What follows is the second installment in a long-overdue series explaining the context and deeper meaning of all eight songs on my band’s album all about Adam Smith “Silent Revolution.” The first post for the titular track can be found here. Listen to the entire album with audio commentary/explanation here. This song is inspired by the first section and chapter of Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Of the many misunderstandings of Adam Smith’s work, the idea that Smith saw humans as being motivated entirely by rational self-interest is the one that looms largest. The robotic Homo Economicus model of human nature so dominant in modern economic theory is far from how Smith explained human behavior. The first song on Silent Revolution, called “Fellow-Feeling,” invokes his idea that the basis of human behavior is not in rational utility maximization, but rather sympathetic fellow-feeling and a desire to share in the sentiments of others.

The first of Smith’s two books, Theory of Moral Sentiments, starts with this:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principals in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others…for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous and humane…

A few things to emphasize here: 1) as selfish as we may appear to be and often can be, we exhibit behavior suggesting we are interested in the well-being of others ; 2) there is universality in his analysis (“by no means confined to the virtuous and human”). Smith was writing specifically in contrast to David Hume and Bernard Mandeville‘s writings that took more of a utility maximization perspective. People’s tendencies to exhibit altruistic, sympathetic, or ethical behavior could be viewed through a redefined utility function, they argued. In other words, we are nice to each other and follow rules because it’s in our best interest. Smith is not convinced. He gives a number of examples where we put ourselves in the shoes of others, with no discernible self-interest or rational calculation.

When we see a stroke aimed and just ready to fall upon the leg or arm of another person, we naturally shrink and draw back our own leg or our own arm…the mob, when they are gazing at a dancer on the slack rope, naturally writhe and twist and balance their own bodies…persons of delicate fibers and a weak constitution of body complain, that in looking on the sores and ulcers which are exposed by beggars in the streets, they are apt to feel an itching or uneasy sensation…

As another example, consider instances where we cry while watching movies. Our tears will not help the characters in the movie and the characters are often fictional and/or experiencing fictional events; there can be no explanation for our tears being out of expected reciprocity or benefit to anyone. So what gives? Smith would say our impulse towards fellow-feeling has put ourselves in the shoes of the characters concerned, and though we cannot feel exactly as they do, we respond as if it were happening – in part – to us. In his examples, seeing someone about to be hit, struggling for balance on a tight rope, or experiencing severe discomfort from homelessness, our reaction is so instantaneous that it’s hard to imagine it being the result of a rational calculation or perceived personal benefit.

This tendency towards sympathetic fellow-feeling not only governs our behavior, it is the basis for explaining what we truly desire. Rather than pursuing a straightforward utilitarian life of wealth, fame, and prosperity, what we seek is for others to share our sentiments. We want them to understand how we feel, like what we like, and – more importantly – dislike what we dislike. We can all relate to the giddiness of sharing with friends works of art that we enjoy. Knowing that they enjoy it as we do gives us a deep pleasure.

A man is mortified when, after having endeavoured to divert the company, he looks around and sees that nobody laughs at his jests but himself…When we have read a book or poem so often that we can no longer find any amusement in reading it by ourselves, we can still take pleasure in reading it to a companion…But both the pleasure and the pain are always felt so instantaneously, and often upon such frivolous occasions, that it seems evident that neither of them can be derived from any such self-interested consideration.

Similarly, when our friends dislike people or things that we disliked, we are even more pleased (more on this in the future). To me, Smith believes that the deep pursuit of our lives is to feel we are correctly understood by the peers we care about, and to be worthy of accompanying praise.

Nestled towards the end of this section in TMS is a quick teaser on how Smith explains our ethical behavior.

We sympathize even with the dead, and overlooking what is of real importance in their situation, that awful futurity which awaits them, we are chiefly affected by those circumstances which strike our senses, but can have no influence upon their happiness. It is miserable, we think, to be deprived of the light of the sun; to be shut out from life and conversation; to be laid in the cold grave…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.

Through the mechanism of fellow-feeling, Smith says we put ourselves in the position of those we see that are dead and think “wow, that would really be a bummer to be that guy.” Again, mourning for someone that’s dead – especially one in fiction or someone you don’t know halfway across the world – cannot be explained through the lens of rational self-interest. Your tears cannot bring them back to life, being sad does not benefit you, and crying for a fictional character should have no real effect on your well-being. But from this tendency to sympathize with the dead, we refrain from killing each other and are given “the great restraint upon the injustice of mankind.” By understanding as best we can what it feels like to be dead – in the cold, dark grave, never again able to experience the pleasures of life – we aim to never put anyone in that situation nor put ourselves in that situation anytime soon.

So why can we sometimes be unethical? Aren’t there limits to our fellow-feeling? How does this square with the view of human nature found in Wealth of Nations and the market economy? Answers to all of that coming up later in this series!


The complete lyrics to “Fellow-Feeling”:

So I mourn for the dead, though they cannot hear my cries
What good is it unnoticed, what good is it to try
From that fear of cold and darkness, when imagined in that grave
Give power to restrain the injustice of mankind

The fortune of others, as I conceive
Not just the virtuous, or humane
However selfish that I may seem
Derive his sorrow
Though at ease I cannot feel his pain, imagination puts me in his place

The stroke is aimed (I shrink back) upon his arm
The beggar on the street, ulcers and sores
On the slackrope (I twist) the dancer writhes
Only conception
Yet enough to cause me that unease, the robust and feeble feel it too

To share the amusement of a book or a poem
And to enter in their sentiments just as if they were our own
The mortification when we jest and no one joins,
Feels so instantaneous that it cannot be self-love


P.S. here’s a selfie I took by the Adam Smith statue in Edinburgh last week



Will Wilkinson:

If, like [Peter] Singer, we are utilitarians, we need not be too vexed by the problem of identifying the best morality. The best morality–the one that produces the largest sum of happiness–is the morality of liberal market societies.

I find Wilkinson’s argument compelling, because liberal market society is the main source of moral progress in the modern world (some people disagree, but I think this is pretty obvious). As Peter Singer and many others have convincingly argued, global poverty is one of the most important ethical issues of our time. Innocent people (including children) suffer and day everyday from preventable causes, such as hunger, disease, and lack of clean water. Singer, being a utilitarian, argues that we all must give substantially more money to charity than we currently do. This seems right. But consider the historical evidence on people escaping severe poverty. How many lives have been saved by the kinds of charitable donations that Singer advocates? Relatively few. How many lives have been saved by societies transitioning toward market liberalism? An astronomical amount. In China alone, virtually the entire population (at the time just under one billion) was in severe poverty at the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. Thirty-five years later, according to Singer, just over 200 million Chinese (out of a population of about 1.3 billion) are living on less than $1.25 per day. In China alone, a shift toward market liberalism has brought many hundreds of millions of people out of severe poverty in just a few decades. So if you care about poor people, spreading market liberalism seems like the way to go more so than donating to charity (although the two are not, of course, mutually exclusive).

However, there’s good reason to think that consequentialism and the  morality that serves as the foundation of market liberal societies are mutually exclusive, because the morality of market liberalism is not consequentialist. As David Schmidtz points out, the utility-promoting institutions of market liberal societies depend in large part on their ability to create “conditions under which people can trust each other not to operate in an act-utilitarian way.” Effectively promoting utility depends largely on not acting on the motivation to promote utility.