also a theme of The Wealth of Nations, which is directed against the notion that government officials need to guide the economic decisions of ordinary people.
By observing how others behave, people become aware of themselves and the morality of their own behavior. The moral principles that emerge from their observation and self-awareness are needed if society is to survive and also to flourish. Smith focuses on four aspects of human nature: prudence, justice, beneficence, and conscience as the origins of our moral sentiments.
Smith observes that as individuals, we have a natural tendency to look after ourselves – this he calls prudence. And yet as social creatures, we are also endowed with a natural sympathy towards others. When we see others distressed or happy, we feel for them – albeit less strongly. Morality stems from our social nature – it has an empirical base. As Smith writes:
How selfish soever a man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derive nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.
Morality, says Smith, is not something we have to calculate. It is part of our nature as social beings. In this case, our sentiments are a better guide to moral action than is reason. For Smith sentiments are like instincts that are manifestations of our human nature. In The Wealth of Nations, Smith expounds on the nature of prudence and how it is the product of people’s instinctual “propensity to truck, barter and exchange”.
In all matters, punishments and rewards have an important social function. We approve and reward acts that benefit society, and disapprove and punish acts that harm it. Though we are self-interested, we also have to work out how to live alongside others without doing them harm. Justice is needed to restrain those human actions that cause harm to others. This is a minimal requirement for the survival of society.
If people go further and do positive good, it is called beneficence. This is welcomed, but society cannot demand such action as it demands justice. If people do not help others when they could, or fail to return a good deed, they may be called uncharitable or ungrateful, but society does not punish people to force them to do good. Punishment is reserved only for acts of real or intended harm. Society forces people to obey only the rules of justice, because society could not otherwise survive. Beneficence, however, enables society to flourish through moral acts. This belongs to the moral fabric of society rather than its legal constitution. Beneficence should not be legislated. Justice is only needed for society to survive and no more.
For Smith, sympathy underpins beneficence and is the origins of our moral sentiments. Sympathy emerges from our social nature. Nonetheless, Smith says people who fail to display sympathy towards their fellow citizens should not be punished, for it would violate their natural rights and contravene the rules of justice. Mandated charity would be a violation of personal liberties and also unnecessary given our predisposition towards sympathy, which is part of our social nature.
Prudence, justice, and beneficence are important in Smith’s scheme. But he thought nature has also given us something even more immediate than punishment, namely our own self-criticism or conscience. Conscience arises from social relationships. In the process of making judgments on a countless number of actions, we gradually learn through experience what is and is not acceptable to other people. We evolve rules of conduct and use them as moral standards to guide us.
Conscience acts as an “impartial spectator” within us approving or disapproving our actions. So when we show concern for other people, we know that an impartial spectator would approve, and we take pleasure from it. We are impartial spectators, not only of other people’s actions, but also our own because of conscience.
Although the impartial spectator begins as a product and expression of society, once internalized it becomes a source of moral evaluation that enables the individual to stand apart from, and criticize, his or her society. Moral self-transformation, for Smith, is inspired and guided by social pressures, but it is ultimately carried out by the individual autonomously. As such it does not remove the responsibility of an individual for the propriety and consequences of his actions. The social nature of our moral rules therefore does not limit an individual’s freedom to act.
Smith argues that by following our conscience, we end up, surely but unintentionally, promoting the happiness of all in society. Social legislation, which Smith calls “man-made laws” (or legislation), may aim at the same results with their punishments and rewards. But they can never be as consistent, immediate, or effective as conscience and the rules of morality because these stem from our own social nature.
For Smith, “man-made laws” (or legislation) should be aimed at upholding the justice needed for society to survive. But for society to flourish, we have to rely upon beneficence and our own conscience to guide us. Interestingly, traditional Chinese society since Han times has relied on a combination of legalism and Confucian humanism to achieve the good society.
Smith ends The Theory of Moral Sentiments by defining the character of a truly virtuous person as someone who possesses the qualities of prudence, justice, beneficence, and self-command. Prudence moderates individual excesses for the benefit of society. It is a respectable, but not endearing quality. Justice limits the harm we do to others. It is essential for social preservation. Beneficence prompts us to promote the happiness of others. It cannot be mandated, but it is always appreciated. And self-command is the quality that moderates our passions and reins in our destructive actions to act according to the dictates of our own conscience.
Smith does not think morality can be reduced to a set of natural or divine laws, nor that it is simply a means for producing “the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.” Freedom and human nature, Smith concludes, are a superior guide to the creation of a harmonious, functioning society than the supposed rational or divine reasons of philosophers and visionaries. His political interest is ultimately in guaranteeing to ordinary individuals the “natural liberty” to act in accordance with their own judgments.
The Wealth of Nations foretold the rise of capitalism and the great benefits brought by free trade and economic globalization in alleviating human poverty in the last two centuries. The Theory of Moral Sentiments articulated the moral basis on which the modern world can be a place where people can live together not only in prosperity, but also in harmony.
Smith admits that taking care of one’s own interest is a more important element of our human nature than feelings of sympathy for others. But he is careful not to demand more from people in terms of charity; otherwise, his argument would fall into the trap of prescribing morals from a higher vantage point and taking leave of what are the natural sentiments of ordinary people. Such prescriptions divide society and push people to their extremes, bringing misery in the end to many.
The current stalemate of pluralistic politics, for example, over compulsory healthcare insurance and public debt ceilings in the US, would be viewed by Smith as an inevitable outcome when government attempts to mandate sympathy in the name of “social justice” sanctioned by punishments. For Smith “social justice” is not justice because it is not necessary for society to survive. Rather it contributes to making society more divisive than is necessary by challenging the natural self of the ordinary person. Policy stalemates reflect society’s deep divisions when uncharitable or ungrateful behavior is treated as a violation of justice.
Smith was aware of the many crimes of hereditary sovereigns. But he lived in the eighteenth century and did not witness the heinous crimes against humanity committed by populist governments in the name of “social justice” of one kind or another. He welcomed the French Revolution as a step towards human liberation, but he died in 1790 and did not experience the subsequent turn of events that brought the Reign of Terror.
Like other moral philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, Smith has a deep understanding of human nature and its strengths and weaknesses, of why society should be in congruence with man’s natural self, of how our moral fabric should bring out the best of human nature, and of why political and policy decisions that result in or threaten gross violations against our basic nature would backfire in a big way.
In the globalized modern economy, where our interconnectedness is primarily with strangers we neither see nor associate with, it remains an untested empirical question whether sympathy offered on a voluntary basis will provide an adequate solution for alleviating poverty and misery. All too often we seem to pay attention only to those who are close to us and ignore the plight of those who are far away, except in times of calamitous natural disasters.
On the other hand, the political advocates of “social justice” in modern day populist democracies appear all too ready to use the power of the state to mandate sympathy and guarantee support for those in poverty and misery. Although I must add, they usually seem to respond only to those in their own constituencies where there are votes to be garnered. Perhaps they too have gone too far and failed to listen to Smith’s message and the wisdom of the Scottish moral philosophers.
Still, the rise of numerous non-government charities in the world today gives cause for hope. The examples of the generosity of Bill and Melinda Gates and of Warren Buffett are heartening. Closer to home, according to a study by private bank Coutts, last year 47 of Hong Kong’s big givers contributed a total sum of US$877 million to charitable causes. On a per capita basis this exceeded the US and Middle East contributions of US$13.96 billion and US$1.18 billion from their top givers.
Sympathy is very much alive in Hong Kong, a society often misunderstood and accused of being only self-interested. Hong Kong is not only a shining example of the Smith of The Wealth of Nations, but also of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Perhaps there is reason for hope, even in this global age, in Smith’s optimism in the moral sentiments of ordinary people.