Smith on Sympathy and Selfishness

Alternative Title: Adam Smith’s (Humean-Inspired?) Theory of Reciprocal Sympathy

As Ryan Patrick Hanley correctly notes in his beautiful new book on Adam Smith, the concept of sympathy or “fellow feeling” is the cornerstone of Smith’s moral philosophy. The original 1759 edition of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments of TMS had six parts, and Smith devotes the entire first part to explaining the role sympathy plays in morality. In fact, the very first line in TMS contains the following powerful observation (quoted on p. 15 of Hanley):

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him ….”

For Smith, then, humans are not just purely selfish actors or egoistic “utility maximizers” in the parlance of modern economics. On the contrary, we not only care about the welfare of others; the happiness of others is “necessary” to our well-being! We have a natural disposition to sympathize with other people, or as Hanley puts it (p. 15), “we also naturally care about the well-being of others,” so depending on the situation, we like to share their joys and are also able feel their pain and suffering. But as original and remarkable as this observation is–especially coming from Adam Smith, the father of modern economics–Smith the moral philosopher makes an even more original and remarkable observation about the reciprocal nature of sympathy in the first part of TMS (quoted on p. 23 of Hanley):

Of such mighty importance does it appear to be, in the imaginations of men, to stand in that situation which sets them most in the view of general sympathy and attention.

In other words, sympathy is not just something we are naturally inclined or willing to give to others; sympathy is also something we want to receive from others, or in the words of Hanley (p. 24): “… not only are we naturally disposed to sympathize with others, we also naturally desire that others sympathize with us.” (In fact, according to Smith (as quoted in Hanley, p. 28), this is why we spend so much time trying to “better our condition”–in order “to be taken notice of with sympathy, complacency, and approbation ….”) This key Smithian insight about the reciprocal nature of sympathy is important for three reasons. First and foremost, this insight goes a long way toward solving “Das Adam Smith Problem,” toward reconciling Smith the economist and Smith the moral philosopher. Simply put, we don’t sympathize with others out of pure altruism but rather out of our own self-interest.

Second, this Smithian insight about the reciprocal nature of sympathy helps explain and unravel many of the riddles, quirks, and mysteries of human behavior. Why, for example, do young people spend so much time on social media? Because they crave the attention of their peers. In short, Smith’s insight paints a more accurate and nuanced portrait of human psychology and motives than the low-grade, utility-maximization picture painted by mainstream economists. Or as Hanley puts it (p. 17), “… we have, by nature, two parts to us that on their face pull in different directions. One leads us to care about ourselves and our own happiness, while the other leads us to care about others and their happiness.”

But perhaps the most important aspect of Smith’s key insight is that these mutual or reciprocal exchanges of sympathy–not God or the Good–are the true foundation of morality. As a result, sympathy plays a crucial role not just from an individual perspective–for our individual well-being and sense of worth–but also from a “social” or community perspective–for the well-being of society as a whole. Why? Because it is the reciprocal nature of sympathy that allows us to transcend the selfish sides of our natures and potentially bridge our many divisions and break out of our current cycles of tribalism.

Alas, I say “potentially” because Smith’s beautiful theory of reciprocal sympathy, as original and sophisticated as it is, poses a new problem: what I shall call “Das Adam Smith Problem 2.0.” If these reciprocal exchanges are so essential to our well-being (from both an individual and community or social perspective), then why do we see so much division and tribalism in our contemporary world today? My own view is that there is an optimal level of tribalism and that our current levels of disunity are probably over-hyped, but as far as I can tell that is neither Smith’s nor Hanley’s view, so rest assured we will further probe this new problem in my next few posts …

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About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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