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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Sympathy for the Devil

Alex Massie of The Debatable Land celebrates the publication of Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

Mr Smith Teaches A Lesson, by alex massie: On this day in 1759 Adam Smith - the greatest of my compatriots - published The Theory of Moral Sentiments, the book he considered his signature accomplishment.

It's all good stuff, of course. But this passage may be particularly worth quoting at length:

Of the manner in which we judge of the propriety or impropriety of the affections of other men by their concord or dissonance with our own

..With regard to those objects, which affect in a particular manner either ourselves or the person whose sentiments we judge of, it is at once more difficult to preserve this harmony and correspondence, and at the same time, vastly more important. My companion does not naturally look upon the misfortune that has befallen me, or the injury that has been done me, from the same point of view in which I consider them. They affect me much more nearly. We do not view them from the same station, as we do a picture, or a poem, or a system of philosophy, and are, therefore, apt to be very differently affected by them.

But I can much more easily overlook the want of this correspondence of sentiments with regard to such indifferent objects as concern neither me nor my companion, than with regard to what interests me so much as the misfortune that has befallen me, or the injury that has been done me. Though you despise that picture, or that poem, or even that system of philosophy, which I admire, there is little danger of our quarrelling upon that account. Neither of us can reasonably be much interested about them. They ought all of them to be matters of great indifference to us both; so that, though our opinions may be opposite, our affections may still be very nearly the same. But it is quite otherwise with regard to those objects by which either you or I are particularly affected. Though your judgments in matters of speculation, though your sentiments in matters of taste, are quite opposite to mine, I can easily overlook this opposition; and if I have any degree of temper, I may still find some entertainment in your conversation, even upon those very subjects. But if you have either no fellow-feeling for the misfortunes I have met with, or none that bears any proportion to the grief which distracts me; or if you have either no indignation at the injuries I have suffered, or none that bears any proportion to the resentment which transports me, we can no longer converse upon these subjects. We become intolerable to one another. I can neither support your company, nor you mine. You are confounded at my violence and passion, and I am enraged at your cold insensibility and want of feeling.

In all such cases, that there may be some correspondence of sentiments between the spectator and the person principally concerned, the spectator must, first of all, endeavour, as much as he can, to put himself in the situation of the other, and to bring home to himself every little circumstance of distress which can possibly occur to the sufferer. He must adopt the whole case of his companion with all its minutest incidents; and strive to render as perfect as possible, that imaginary change of situation upon which his sympathy is founded.

After all this, however, the emotions of the spectator will still be very apt to fall short of the violence of what is felt by the sufferer. Mankind, though naturally sympathetic, never conceive, for what has befallen another, that degree of passion which naturally animates the person principally concerned. That imaginary change of situation, upon which their sympathy is founded, is but momentary. The thought of their own safety, the thought that they themselves are not really the sufferers, continually intrudes itself upon them; and though it does not hinder them from conceiving a passion somewhat analogous to what is felt by the sufferer, hinders them from conceiving any thing that approaches to the same degree of violence. The person principally concerned is sensible of this, and at the same time passionately desires a more complete sympathy. He longs for that relief which nothing can afford him but the entire concord of the affections of the spectators with his own. To see the emotions of their hearts, in every respect, beat time to his own, in the violent and disagreeable passions, constitutes his sole consolation. But he can only hope to obtain this by lowering his passion to that pitch, in which the spectators are capable of going along with him. He must flatten, if I may be allowed to say so, the sharpness of its natural tone, in order to reduce it to harmony and concord with the emotions of those who are about him What they feel, will, indeed, always be, in some respects, different from what he feels, and compassion can never be exactly the same with original sorrow; because the secret consciousness that the change of situations, from which the sympathetic sentiment arises, is but imaginary, not only lowers it in degree, but, in some measure, varies it in kind, and gives it a quite different modification. These two sentiments, however, may, it is evident, have such a correspondence with one another, as is sufficient for the harmony of society. Though they will never be unisons, they may be concords, and this is all that is wanted or required.

In order to produce this concord, as nature teaches the spectators to assume the circumstances of the person principally concerned, so she teaches this last in some measure to assume those of the spectators. As they are continually placing themselves in his situation, and thence conceiving emotions similar to what he feels; so he is as constantly placing himself in theirs, and thence conceiving some degree of that coolness about his own fortune, with which he is sensible that they will view it. As they are constantly considering what they themselves would feel, if they actually were the sufferers, so he is as constantly led to imagine in what manner he would be affected if he was only one of the spectators of his own situation. As their sympathy makes them look at it, in some measure, with his eyes, so his sympathy makes him look at it, in some measure, with theirs, especially when in their presence and acting under their observation: and as the reflected passion, which he thus conceives, is much weaker than the original one, it necessarily abates the violence of what he felt before he came into their presence, before he began to recollect in what manner they would be affected by it, and to view his situation in this candid and impartial light.

The mind, therefore, is rarely so disturbed, but that the company of a friend will restore it to some degree of tranquillity and sedateness. The breast is, in some measure, calmed and composed the moment we come into his presence. We are immediately put in mind of the light in which he will view our situation, and we begin to view it ourselves in the same light; for the effect of sympathy is instantaneous. We expect less sympathy from a common acquaintance than from a friend: we cannot open to the former all those little circumstances which we can unfold to the latter: we assume, therefore, more tranquillity before him, and endeavour to fix our thoughts upon those general outlines of our situation which he is willing to consider. We expect still less sympathy from an assembly of strangers, and we assume, therefore, still more tranquillity before them, and always endeavour to bring down our passion to that pitch, which the particular company we are in may be expected to go along with. Nor is this only an assumed appearance: for if we are at all masters of ourselves, the presence of a mere acquaintance will really compose us, still more than that of a friend; and that of an assembly of strangers still more than that of an acquaintance.

Society and conversation, therefore, are the most powerful remedies for restoring the mind to its tranquillity, if, at any time, it has unfortunately lost it; as well as the best preservatives of that equal and happy temper, which is so necessary to self-satisfaction and enjoyment. Men of retirement and speculation, who are apt to sit brooding at home over either grief or resentment, though they may often have more humanity, more generosity, and a nicer sense of honour, yet seldom possess that equality of temper which is so common among men of the world.

Would that this were so. Still, Smith's plea for decency and the stress he lays upon sympathy - what we might more usually refer to as empathy - is instructive. A pair of observations: firstly, sympathy (or empathy) is the most important quality the historian needs. History may be built upon the accumulation of "facts" but they're nothing without the imagination - the sympathy - for the past that allows the historian to appreciate that the consequences of a given decision or course of action may tell us little about why or how that decision or policy was chosen. Unless he has the historical imagination and sympathy to see, as vest he can, the past as it would have seemed or appeared to those living at the time then the historian is sunk.

Similarly, the lack of sympathy for ones opponents' point of view is the most wearisome element of contemporary political discussion. Of course politics is and should necessarily be divisive: the clash of opinions is energising. What demeans civil discourse, however, is the routine assumptions of bad faith one witnesses on both sides of the political divide - assumptions that often seem to be cast in concrete in the blogosphere. Worse than this, mind you, is the sense one gets that good faith or simple honest disagreement is actually impossible. Thus one sees priggish folk spluttering "I'd thought Joe X was that all-but extinct bird: the honest conservative/liberal. More fool me. He's just another hack..." The presumption of bad faith isn't just boring, its draining and exhausting.

The blogosphere is a splendid place and not the least of its charms is that there's a corner for just about everyone no matter what their perspective may be. So it's unfortunate then so many people - especially amongst the popular and the powerful - should be so reluctant to allow imagination or sympathy into their world. They would be better off if they did and so, cumulatively, would we all. Generosity of spirit, after all, is one of the most attractive of human qualities.

Mr - or rather Professor - Smith shows us the way...

I am very happy to debate David Altig, Andrew Samwick, Tyler Cowen, Alex Tabarrok, Bruce Bartlett, William Polley, Greg Mankiw, Jane Galt, Arnold Kling, Bryan Caplan, and many others on the more conservative side of the political fence, well, most of the time anyway - we all have our moments. (I just know I forgot to include you - my apologies for the oversight.) It can be irritating and frustrating, debates are like that, but they argue honestly. They are on the sidebar as RSS feeds for good reason (except for Bruce Bartlett who doesn't have a blog), they have things to say that are worth listening to even if I don't always or even rarely agree.

But there are others I call hacks because they are hacks and I have little sympathy for them. The presumption of bad faith is well-earned and I refuse to treat this group in the same way I treat those listed above. I'm often asked why I bother even trying to rebut these people. The answer is "Little Lies." This group tries to create uncertainty about results, or asserts that there is support for policies that they favor when the support just isn't there if you understand the models and evidence. They create noise, uncertainty, fuzziness about academic work, sometimes it looks like they just make stuff up. With their public platforms they are able to create enough uncertainty and confusion so as to make it difficult for non-experts to sort out what is and isn't supported by the evidence. And it works. They've managed to make false rebuttals of important work appear as routine partisan squabbling and are often given an equal voice in the media.

I think we need to do whatever we can to help to overcome this intentional fuzziness even if there are those who think it's a waste of time. It's a hard call sometimes - you don't want to give some of these people a voice and help their cause along by noting their attempts to cloud the issues, but for those with a large public forum the alternative is to let these Little Lies remain in the public discourse uncontested and I don't think that's the best way to proceed. Change will take time and it will be frustratingly slow, but somebody, and the more of us that do it the better, has to be willing to let people - reporters, the public, and so on - know who they can trust for honest answers, and who is simply promoting particular ideological positions without regard to the veracity or strength of the evidence supporting the assertions. If that process appears shrill and uncomfortable, so be it, it's uncomfortable to do, at least for me, but that's no reason to back down from rebutting as forcefully as we possibly can the attempts to cloud the public discourse with misleading and false presentations of economic results.

    Posted by on Thursday, April 26, 2007 at 11:28 AM in Economics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (25)

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