Insights from Adam Smith: You’re Not as Good as You Think

This is part three of my series on Insights from Adam Smith.

In addition to his philosophies on how the presence of others has a tendency to temper our inner passions, Smith also has some particularly poignant insights into what makes someone or some act truly respectable or virtuous (a word we don’t use very often anymore).

“It is, that to feel much for others and little for ourselves, that to restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature; and can alone produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole grace and propriety. As to love our neighbour as we love ourselves is the [second] great law of Christianity, so it is the great precept of nature,” (1.1.44).

To Adam Smith, the social ideal cannot and indeed will not be built upon anything other than individual self mastery, a bridling of the passions to be the servant rather than the leader of the virtuous, and of driving that self mastery to love of neighbor. What is missing in society is that level of mastery, while self-indulgence seems to be the common thread wound through all of today’s behavioral tapestry.

Smith goes on to add a stunning indictment of self-righteousness and of the extremely low bar we have set for human behavior.

“As taste and good judgment, when they are considered as qualities which deserve praise and admiration, are supposed to imply a delicacy of sentiment and an acuteness of understanding not commonly to be met with; so the virtues of sensibility and self-command are not apprehended to consist in the ordinary, but in the uncommon degrees of those qualities. The amiable virtue of humanity requires, surely, a sensibility, much beyond what is possessed by the rude vulgar of mankind. The great and exalted virtue of magnanimity undoubtedly demands much more than that degree of self-command, which the weakest of mortals is capable of exerting. As in the common degree of the intellectual qualities, there is no abilities; so in the common degree of the moral, there is no virtue. Virtue is excellence, something uncommonly great and beautiful, which rises far above what is vulgar and ordinary. The amiable virtues consist in that degree of sensibility which surprises by its exquisite and unexpected delicacy and tenderness. The awful and respectable, in that degree of self-command which astonishes by its amazing superiority over the most ungovernable passions of human nature.

There is, in this respect, a considerable difference between virtue and mere propriety; between those qualities and actions which deserve to be admired and celebrated, and those which simply deserve to be approved of. Upon many occasions, to act with the most perfect propriety, requires no more than that common and ordinary degree of sensibility or self-command which the most worthless of mankind are possest of, and sometimes even that degree is not necessary. Thus, to give a very low instance, to eat when we are hungry, is certainly, upon ordinary occasions, perfectly right and proper, and cannot miss being approved of as such by every body. Nothing, however, could be more absurd than to say it was virtuous,” (1.1.45-46).

Put differently, basic human decency is not on the same footing as the virtue of kindness. Somehow in relationships, in politics, in media, and in life, not being an absolute sociopath now passes as some sort of meritorious act.

In an era where participation is the only test required for praise; conforming to identity politics is rewarded with tribal protection; airing your personal dirty laundry on the internet is considered “brave”; and when embracing every desire of human nature is regarded as the epitome of happiness; it becomes harder to differentiate the truly praiseworthy from simply the appropriate.

We should be better than that. We should aspire to uncommon kindness, exceptional sensibilities, and extraordinary self-mastery. We should aspire to true excellence and be judicious about what we laud in ourselves and others.

The only way to elicit from ourselves the very best we can muster, we need to be more critical of ourselves, not to the point of plunging self-esteem, but so that we can be honest enough to admit when we need to exert control over how we behave, realize that what we are is not as good as we should be, and be conscientious about how we can and should change. Only in doing so can we ever achieve “perfection of human nature.”

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