Adam Smith and the Left and Right of Moral Sentiment – A Christmas Tale

[I’m on holiday in a place with very limited and irregular cellphone coverage and access to the internet. That means I haven’t included links in this post but, when I’ve quoted from Adam Smith’s work, I’ve referenced the ‘Part’ and ‘Chapter’ where the quote can be found. His Theory of Moral Sentiments should be readily available – for free – on the internet.]
Given it’s the season of goodwill to all – and presumably also a good time to reflect on deeper issues – I thought I’d take a look at one aspect of the moral principles that underlie the Left and Right of politics.

The moral dimension of politics is often underplayed today, perhaps because dwelling on it is thought to betray an outdated account of the political. ‘Morality’ is sometimes thought to be some quaint backwater in which the un-modern remnants of right-wing social conservatism endlessly swim in diminishing circles as their stagnant pool slowly dries up over time.

In this view, moral questions are best left out of politics as matters for individuals to determine for themselves. But that attitude seems to me to have it just about backwards.
Almost all ‘modern’, ‘progressive’ politics has been motivated by a powerful moral insight and has gained followers by the strength of its moral call. Think ‘abolitionism’, universal sufferage and workers who have nothing to lose but their chains, etc..

Yes, politics is ultimately about the distribution of power, not moral insight. And, yes, power and its material origins are at the heart of political conflict and debate. But the very desire to gain power and so dominate others is itself an intensely moral (i.e., value-based) imperative because it is based on the view that good things come to the person who dominates – or, more benignly, the person who dominates can then do ‘good things’ for others. ‘Might’, that is, ‘is right’ and power is the good in politics.

A focus on power does not therefore over-ride the moral dimension of politics.

To be especially even-handed in this post, I thought I’d take my guide from Adam Smith in his ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments‘.

He’s something of an icon of those on the neoliberal right, at least so far as market economics is concerned, a theory he outlined in his 1796 book ‘Wealth of Nations’. That work is also sometimes used to explain and defend what has come to be called ‘orthodox economics’ by those on the Right.

But Smith has also been extensively quoted by some on the Left, such as Noam Chomsky – who usually self-positions on the ‘libertarian left’ – because of Smith’s often damning comments about the unscrupulousness and narrow self-interest of those in business and in power.

I’ve been re-reading his lesser mentioned book and was struck, again, by the acuity and relevance of his analysis for politics today, and in New Zealand. I guess a theory of moral sentiments – despite our pretensions to the uniqueness of the modern world – deals with a very basic element of the human condition, like most philosophy, and so a good analysis can remain relevant long after the historical period that gave rise to it.

None of which is to say that Smith’s works don’t bear the indelible marks of the time and culture within which they were penned. Some of his ‘gentlemanly’ comments about women – yes, ‘the fairer sex’ – make that clear enough as does his use of labels such as ‘barbarous nations’ – though he often compliments such people’s moral recititude.

I also hope this post will become part of an occasional series looking at Smith’s work and its echoes in current events. I’m not an expert on Smith’s work so they will be just my take on what he means and what his comments mean for us today.

Here’s the quote (Part III, Chapter III) that first got me thinking about this post:

The situations in which the gentle virtue of humanity can be most happily cultivated, are by no means the same which are best fitted for forming the austere virtue of self-command.

‘Humanity’ and ‘Self-Command’ – the ability to respond with empathy and compassion to the sufferings and joys of others, on the one hand, and the capacity to exert self- control over one’s emotions and reactions and defer present pleasures for future ones, on the other.

Understood in their most generous interpretation, these twin virtues seem to me to represent the underpinning values of the Left and the Right. (As I said at the start, given that this is the Christmas season of goodwill I’ll overlook other ‘cardinal values’ pinned, less generously, to the different poles of the political spectrum – e.g., ‘greed’, ‘envy’, etc.).

The quote, that is, neatly summarises the difference in moral emphasis and moral priority between the two broad political positions.

The Left tends to emphasise humanity and is, in consequence, accused of naivety and a lack of self-command (or lack of concern for the virtue of self-command (self-control) in others). The Right emphasise the virtue of self-command (as would be needed in business, war and other competitive and threatening environments) and can be accused of a lack of compassion and humanity.

I think this also makes sense of the respective weight given to collective and cooperative endeavour (by the Left) and individual and competitive endeavour (by the Right).

Humanity is generated by and is a response to the necessity of sympathy and empathy in a broadly interdependent social arrangement; Self-command arises from and is a response to the necessity of personal effort in a broadly hostile (or at least unforgiving) social arrangement.

I also think that this dichotomy helps explain differential effects of the imposition of power hierarchies (socioeconomic and political). Where ‘self-command’ is the dominant virtue, pure authoritarianism would arise (Orwell’s jackboot on a human face). Where humanity is the dominant virtue, paternalism (‘nanny state’) would arise, perhaps to a suffocating degree.

Individuals, of course, will have a mix of these two virtues – as will any workable society – but, nevertheless, the politically significant difference in moral emphasis seems to align with the Left and the Right.

Smith’s analysis is, however, even more subtle. He notes that, in fact:

The person best fitted by nature for acquiring the former of these two sets of virtues, is likewise best fitted for acquiring the latter. The man who feels the most for the joys and sorrows of others, is best fitted for acquiring the most complete control of his own joys and sorrows. The man of the most exquisite humanity, is naturally the most capable of acquiring the highest degree of self-command.

This idea makes sense both in its own terms and also when we look at the ideologies of the Left and Right as formally framed.

For the socialist – it’s worth remembering – the catch-cry is often ‘From each according to their ability; to each according to their need’. That is not too long a bow to draw to see in that aphorism the attempted integration of ‘self-command’ (so as to serve the common good) and ‘humanity’ (so as to care for each other as fellow human beings).

Similarly, the old notion of ‘noblesse oblige’ at the very least assumed an obligation of (paternalistic) compassion and care while, obviously, retaining eminence for those who would claim to be masters of self-command (and hence rightfully granted command over others). Even the recent rhetoric over the past decade of so-called ‘compassionate conservatism’ or ‘capitalism with a human face’ has tapped into this general sense that an economy that claims to be built on the aspiration that arises from self-command must still make room for humanity (even if only rhetorically).

But, while this natural propensity for combining the two exists – and probably informs our sense of the characters of ‘elevated’ persons like Jesus Christ, Gandhi and the Buddha – in practice, Smith claims, it often does not happen.

And this, Smith suggests, may be due to the experiences that surround the cultivation of each virtue.

The person of humanity, for example, “may have lived too much in ease and tranquility” and “never been exposed to the violence of faction, or to the hardships and hazards of war” [or business?] and “may have never experienced the insolence of his superiors, the jealous and malignant envy of his equals, or the pilfering injustice of his inferiors“.

By contrast:

Under the boisterous and stormy sky of war and faction, public tumult and confusion, the sturdy severity of self-command prospers the most, and can be the most successfully cultivated. But, in such situations, the strongest suggestions of humanity must frequently be stifled or neglected, and every such neglect necessarily tends to weaken the principle of humanity.

Smith further points out that such a person (e.g., a soldier who gives no quarter and may take property and life as of necessity) can tend to downplay the severity of their own misfortunes, which has the knock-on effect of downplaying the same misfortunes in others.

He reiterates the point in relation to the ‘barbarous nations‘ who, because of their hardships, learn to repress what he calls the “exquisite” aspects of humanity that can be refined amongst civilised nations and will therefore not complain about them and, more significantly, not react to or acknowledge in others such humanity. (This capacity – or perhaps necessity – in hunter-gatherer and tribal societies has been noted, often through remarkable anecdotes, by anthropologists, as reported by Jared Diamond in his book ‘The World Until Yesterday’.).

Put bluntly, hard lives produce hard people who are less inclined to express humanity.

Smith concludes:

It is upon this account, that we so frequently find in the world men [sic] of great humanity who have little self-command, but who are indolent and irresolute and easily disheartened, by difficulty or danger, from the most honourable of pursuits, and, on the contrary, men of the most perfect self-command, whom no difficulty can discourage, no danger appal, and who are at all times ready for the most daring and desperate enterprises, but who, at the same time, seem to be hardened against all sense either of justice or humanity.

As I said, this analysis – despite Smith’s constant use of individual hypothetical cases – is not really about individual people. It’s about a rhetorical tendency that we can see in ourselves and others and that expresses itself in different mixes in each of us. That rhetorical tendency no doubt both reflects and reproduces a particular kind of social and economic arrangement within which people feel the need to cleave more to one or other of these two sets of virtues.

But when one ‘set of virtues’ starts to matter more to us than the other, then I think it starts to define our political position – individually and as a nation. That is, when in our habitual discourse we let one rather than the other dominate we find ourselves in agreement, politically, with either the Left or the Right, as conventionally understood. Our votes then follow our utterances as we become convinced that our words represent our values.

I think this distinction that Smith dwells upon (for good reason) helps to explain many aspects of the political divisions and debates, especially the recurring forms of rhetoric used by the Left and the Right.

For example, there’s been a lot of talk, recently, about the appeal of Colin Craig’s Conservative Party, though recent polling doesn’t seem to reflect that appeal. More broadly, there’s been a lot of discussion about the conservative ‘backlash’ against supposedly liberal modern society.

Reduced to its bare essentials that backlash is rhetorically expressed as a concern about the lack of self-command demonstrated by people.

It’s most obviously there in claims of the weakening of ‘moral fibre’ but it also is present in comments about people’s ‘choices’ – those with good self-command make, so the story goes, the better choices. It is only the indolent (as Smith would put it) and foolish who indulge their desires and passions at the expense of their longer-term benefit.

It is not hard in today’s New Zealand to find examples of this judgmental approach, whether to beneficiaries or to the middle-class with its supposed sense of entitlement to government support.

At least at the rhetorical level, the argument is often that only by exposing people to the consequences of their lack of self-command will they nurture more of it. They need to ‘harden up’ by life being made harder.

Which neatly brings me to all those – now – everyday sayings that have become increasingly common in New Zealand – ‘Suck it up”, ‘Get over it’, ‘Move on’, ‘Harden up’, etc..

These terms all imply that the problems people encounter are a result of their inability to take control of their emotions and responses; a poverty of self-command and an over-supply of self-pity and self-indulgence.

I think it says something about the changes in New Zealand society over the last 30 years that the Right’s rhetorical emphasis on ‘self-command’ has come to dominate political debate.

To advocate, at the political level, for compassion or humanity is now seen as a thinly disguised appeal to ‘envy’ or ‘entitlement’. To suggest that the “exquisite” and refined sentiment of humanity should govern our collective political decision making is seen, at best, as naive.

What Smith identifies as the more masculine quality – and rhetoric – of ‘self-command’ has a firm grip on the political narrative.


Smith’s answer, I think, would be clear: Self-command comes to dominate – “can be the most successfully cultivated” – as an approved virtue in circumstances where life is hard, where the stability and ‘tranquility’ of a civilised life is in retreat and has taken with it the propensity to be guided by the virtue of humanity.

This is the New Zealand that has steadily emerged over the last few decades. The social and economic experience of individuals and families are more unstable, less predictable, more threatening, less safe – despite all the technological and other improvements of our world.

As I have detailed in previous posts, attitudes have followed this change to a world that is harsher, less forgiving, less humane – less ‘civilised’ in Smith’s terms by the very fact that our moral sentiments have rhetorically shifted so markedly towards self-command and away from humanity.

For those on the Left – and, in fact, for most New Zealanders – the task, now, is to work out how to resurrect a balance between these two sets of virtues.

Few would argue that self-command should be eradicated – it is the basis for a cooperative society composed of autonomous persons.

But, surely, no-one can feel pleased at the decline of humanity as a virtue that can be publicly expressed and acknowledged without being ridiculed or sidelined in political and everyday discussion and debate?

At a time when we are meant to be marking, at least nominally, the birth of the Christian saviour with his claimed message of peace and love it’s probably as good a time as ever to reflect on the future of the virtue of humanity in New Zealand society.


And at a time when some New Zealanders, at least, seem to think the ‘masculine’ virtue of self-command is lacking, perhaps we could think again about what a truly moral political stance might involve.

Then again, maybe we’d all prefer to be distracted from that disturbing suggestion and just down another beer at the barbie and make small-talk about bludgers, whingers and moaners?

It’s a final irony that doing the latter may actually be the easy option and require far less self-command than would the effort of seriously reflecting on the sets of virtues we want to see underpin New Zealand and New Zealanders.

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3 Responses to Adam Smith and the Left and Right of Moral Sentiment – A Christmas Tale

  1. bruce says:

    what about when those among us who have never ever dreamed of being “left” would find themselves suddenly identifying more with left than with right? Does that mean some sort of tipping-point has been arrived at, for the masses?

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi bruce,

      That’s an interesting point, especially for us here in Christchurch but also more widely in NZ in terms of fairness and inequality.

      I think when injustice becomes too blatant – as I think has happened in Christchurch with the rebuild – the call for affected people to just ‘suck it up’ just starts to sound hollow rather than principled.

      At that point, yes, I think a tipping point gets reached because the moral defense falls apart for what is being done.


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