Disaster Relief: What Would Adam Smith Do?

By Jonathan B. Wight and Douglas A. Hicks | The Christian Science Monitor, January 18, 2005 | Go to article overview

Disaster Relief: What Would Adam Smith Do?


Jonathan B. Wight and Douglas A. Hicks, The Christian Science Monitor


An earthquake kills more than 150,000 people in Asia. How should we as individuals respond? Is government obliged to help those in need simply because they are members of society? Should the private market or the government take charge of relief? These questions were posed by Adam Smith, the Scottish moral philosopher and promoter of markets, in 1759. Like his questions, his answers also resound today.

Contrary to popular myth, Smith did not endorse selfish individualism. The issue of assistance for others was real and germane, especially in times of calamity.

Smith posed this prescient scenario: "Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity."

Smith says this humane person would show sorrow and regret at the loss of precious life. Yet, after pausing to lament this tragedy, he would return to his own routine of work or leisure, without having changed the way he acts or thinks in his own life.

Even worse, Smith says that if the same person were "to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren."

This analysis might seem cynical, suggesting that apathy, not compassion, lies in the heart of man. But this is not what Smith means. He is emphasizing that humans are limited in the ability to sympathize - or empathize - in today's language. Smith was telling us that as much as we might feel sorry for unfortunate people halfway around the world, our genuine sympathy might not reach that far.

Smith was one of the great believers in the power of the moral imagination. Selfishness is at times overcome by even stronger passions for benevolence and justice - but only when we can experience the passions of others. To Smith, the moral imagination awakens our conscience - "the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct" - that calls us to action.

The events in the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami over these past three weeks have shown us that Smith's account of moral sentiments still resonates, only more so due to the reach and impact of television. …

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