I Heart Adam Smith

I’m really glad I got a chance to finally read A Theory of Moral Sentiments closely. It is I think deeply incoherent in a way that highly recommends it, because it is the incoherence of lived moral reality.

To be happy is to be loved and praised. Also, to be happy is stoic indifference to love and praise. The love of high relative standing is based on misery-making self-deception. And this self-deception turns the wheels of industry, which produces wealth, and leaves even those of low relative position in a good absolute position. Which is all you really need to be happy! That is, as long as you are stoically indifferent to love and praise, to relative position. Which, really, none of us are, because, OMG, we really really want other people to think highly of us. And, hey, again, that’s a pretty good thing when you think about it, otherwise none of us would be self-deceived enough to do all the crazy hard work that creates the wealth that leaves us all in a good absolute material position. So, you personally should probably worry about becoming actually praiseworthy, instead of just seeking to receive praise, because you’ll be happier if you deserve it, whether or not you get it. Unless everyone is doing this. In which case we’ll all just be poor, which isn’t good at all.

A different strand… We are naturally sympathetic. Of course, our sympathy is rather limited and weak. But because we are sympathetic, we sympathize with the weakness of others’ sympathy. So, being sympathetic to the limits of others’ sympathy, we mute the expression of our own emotions, so that others will not be made uncomfortable or burdened by their failure to connect fully with what we really feel. And, likewise, we appreciate it when others do this for us.  A sympathetic person doesn’t put other people out. Observing many instances of this pattern of praise for the sympathetic accommodation of weak sympathy (“thank you for not asking me to be that sad for you!”), we produce a general rule. And then we apply it to ourselves and come to disapprove of freely expressing unmuted emotion even when alone — even though we are actually having our emotions and not trying to sympathize with them. Our natural sympathy, wedded to the general weakness of sympathy, generates an individual conscience that demands that we be no more emotional than other people are ready to handle. Therefore, stoic self-command is awesome. “It’s OK! Just let it all out.” Nonsense! Why would you so rudely embarrass yourself with your own emotions?

This is truly great stuff.