Insights from Adam Smith: On the Fear of Death

Most people know Adam Smith (1723-1790) as the father of modern economic thought because of his seminal work An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), or just The Wealth of Nations.

But the work that underpins his work in The Wealth of Nations was actually written 17 years earlier when Smith was a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow and after collaborating with David Hume. The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759 and revised extensively during his life) was Smith’s own favorite and shows how dependent functional economics is upon morality. Smith was a revolutionary thinker, and anticipated ideas like General Equilibrium (widely used in economic theory and modeling) almost 200 years before anyone could mathematically prove it.

I am hoping to begin a series of insights from this great moral and economic philosopher. Enjoy.

On the fear of death and sympathizing with the dead:

“It is from this very illusion of the imagination, that the foresight of our own dissolution is so terrible to us, and that the idea of those circumstances, which undoubtedly can give us no pain when we are dead, makes us miserable while we are alive. And from thence arises one of the most important principles in human nature, the dread of death, the great poison to the happiness, but the great restraint upon the injustice of mankind, which, while it afflicts and mortifies the individual, guards and protects the society.”

Death plays an important role for the individual and society. For the religious, death is a movement toward the point where all justice is exercised for what we do in life, all debts are settled, and all injustice is recompensed. For the irreligious or atheistic, death is the end of all pleasure and existence. In both worldviews, death is something that can definitely be feared, especially if a life of goodness has not been chosen. Aggregating individual experiences with death creates a social effect that truly affects us and others in very profound ways.

Consider following scenarios:

A family has to make the decision of how much money and time to spend on drugs and treatments that will extend the life of their grandparent for 3 months. The fear of death looms over each decision. The more death is feared, the most vehemently we may choose to pursue ends that extend life and the more scarce resources are devoted to that family. The most costly form of care and the time of life for which many procedures and expensive technologies were developed is end of life care, and it tends to have spillover effects on the cost of medical care for everyone else.

Or consider violence. What is so upsetting about the clashes between police and black communities is that the fear of death at the hands of policemen exacerbates disadvantage for those who most need protection, even if those people are children.

Fear of death deters war and induces anxiety. Death finalizes all worldly transactions and serves as the ultimate seal on the type of life we have lived and the effects we have had on others.

How we as individuals feel about death also plays into how we choose to live with one another. How do we feel about capital punishment? If we view death as the ultimate end, capital punishment definitely feels inhumane. If we view death as a transfer from one courtroom to that of the Final Judge, capital punishment can appear more humane.

If we imagine death to be a cloak of never-ending night, we can gain some satisfaction in life that we may be remembered for a time after we are gone, but we will eventually be forgotten, as will the good and bad we do, so those moments of introspection may be short. If we imagine any light beyond that final breath, we know that what we do also has consequences beyond the memories of the people who knew us or read about us, and what we do takes on far-reaching significance.

If we view death as terminal, we tend to claw and scratch as we try to hold onto life’s moments if we feel them slipping. If death is a doorway, we may see far fewer reasons to argue for our right to stay, especially if our lives have been the kind of life we can be proud of regardless of whether or not anyone saw our good deeds.

In short, so much of how we live and how we interact boils down to how we answer this question:

“If a man die, shall he live again?”

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