"He Will Snore with the Most Profound Security Over the Ruin of a Hundred Millions of His Brethren..."

Adam Smith (yes, the Adam Smith) on the most problematic facet of human moral psychology, how the incomprehensible suffering of humanity cannot compete with our workday hassles and preoccupations:

"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. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquility as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep tonight; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own."

--Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments

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18 thoughts on “"He Will Snore with the Most Profound Security Over the Ruin of a Hundred Millions of His Brethren..."”

  1. Well, what about it? Shall we take every bit of food in our pantries, every dollar of our bank accounts, and donate it to the poor? (I know Jesus recommended this to a rich man in one single instance, but I don't think it was meant as a general rule.)

    If we spent all our time and effort helping the less fortunate, where would technological progress come from? Progress in efficency and logistics comes from investment, and progress has improved more lives than charity every did. Charity didn't build your fridge. Charity didn't invent the computer. These items come from the pursuit of personal profit, from self-interest.

    I know it's not Biblical, but I think "enlightened self-interest" is the best form of public morality. That means growth, but not growth that comes from backstabbing others. The best thing for me is ultimately the best thing for others, and the best thing for others is the best thing for me.

    For example, it wasn't just Alexander Flemming who benefited from the discovery and production of penicilin. It would come to be a benefit to everyone and nowadays it's so cheap to manufacture that most of the world's population has access to this basic antibiotic.

  2. I think a person should be able to think of other people as people, so that losing his own little finger would be felt as a smaller tragedy than another person losing his life.

    But it seems that the ability to screen out or operate normally regardless of the suffering of people outside of our circle is somehow necessary. Because why should we limit our complaint to a tragedy that befalls millions? Isn't the tragedy that befalls a single person also terrible, and worthy of our empathy and anguish? And if that's the case, how would any moral human being be able to operate? It seems like we would just be crushed by despair.

  3. Richard -

    I would be interested in your perspective as a psychologist on this question.

    It seems to me the ability to distance ourselves from the immeasurable suffering of all of humanity is an important and necessary defense mechanism to prevent an overwhelming sense despair and helplessness. Don't we have to be able to shut out some degree of the vastness of the concurrent facts of tremendous human tragedy and tremendous personal inadequacy to meet that need?

    I would think there's some middle ground, though, between complete "head-in-the-sand" willful ignorance/conceited apathy and utter psychological exsanguination.

    Richard Stearns' reflections in "The Hole in Our Gospel" hints at this - acknowledging the immensity of human need and pain, but developing some kind of protective sense of our own ability to do much about it - while not giving up on doing *something* about it. I have to be able to lay my head down at night and fall asleep in order to rise the next day and do something to help the suffering. If I cannot do this, my ability to make much positive difference will be severely truncated either in its duration or its efficacy or, likely, both.

    The rub, it seems, is finding the "right" place between the two ends of the spectrum - utter surrender and exhaustion and demoralization in "doing something" and complete ignorance and sociopathy toward the problem. How much is enough, in other words?

    I think you may have written on this some time ago. Intellectually, an argument can be made (a la Dammerung above) that we must give everything and all if we are to fully follow through on our ideals as Christians. But we also recognize the impractical and self-defeating nature of such a pursuit.

  4. Jeff said...

    Can you think of a line of demarcation for charity becoming harmful that is sound morally, Biblicaly, and economically?

    I think I can demonstrate one - when it becomes compulsary under threat of violence. Donating money by choice to a hospital is a sound demonstration of personal values. Having the government tax you at gunpoint to give for medical treatment for the "less fortunate" is not.

    What liberals seem to refuse to recognize in this debate is that all of their grand social schemes are backed by somebody with a gun pounding on your door and demanding money. And I'm not speaking metaphorically

  5. The weight of the whole world can't be carried by any one person. But how does God decide who gets what life? There's no such thing as a "level playing field," even if the thing can be ideally imagined.

  6. @Dammerung
    Enh, libertarians are too idealistic. We want to live in a certain sort of society, and we pass laws to levy taxes, and we spend that money in ways that we hope encourage that sort of society. And yes, those laws are enforced with guns if necessary. But if we do not like these laws, we change them.

    In my opinion, we're currently sitting at a pretty nice place with regard to both taxation and the rule of law. But hey, I like paying taxes.

    That's an good question. I think that, among other things, a realistic view of the suffering of other human beings means that we take it seriously enough to seriously question the culpability of God in the whole mess.

  7. We have to filter some of the horror. Otherwise we'd be all be in permanent crisis and unable to function. Doctors learn this early. Be humane, do what you can, but we can't bleed every time someone else bleeds. None of us has enough blood. We have to focus on the small group we can help -- our families and close friends. We're not helping anyone by going into paroxysms of sympathetic suffering every time someone else is hurt. That would just leave leave us in need of the comfort and assistance that should be given to those who are in real pain.

  8. What's idealistic about wanting to live peacefully without people making demands on you with the threat of violence? Isn't it idealistic instead to believe that violence can engender morality and social cohesion?

    45. Jesus said, "Grapes are not harvested from thorn trees, nor are figs gathered from thistles, for they yield no fruit.

    Good persons produce good from what they've stored up; bad persons produce evil from the wickedness they've stored up in their hearts.

    Jesus didn't appear to believe that Goodness could be derived from Roman law, but instead, from character.

    In my opinion this is another one of those discussions that goes back to economics. Christians ought to have a solid understanding of economic theory, because it's how human beings relate peaceably to one another. The dollar allows us to exchange things for mutual benefit, and obtain something we want from someone else without using force.

    This is economics. People in darkest Africa suffer because of bad economics. People prosper when they are allowed the freedom to do so. Economic prosperity cushions the blow of natural disasters, offers a response to diseases, and gives people a better chance at a happy, healthy life. Prosperity doesn't come from government fiat but from free people seeking to better their lives. Tragedy is usually imposed on people, by force.

  9. >What's idealistic about wanting to live peacefully without people making demands on you with the threat of violence?

    To be more specific, you're idealistic about the Eden that such a hands-off government would produce, as well as about the perfectly beneficial power of markets and the dollar.

    I agree, such an arrangement would be preferable if the world were suddenly full of virtuous people. Sadly, it's not, and so we have an organic, patched-together, imperfect government that, in my opinion, works surprisingly well.

  10. >>To be more specific, you're idealistic about the Eden that such a hands-off government would produce, as well as about the perfectly beneficial power of markets and the dollar.

    Not a chance. Pompeii was a prosperous, free city destroyed in minutes. The bubonic plague was caused in part by roaming merchants. So no, characteristic of life in this world is the potential for tragedy. We have to have compassion for the victims of tragedy without being destroyed by it, as other posters have noted.

    >>so we have an organic, patched-together, imperfect government that, in my opinion, works surprisingly well.

    Ask your average Iraqi how they feel about how "surprisingly well" your government works. Or kids in jail for an eighth of weed. Or urban blacks who have been chained to welfare for generations. Or Jose Padilla, or Amadou Diallo, or Anwar al-Awlaki, or Sami al-Haj, or Maher Arar, or.... well, I could continue with names for hours.

  11. @Dammerung

    > Not a chance.

    I still think your earlier post is unjustifiably market-happy.

    > Ask your average Iraqi how they feel about how "surprisingly well" your government works.

    About these things, I agree. United States citizens are imperfect, and acting through our government, we've hurt a lot of people. But what form of government can ensure, with perfect certainty, that these sorts of things will never happen? Do you have an alternative in mind?

  12. I think it is obvious that we need some sort of repressive mechanism to keep our day to day sanity in the face of consistent and catastrophic suffering. My goal in posting the quote wasn't to suggest that we should (or could) live without this repressive mechanism. It was, rather, to highlight that this mechanism exists and that, while adaptive, it poses a bit (to put it mildly) of a challenge to living as a humane and moral person. We need to find a way to toggle on or off this feature of the mind.

    Too often, IMHO, we just leave the toggle switched to "off."

  13. "What's idealistic about wanting to live peacefully without people making demands on you with the threat of violence?"

    The fact that many, if not most people, will not live peacefully if they are not faced with the threat of violence. Also that the threat of violence (principally through taxation and the rule of law) enables you to live peacefully in the first place, as well as enabling others to do so who may not have had the opportunity otherwise.

  14. Dr. Beck, I just explored this very question (sort of. obliquely.) on my blog, and since my own post went at it with both fists pummeling into the existentialist punching bag, I thought I would request that you have a look-see and tell me what you think. If the first sixteen and a half words don't grab you, please don't give it a second thought. Cheerio.

  15. I read a study recently about fundraising for charities (sorry I can't remember the source). The study was about what motivated giving. What they found was that if statistics about the problem were used to describe the need they (the study was done across several organizations) raised significantly less than if stories about individuals affected by the same situation were used to show the need. In fact if both statistics and stories were intermingled it actually performed less affectively than the stories alone.

    The conclusion as far as this study was concerned (this study doesn't "prove" the point) is that statistics and stories engage different parts of the brain, with the stories engaging the part that tends toward empathy and compassion rather than analysis.

    Makes sense to me in my experience.


  16. You sound surprised, or you apparently think your readers will be surprised, to hear such morally observant thinking from a father of economic conservatism. {cf., "Adam Smith (yes, the Adam Smith)"} *sigh* Once again, the tiresome, boilerplate caricature that liberals love to draw - implicitly, tacitly, but all too actually - of conservatives as moral knuckle-draggers.

    The differences are not at the levels of compassion or social observation. They are at the pragmatic level of METHODS and MEANS and LONG-TERM EFFECTS, as modified by POLITICAL STRUCTURES and CONSTITUTIONAL CONSTRAINTS. It should surprise noone - with the possible exception of myopic, liberal ideologues - that Adam Smith would say such a thing.


  17. QB, take ur meds.

    Richard, Smith's observations align well with my own, and perhaps everyone else I know. Locality limits and defines our ability to help and empathize. But as new communication tools continue to make the world a smaller place, global is becoming the new local - or "glocal" as Roland Robertson calls it.

    I suggest we're already seeing generational shifts in thinking about global / borderless citizenship, panoptic community, socially-motivated ventures, and such. Maybe this trend will help us balance our material comforts with those who live lives of squalor and suffering. We're in beta on a venture that bridges global needs with people looking to serve (compathos.tv).

    I also see this as an ecclesial change. Relentless global compression (Internet, etc.) is moving us away from localized notions of "us and them." Institutions, denominations, all of the inherited borders that have kept us ideologically safe from "others" are being made less relevant by a new, deeply interconnecting global ecclesia.

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