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Quarantining with Adam Smith

Despite all the coronavirus pandemic has taken from us over the past year, it did give us back one thing: time. Having lost the in-person gatherings and real-world obligations that filled the hours of our social lives, it was perhaps only natural that we invested our recovered time on the internet, the only outlet for human connection we had left. Yet months of sky-rocketing social media use and endless Zoom meetings have only left us disconnected and discontented, our relational skills perilously atrophied. As the end of the age of lockdowns grows near, it’s no wonder we keep asking our friends and family to brace themselves for how absurdly awkward we’ve become in our isolation.

Our sorry state of affairs calls for an expert who can remind us how to be social creatures again, and there is no better one than an eighteenth-century Scotsman named Adam Smith. Smith may be best remembered as “The Father of Capitalism” for the economic system he laid out in The Wealth of Nations. But it is in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, the moral philosopher’s first major work published 262 years ago last month, that he reveals himself to be one of the most incisive anthropologists of his day (and quite possibly ours as well). In Smith’s view, human happiness and morality do not exist in a vacuum but are instead entwined in our relationships with others. Furthermore, finding happiness (or “tranquility”) in our relationships depends on engaging “the impartial spectator,” a kind of empathetic exercise that allows us to go beyond our circumstances to consider those of others and then harmonize the difference in those perspectives.

The internet’s relentless immediacy and the illusory sense of connection it generates has robbed us of tranquility by slyly displacing the role of the impartial spectator in our lives. With the real world closed off for yet another few months, recovering it may depend on what Baylor University professor Alan Jacobs calls “breaking bread with the dead.” In other words, we should invite Smith to our table and give Moral Sentiments our time – to read him not in a historicized or academic way, but as a companion who can speak directly to our modern problems. That is not to say to read Smith uncritically—after all, what friend accepts another’s advice without some degree of reservation? But sitting with Smith and pulling out a few of the jewels that stud Moral Sentiments might be just what we need to restore a sense of tranquility in our otherwise anxious and misconnected world.

Concords over Unisons

Despite the supposed centrality of selfishness in Smith’s economic work, Moral Sentiments inverts the role self-interest occupies in human relationships. “How selfish soever man may be supposed,” Smith explains, “there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” Put simply, we care about the wellbeing of others for no other reason than that their happiness is key to our own. Moreover, we desperately want to be the real objects of other people’s esteem and sources of their joy—to not just be praised, but to be genuinely worthy of praise. The interconnectivity of human needs and morality suffuses Moral Sentiments from its beginning to its end.

Given our interest in contributing to our neighbor’s happiness, we are constantly evaluating the “propriety,” or the perceived appropriateness, of their sentiments to better comprehend them. But Smith’s great insight is that our personal limitations make us imperfect arbiters of human feelings. “I judge of your sight by my sight, of your ear by my ear, of your reason by my reason, of your resentment by my resentment of your love by my love,” he explains. “I neither have, nor can have, any other way of judging about them.”

The impartial spectator is key to expanding our perspective, but it cannot work alone. Despite the best efforts of our imagination, our attempt to experience the joy or pain of others is always likely to fall short. We therefore need assistance from the very people whom we are trying to understand. We need them, in Smith’s words, to “lower [their] passion to that pitch, in which the spectators are capable of going along with [them]. [They] must flatten, if I may be allowed to say so, the sharpness of its natural tone… to reduce it to harmony and concord with the motions of those who are about [them].”

We live in an era of radical self-expression that only grows more intense the longer we are forced online. We cast aside conversation in favor of listing decontextualized assertions on our Twitter feeds. We Instagram pictures of cakes that, rather than inviting exchange and community, are frosted with political slogans forbidding dissent. We are repeatedly told that we have a right to the full violence of our feelings and that the need to even explain them to anyone is an act of oppression. Smith’s two-hundred-year-old advice to “lower the pitch” of our passions thus sounds practically revolutionary, if not downright offensive.

But Smith is hardly insensitive to what he is asking. If reaching a “correspondence of sentiments” is a two-way process, engaging with the impartial spectator is an “amiable” virtue, lowering the pitch of our passions an “awful” one. In other words, imagining what it might be like to be in someone else’s shoes is a soft kindness; levelling the rage, pain, and injustice that one has experienced so that others may better understand it is an excruciating but awe-inspiring act of self-denial. Some today would call this “emotional labor,” but Smith prefers “self-command”—a far more empowering term, and one in short supply today.

Smith’s formula for mutual understanding and tranquility is not made for an ideal world, but rather the broken one we inhabit. Though he admits that reaching a true “unison” of sentiments is impossible, “concord” is within our reach if we embrace the amiable and awful virtues. That is a difficult lesson to internalize when we ensconce ourselves in virtual silos alongside strangers whose superficial commentary lulls us into thinking we are perfectly understood. Smith would be the first to agree that we long to be validated by others, but when it comes at the cost of working through the dissonance of sentiments that plague our relationships in the real world, we are only precluding ourselves from the experience of true sympathy.

That it is more satisfying in the short term to indulge our “disagreeable passions” doesn’t help. But as Smith notes, “it would be a strange entertainment which consisted altogether of the imitations of hatred and resentment.” Then again, he never did experience the sick thrill of running through the comments of a deliciously ill-informed political post on Facebook. But even if he did, he probably would have pointed out that there is little room to savor tranquility in real life after we have gorged ourselves on odium generated online.  

Matters of Intent

As colleges navigated virtual learning last fall, an incident at the University of Southern California led a veteran professor of communications named Greg Patton to be suspended for several weeks. His offense: Employing a term in Mandarin that sounds like an English racial slur during a Zoom lecture (ironically) on filler words and miscommunication in international business. Although USC ultimately cleared him of any wrongdoing, that didn’t stop students in his class from accusing him of intentional racial animus and lobbying for his removal.

Smith believes that resentment plays an important role in society as “the safeguard of justice and the security of innocence.” But determining whether an action is worthy of gratitude or resentment depends not just on its effect, but the intentions of the actor and the very nature of the action itself. Additionally, it is intention, rather than the action or its effect, that matters the most in our sentimental calculus. “As [action and effect] depend, not upon the agent, but upon fortune,” Smith explains, “they cannot be the proper foundation for any sentiment, of which his character and conduct are the objects.”

Although Patton never actually said the slur, he immediately emailed his class the next morning to apologize for making his students uncomfortable—an attempt at restitution that Smith argues is necessary even in the case of accidents, as the pain they inflict is real and terrible. But that Patton’s students claimed he had nevertheless caused irreparable harm worthy of severe punishment is a sign of the dangerously attenuated role intent now occupies in our moral discourse (a diminishment which is reinforced all over social media). Although Smith argues that this “irregularity” in human sentiments is natural, his description of its effect on human society is chilling: “That the world judges by the event, and not by the design, has been in all ages the complaint, and is the great discouragement of virtue.”

What kind of unbearable post-pandemic world are we building that grants no sanction to accidents? What kind of justice obfuscates the role of intent? Instead of a direct exchange with their teacher that would have easily fostered sympathy for their concerns, students ran to authority figures to exact a swift and merciless vengeance for Patton’s unintentional blunder. The modern obsession with consequences to the exclusion of intent and action not only reduces the incentive to act decently but heightens the mistrust and fear that fractures human society. Here Smith is clear: A world devoid of grace is a world devoid of tranquility.

Humble Expectations

The pandemic’s intensifying effect notwithstanding, Smith would be unsurprised that the internet now consumes so much of our energy. As he shrewdly explains near the end of Moral Sentiments, “the desire of being believed, the desire of persuading, of leading and directing other people, seems to be one of the strongest of all our natural desires.” Social media affords us countless opportunities to persuade, lead, and direct at levels of speed and accessibility that would-be influencers in previous generations could only dream of. But perhaps Smith would have been disturbed by the extent to which follower counts seem to thrive off a kind of performative and confrontational activism that has no use for the impartial spectator. Who needs to correspond with a single person’s sentiments in real life when thousands of untold strangers online are ready and waiting to correspond with yours?

The isolation incurred by the pandemic has undoubtedly compromised our ability to attend to these active duties; our virtual lives has enervated our willingness. Practicing with a figure like Smith—conjured into being only by his words—is not a bad way to start.

Even so, Smith would point out that indulging this desire is antithetical to a tranquil life. “To those who have been accustomed to the possession, or even to the hope of public admiration,” he warns, “all other pleasures sicken and decay.” He invokes the example of the retired politician who is tortured by a life of “listless and insipid indolence, chagrined at the thoughts of their own insignificancy, incapable of being interested in the occupations of private life.” An inability to be contented by the concerns of the local and the personal is a kind of oppression, and Smith argues that liberation lies in cultivating “a peculiar relish for all the little pleasures which common occurrences afford.” It is, after all, upon the stage of everyday life that we are most likely to reach a correspondence of sentiments with members of our community, to understand their intentions, and to be meaningfully instrumental to their happiness. It’s no wonder that the joy of an Instagram “like” is so ephemeral, but that of a neighbor thanking you for helping them with their yardwork or a family member admitting that they understand your point of view after a dispute can linger for years.

Our quest for connection during the pandemic may have encouraged many to build empires of influence online, but as limits on social gatherings are lifted, we have a chance to escape the tyranny of our notifications tab. This involves giving up the quixotic quest to be a master of online commentary, at least to a degree. But in exchange is the opportunity to not just be praised, but to be worthy of praise in the land of flesh and blood. Smith himself recognized that engaging with public discourse can be an engrossing pursuit, but nevertheless insisted that “the most sublime speculation of the contemplative philosopher can scarce compensate the neglect of the smallest active duty.”

The isolation incurred by the pandemic has undoubtedly compromised our ability to attend to these active duties; our virtual lives has enervated our willingness. Practicing with a figure like Smith—conjured into being only by his words—is not a bad way to start. After all, Smith commits many errors of judgment to our modern eyes. He relies on stereotypes to describe Spaniards, Native Americans, Africans, and other foreigners. He insists on appending masculine adjectives to virtues that are clearly universal. Moreover, for all his profound commentary on the human condition, he almost laughably conveys no useful insight on women and their experiences.

But Smith follows every eyebrow-raising comment with a succeeding insight that turns resentment on its head. It is hard not to laugh, for example, at his extended discussion of why we feel so ridiculously compelled to lash out at inanimate objects when they hurt us. It is the natural mirth of recognition, of realizing that the immutable nature of the human condition can with a single remark cross a chasm of time, gender, nationality, and circumstance to speak to something as irreverent but universal as the rage induced by a stubbed toe. It is the impartial spectator at its most sublime.

As Jacobs notes at the end of Breaking Bread with the Dead, “You don’t silence the part of you that sees the problems with the book, its errors, its moral malformations; neither do you silence the part of you that responds so warmly to that ‘utopian moment.’” We should thus put down our guard and lower the pitch of our passions. We should assume good intent, if imperfectly executed. We should even imagine that Smith would work as hard to bring our circumstances home to his breast as much as we are working to bring his home to ours. And thus, in tranquility and friendship, we would invite Smith to continue speaking—and invite others to do the same as we leave our glowing screens to reenter the world of the living.