Homo Dialecticus – Notes on Adam Smith: First installment

In a recent ABC Radio National Program a psychologist said this:

Looking Out for No.1, that they keep an idea sort of for the invisible hand of the market place that will somehow take your own self interest and turn it into good. That is you know from Adam Smith’s famous theory of moral sentiments. So there’s this notion that if I’m just looking out for myself, for my own individual self interest, that everything will work out well in the end for all concerned. And of course we know that that market, free market ideology has proven to be incorrect, false, completely mistaken.

This is the popular view of Smith though it usually comes without misattributing Smith’s views on the virtues of ‘self love’ to his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS). Misattribution aside, Smith was a far more subtle, sophisticated and interesting thinker than this view takes him for.

Here I want to outline what I think is a beautiful symmetry about his two great books, and in a subsequent post (as promised earlier) I’ll go on to try to show how Smith argued that capitalism tended towards civic virtue.

In a way Smith was an apostle of ‘self love’ but it was a particular kind of self love. If you want to say something simple and yet at the same time profound go for dialectic. Jesus did this with ‘do unto others what you would have them to unto you’. Not ‘do unto others what they want. Nor ‘do unto others what you want’. His simple formula introduces a dialectical richness into the discussion.

It’s hard to read Smith’s first major published work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) which was more successful in his own time than the Wealth of Nations (WN), without appreciating its dialectical foundations.

The dialectical foundations of The Wealth of Nations however, are routinely overlooked. The dialectical structure of TMS poses a very simple description of humanity.

It is simple in its formulation, but complex in its implications just like Jesus’s little formulation. Smith wanted to build a description of humanity that disposed of the dualism in Christianity between human depravity in this world and divine virtue in the next world. It offered little to help us formulate ‘police’ (ie policy) and it was in Smith’s view psychologically and socially inaccurate.

Smith wanted to resurrect the status of self interest – or as he put it self love – in human affairs. He didn’t think there was much point in building a theory of human society that simply condemned the exercise of self-interest. At the same time he sought to build psychological and sociological richness and subtlety into this picture.

The Theory of Moral Sentiments is built up from reflection on how people care for each other – and how they care most for those closest to them. Their care, their sympathy, radiates from them towards others with an intensity which is inversely proportional to their social proximity. I’ve quoted the passage below before but I’ll quote it again – having since learned that Smith was a sickly child whose mother feared for his life as an infant. He’s writing of his beloved mother. Smith’s deference to her Christian devotion was one of the things that that kept him from publishing more forthrightly on his own less orthodox and agnostic religious views.

What are the pangs of a mother, when she hears the moanings of her infant that during the agony of disease cannot express what it feels? In her idea of what it suffers, she joins, to its real helplessness, her own consciousness of that helplessness, and her own terrors for the unknown consequences of its disorder and out of all these, forms, for her own sorrow, the most complete image of misery and distress. The infant, however, feels only the uneasiness of the present instant, which can never be great. With regard to the future, it is perfectly secure, and in its thoughtlessness and want of foresight, possesses an antidote against fear and anxiety, the great tormentors of the human breast, from which reason and philosophy will, in vain, attempt to defend it, when it grows up to a man.

Smith doesn’t explain it this way, but a picture of human beings in society emerges from TMS in which people are constituted by the dialectic between two parts of their nature:

  • an immature and asocial self which seeks the love – or approbation – of others like the baby does in its mother’s arms (not unlike Freud’s ego) and
  • a more mature and social self like Freud’s ‘superego’ or one’s ‘conscience”. Smith calls this part of the human personality (the impartial spectator). Human psychology emerges from the actions of the asocial self as it is gradually conditioned by the impartial spectator.

Ultimately then, a mature person might continue to want approbation like the child. But as the process of social interaction and internal reflection take their course a mature person understands that that what we really want is deserved approbation.

Here’s a nice quote from TMS illustrating how dialectical all this is for Smith:

Their approbation necessarily confirms our own self-approbation. Their praise necessarily strengthens our own sense of our own praiseworthiness. In this case, so far is the love of praise-worthiness from being derived altogether from that of praise; that the love of praise seems, at least in a great measure, to be derived from that of praise-worthiness.

Of course Smith is not arguing that all adults behave in complete fidelity to this insight, or that there are not adults who retain the infantile fixation on asocial self-love and the asocial desire for others love. There are immature people and what we might call psychopaths whose impartial spectators never emerge. But they are a tiny few. Other people care what other people think of them, and, though they will sometimes stray from the truly prudent conduct (which would involve the pursuit of deserved approbation) they understand that don’t get real satisfaction from trying to fool others into having the wrong view of them.

Society is thus built on the endless dialectic of interaction between such people of differing degrees of familiarity – and so sympathy with one another – and within each of these people is a dialectic between their rude self-love and their impartial spectator. Smith was the very opposite of a methodological individualist. For it is these interactions that constitute both society and those who inhabit it.

Were it possible that a human creature could grow up to manhood in some solitary place, without any communication with his own species, he could no more think of his own character, of the propriety or demerit of his own sentiments and conduct, of the beauty or deformity of his own mind, than of the beauty or deformity of his own face. All these are objects which he cannot easily see, which naturally he does not look at, and with regard to which he is provided with no mirror which can present them to his view. Bring him into society, and he is immediately provided with the mirror which he wanted before. It is placed in the countenance and behaviour of those he lives with, which always mark when they enter into, and when they disapprove of his sentiments and it is here that he first views the propriety and impropriety of his own passions, the beauty and deformity of his own mind. To a man who from his birth was a stranger to society, the objects of his passions, the external bodies which either pleased or hurt him, would occupy his whole attention. The passions themselves, the desires or aversions, the joys or sorrows, which those objects excited, though of all things the most immediately present to him, could scarce ever be the objects of his thoughts. . . .Bring him into society, and all his own passions will immediately become the causes of new passions. He will observe that mankind approve of some of them, and are disgusted by others. He will be elevated in the one case, and cast down in the other his desires and aversions, his joys and sorrows, will now often become the causes of new desires and new aversions, new joys and new sorrows: they will now, therefore, interest him deeply, and often call upon his most attentive consideration.

Some readers who don’t know Smith might have a bit of an idea from this as what dialectic Smith sees existing in a market, and how that might contribute to civic virtue. But I’ll leave that to the next exciting post.

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5 Responses to Homo Dialecticus – Notes on Adam Smith: First installment

  1. Red Peter says:

    Well, since no-one else has commented, I’d like to commend the author on an excellent post. Also, I’d note some irony in the way translation of such ideas to politics is marked by a transition from phylosphy to polemicy- the result in this case being an inversion of the social/self awareness Smith details. “Greed is good”, “there is no society, only individuals” etc.

    Three cheers for oppositional politics and thank god the market provides something more dynamic.

  2. Red Peter says:

    Well, since no-one else has commented, I’d like to commend the author on an excellent post. Also, I’d note some irony in the way the translation of such ideas to politics is marked by a transition from phylosphy to polemicy- the result in this case being an inversion of the social/self awareness Smith details. “Greed is good”, “there is no society, only individuals” etc.

    Three cheers for oppositional politics and thank god the market provides us with something more dynamic.

  3. Red Peter says:

    Sorry, bad dial-up. Save me Barnaby!

  4. GregM says:

    Good news, Red Peter. Barnaby has saved you by voting for the privatisation of Telstra.

  5. Tom Davies says:

    Look into two-way satellite Peter — installation subsidised by the government, but provided by both Optus and Telstra, your choice.

    Proof that you don’t need government ownership to ‘look after the bush’.

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