Considering it his more important work, Scottish philosopher Adam Smith penned “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” in 1759, some 17 years before authoring the often cited and more often misunderstood “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.” Although the flourish of his style is antiquated, his insight remains keen. In expressing a singular characteristic of humans, he points to a story where the earth opened by earthquake and all the inhabitants of China were consumed. Naturally, good folk decried the calamity. Some sent well wishes, coins or prayers. Others lamented the human condition and imagined the causes behind their misfortune.
But few, if any, dug in the rubble. Smith went on to point out, “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 tranquility, as if no such accident had happened.” But if the person he suggests were to lose a finger, he would likely find his life disrupted by pain and insomnia. Wouldn’t we all? In fact, few would sacrifice our own digit to have prevented the catastrophe to the Chinese. Would we feel the personal obligation?
Yet, this icon of capitalism Smith goes on to extol the hidden virtue of humans in his query, “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?” Even as the Russian bear mauls the children of Ukraine, what is our sacrifice? If self-interest propels the world of commerce, does sympathy drive our moral one?