Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, and His Invisible Hand

If you’ve heard of Adam Smith, it’s probably because of his book The Wealth of Nations, which launched the study of economics, or his concept of “the invisible hand” by which individuals, each looking out only for their own personal gain, end up unwittingly contributing to the prosperity of society as a whole.

I have not read The Wealth of Nations, but I’m currently reading Smith’s earlier book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Today I’ll share some of my thoughts on volume one of that book, including the surprising context of his “invisible hand” quote.

When people argue about the application of moral values, usually implicit in their ar­gu­ments is the theory that morality either arises from a system or that it ought to be systematized. In these ar­gu­ments, showing that some ethical as­ser­tion or other is un­sys­tem­a­tic or is sys­tem­a­tical­ly in­con­sis­tent seems equiv­a­lent to showing it to be dis­proven or wrong.

Therefore much ethical philosophy has involved systematizing morality in various ways and then trying to test the soundness of the resulting systems.

“Experimental” ethical philosophy takes a different tack: taking human moral judgment as a pre-systematization given and trying to describe its contours rather than force it into a rationally-invented mold.

The Theory of Moral Sentiments is in this camp, though Smith’s “experimentation” isn’t very rigorous — mostly amounting to introspection and examination of the opinions of well-considered men of his time, place, and class.

Anyone writing a book of experimental ethics today would spend a little time writing a prelude like this one that explains the difference in outlook and goals that motivates such a project and distinguishes it from most other ethical philosophy. Smith, though — curiously — just jumps in and starts describing human moral judgment without any such throat-clearing.

It is not until part two of the book, in a footnote that looks as though it were added to respond to critics who misunderstood this very nature of his project, that he makes things explicit:

…[T]he present inquiry is not concerning a matter of right, if I may say so, but concerning a matter of fact. We are not at present examining upon what principles a perfect being would approve of the punishment of bad actions; but upon what principles so weak and imperfect a creature as man actually and in fact approves of it.…

To Smith, the instinct to make moral judgments, like the instincts that make us hungry or horny, is built-in. And like those, the acts it prompts us to do tell us something about human nature and about how our creator (or Creator) intends to guide us.

We feel hunger to prompt us to sustain our bodies; we feel lust to prompt us to reproduce. Our feelings of resentment, gratitude, and other such moral emotions, Smith feels, must also have been implanted in us for the purpose of guiding our behavior toward certain ends. Rather than assuming the ends ahead of time and then trying to systematize an ethics that conforms to them, wouldn’t it be wiser (Smith feels) to carefully examine these emotions and try to derive these ends from what we find?

In every part of the universe we observe means adjusted with the nicest artifice to the ends which they are intended to produce; and in the mechanism of a plant, or animal body, admire how every thing is contrived for advancing the two great purposes of nature, the support of the individual, and the propagation of the species. But in these, and in all such objects, we still distinguish the efficient from the final cause of their several motions and organizations. The digestion of the food, the circulation of the blood, and the secretion of the several juices which are drawn from it, are operations all of them necessary for the great purposes of animal life. Yet we never endeavour to account for them from those purposes as from their efficient causes, nor imagine that the blood circulates, or that the food digests of its own accord, and with a view or intention to the purposes of circulation or digestion. … But though, in accounting for the operations of bodies, we never fail to distinguish in this manner the efficient from the final cause, in accounting for those of the mind we are very apt to confound these two different things with one another. When by natural principles we are led to advance those ends, which a refined and enlightened reason would recommend to us, we are very apt to impute to that reason, as to their efficient cause, the sentiments and actions by which we advance those ends, and to imagine that to be the wisdom of man, which in reality is the wisdom of God.

Our moral emotions serve us. They sustain us and help us to propagate by prompting us to actions that strengthen useful friendships and discourage human enemies, predators & parasites. For example, our acts and declarations of gratitude, prompted by our moral emotions, further encourage those who have shown themselves to be able & inclined to do us useful service.

Smith, — remarkably, in  — had written a book of evolutionary psychology. He didn’t know that was what he was doing, of course (Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was still ), but his book is agnostic enough about the nature of this creator who “implanted the seeds of [moral emotion] in the human breast” — sometimes it is “Nature,” other times “the author of nature,” other times “God” or “the Deity” — that it is not particularly awkward to fill in the blank today, now that we know the answer. Smith at times comes awfully close to this himself, as for instance when he describes the different emotional bonds that connect parents and children:

Nature, for the wisest purposes, has rendered in most men, perhaps in all men, parental tenderness a much stronger affection than filial piety. The continuance and propagation of the species depend altogether upon the former, and not upon the latter.

The edition I got from the library was published by Regnery Publishing for the “Conservative Leadership Series” of the “Conservative Book Club.” It’s not a very good advertisement for that brand, being riddled with typographical errors, misspellings (applause ringing in our “cars,” for instance), missing words, and other awkwardnesses that demonstrate that optical character recognition software is no substitute for a dutiful editor. I suspect that a book club selection like this is meant more for ostentatious display than for reading, however, so perhaps such niceties are superfluous.

In some ways, Adam Smith is a sensible choice for the conservative pantheon. His free-trade / free-market viewpoints, once considered de rigueur for good liberals, are now mostly honored (and mostly in the breach) by American conservatives. But this book doesn’t seem to harmonize well with contemporary American conservativism: Moral descriptivism is far too godless. I expect most Conservative Book Club members would be horrified if their children were being taught by some liberal professor about how morality was implanted in us by nature to promote the survival of the individual and the propagation of the species, and that you could derive morality from human ethical emotions without any reference to preexisting moral absolutes.

But back to Smith: When I first read Smith’s description of conscience, I was lulled by how sensible it seemed and at first I didn’t notice what an unusual explanation (for its time, anyway) it was. To Smith, “conscience” isn’t the insight by which we discern good & evil or the nagging voice prompting us to resist temptation, but is instead the faculty by which we simulate the perspective of an impartial observer who observes our own headspace and behavior, using the same criteria we naturally use when judging others. It is an application of the same, innate judgments we already have access to by virtue of being human, but using a difficult and specialized variety of imagination in which we cast that judgment through a point of view that is not our own and not (as) prejudiced by self-interest.

Because this process is so difficult, especially when our minds are distracted by particularly strong temptations or crisis circumstances of quick change and the need for rapid action, we tend to supplement our consciences by inventing and memorizing heuristics that we can apply to situations so that we can quickly flag those that require conscientious scrutiny. This process of inventing heuristics, Smith believes, is the source of the ethical philosopher’s suspicion that ethics is or ought to be systematized:

It is thus that the general rules of morality are formed. They are ultimately founded upon experience of what, in particular instances, our moral faculties, our natural sense of merit and propriety, approve, or disapprove of. We do not originally approve or condemn particular actions because, upon examination, they appear to be agreeable or inconsistent with a certain general rule. The general rule, on the contrary, is formed by finding from experience that all actions of a certain kind, or circumstanced in a certain manner, are approved or disapproved of.

When these general rules, indeed, have been formed, when they are universally acknowledged and established by the concurring sentiments of mankind, we frequently appeal to them as to the standards of judgment, in debating concerning the degree of praise or blame that is due to certain actions of a complicated and dubious nature. They are upon these occasions commonly cited as the ultimate foundations of what is just and unjust in human conduct; and this circumstance seems to have misled several very eminent authors to draw up their systems in such a manner as if they had supposed that the original judgments of mankind with regard to right and wrong were formed like the decisions of a court of judicatory, by considering first the general rule, and then, secondly, whether the particular action under consideration fell properly within its comprehension.

The book has some flaws. For one thing, Smith is wordy and repetitive. He seems to think if a point is worth making, it’s worth making three times just to make sure. I’ve never read a book that cried out more for a Readers’ Digest abridged edition. But aside from points of style, the major flaw is Smith’s insistence that an examination of human morality is equivalent to an examination of the opinions of well-bred, enlightenment-minded, well-to-do English men of the 18th century. His curiosity isn’t sufficient to consider other points of view as also being manifestations of human nature, or as anything but inferior versions of the mature morality of his fellows. Some of his conclusions follow comfortably and obviously from his biased choice of exemplars, and are unconvincing to the modern, more cosmopolitan reader.

But it’s ahead of its time and thought-provoking, and a well-needed perspective on ethical philosophy that ought to be more influential today than it appears to be.

“The invisible hand” is a key metaphor underlying the defense of free-market economics. In this defense, the free market, without being guided to do so by any central authority but merely evolving naturally by means of the interactions of self-interested individuals, nonetheless ends up efficiently supplying the needs and wants of the multitude and contributing to the prosperity of society.

This phrase has been so identified with capitalism, both by its critics and its supporters, that I was amused to find it embedded in a passage of Smith’s work that sounded as though it were written by an 18th century version of a voluntary simplicity movement downsizer. Check this out:

How many people ruin themselves by laying out money on trinkets of frivolous utility? … All their pockets are stuffed with little conveniencies. They contrive new pockets, unknown in the clothes of other people, in order to carry a greater number. They walk about loaded with a multitude of baubles, in weight and sometimes in value not inferior to an ordinary Jew’s-box, some of which may sometimes be of some little use, but all of which might at all times be very well spared, and of which the whole utility is certainly not worth the fatigue of bearing the burden.

The poor man’s son, whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition, when he begins to look around him, admires the condition of the rich. He finds the cottage of his father too small for his accommodation, and fancies he should be lodged more at his ease in a palace. He is displeased with being obliged to walk a-foot, or to endure the fatigue of riding on horseback. He sees his superiors carried about in machines, and imagines that in one of these he could travel with less inconveniency. He feels himself naturally indolent, and willing to serve himself with his own hands as little as possible; and judges, that a numerous retinue of servants would save him from a great deal of trouble. He thinks if he had attained all these, he would sit still contentedly, and be quiet, enjoying himself in the thought of the happiness and tranquillity of his situation. He is enchanted with the distant idea of this felicity. It appears in his fancy like the life of some superior rank of beings, and, in order to arrive at it, he devotes himself for ever to the pursuit of wealth and greatness. To obtain the conveniencies which these afford, he submits in the first year, nay in the first month of his application, to more fatigue of body and more uneasiness of mind than he could have suffered through the whole of his life from the want of them. He studies to distinguish himself in some laborious profession. With the most unrelenting industry he labours night and day to acquire talents superior to all his competitors. He endeavours next to bring those talents into public view, and with equal assiduity solicits every opportunity of employment. For this purpose he makes his court to all mankind; he serves those whom he hates, and is obsequious to those whom he despises. Through the whole of his life he pursues the idea of a certain artificial and elegant repose which he may never arrive at, for which he sacrifices a real tranquillity that is at all times in his power, and which, if in the extremity of old age he should at last attain to it, he will find to be in no respect preferable to that humble security and contentment which he had abandoned for it. It is then, in the last dregs of life, his body wasted with toil and diseases, his mind galled and ruffled by the memory of a thousand injuries and disappointments which he imagines he has met with from the injustice of his enemies, or from the perfidy and ingratitude of his friends, that he begins at last to find that wealth and greatness are mere trinkets of frivolous utility, no more adapted for procuring ease of body or tranquillity of mind than the tweezer-cases of the lover of toys; and like them too, more troublesome to the person who carries them about with him than all the advantages they can afford him are commodious. There is no other real difference between them, except that the conveniencies of the one are somewhat more observable than those of the other. … To one who was to live alone in a desolate island it might be a matter of doubt, perhaps, whether a palace, or a collection of such small conveniencies as are commonly contained in a tweezer-case, would contribute most to his happiness and enjoyment. If he is to live in society, indeed, there can be no comparison, because in this, as in all other cases, we constantly pay more regard to the sentiments of the spectator, than to those of the person principally concerned, and consider rather how his situation will appear to other people, than how it will appear to himself. If we examine, however, why the spectator distinguishes with such admiration the condition of the rich and the great, we shall find that it is not so much upon account of the superior ease or pleasure which they are supposed to enjoy, as of the numberless artificial and elegant contrivances for promoting this ease or pleasure. He does not even imagine that they are really happier than other people: but he imagines that they possess more means of happiness. And it is the ingenious and artful adjustment of those means to the end for which they were intended, that is the principal source of his admiration. But in the languor of disease and the weariness of old age, the pleasures of the vain and empty distinctions of greatness disappear. To one, in this situation, they are no longer capable of recommending those toilsome pursuits in which they had formerly engaged him. In his heart he curses ambition, and vainly regrets the ease and the indolence of youth, pleasures which are fled for ever, and which he has foolishly sacrificed for what, when he has got it, can afford him no real satisfaction. In this miserable aspect does greatness appear to every man when reduced either by spleen or disease to observe with attention his own situation, and to consider what it is that is really wanting to his happiness. Power and riches appear then to be, what they are, enormous and operose machines contrived to produce a few trifling conveniencies to the body, consisting of springs the most nice and delicate, which must be kept in order with the most anxious attention, and which in spite of all our care are ready every moment to burst into pieces, and to crush in their ruins their unfortunate possessor. They are immense fabrics, which it requires the labour of a life to raise, which threaten every moment to overwhelm the person that dwells in them, and which while they stand, though they may save him from some smaller inconveniencies, can protect him from none of the severer inclemencies of the season. They keep off the summer shower, not the winter storm, but leave him always as much, and sometimes more exposed than before, to anxiety, to fear, and to sorrow; to diseases, to danger, and to death.

But though this splenetic philosophy, which in time of sickness or low spirits is familiar to every man, thus entirely depreciates those great objects of human desire, when in better health and in better humour, we never fail to regard them under a more agreeable aspect. Our imagination, which in pain and sorrow seems to be confined and cooped up within our own persons, in times of ease and prosperity expands itself to every thing around us. We are then charmed with the beauty of that accommodation which reigns in the palaces and œconomy of the great; and admire how every thing is adapted to promote their ease, to prevent their wants, to gratify their wishes, and to amuse and entertain their most frivolous desires. If we consider the real satisfaction which all these things are capable of affording, by itself and separated from the beauty of that arrangement which is fitted to promote it, it will always appear in the highest degree contemptible and trifling. But we rarely view it in this abstract and philosophical light. We naturally confound it in our imagination with the order, the regular and harmonious movement of the system, the machine or œconomy by means of which it is produced. The pleasures of wealth and greatness, when considered in this complex view, strike the imagination as something grand and beautiful and noble, of which the attainment is well worth all the toil and anxiety which we are so apt to bestow upon it.

And it is well that nature imposes upon us in this manner. It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind. It is this which first prompted them to cultivate the ground, to build houses, to found cities and commonwealths, and to invent and improve all the sciences and arts, which ennoble and embellish human life; which have entirely changed the whole face of the globe, have turned the rude forests of nature into agreeable and fertile plains, and made the trackless and barren ocean a new fund of subsistence, and the great high road of communication to the different nations of the earth. The earth by these labours of mankind has been obliged to redouble her natural fertility, and to maintain a greater multitude of inhabitants. It is to no purpose, that the proud and unfeeling landlord views his extensive fields, and without a thought for the wants of his brethren, in imagination consumes himself the whole harvest that grows upon them. The homely and vulgar proverb, that the eye is larger than the belly, never was more fully verified than with regard to him. The capacity of his stomach bears no proportion to the immensity of his desires, and will receive no more than that of the meanest peasant. The rest he is obliged to distribute among those, who prepare, in the nicest manner, that little which he himself makes use of, among those who fit up the palace in which this little is to be consumed, among those who provide and keep in order all the different baubles and trinkets, which are employed in the œconomy of greatness; all of whom thus derive from his luxury and caprice, that share of the necessaries of life, which they would in vain have expected from his humanity or his justice. The produce of the soil maintains at all times nearly that number of inhabitants which it is capable of maintaining. The rich only select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable. They consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species. When Providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition. These last too enjoy their share of all that it produces. In what constitutes the real happiness of human life, they are in no respect inferior to those who would seem so much above them. In ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level, and the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for.