Sympathy for Affliction: Adam Smith and Charles Dickens

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Richard Gunderman for AdamSmithWorks

July 5, 2023

"For Smith, the moral imagination enables us not only to know what others are experiencing but to become 'in some measure the same person.' So highly developed is this capacity that theatergoers who are in no danger will jump out of their seats when something on the screen startles them, and many a reader of novels has wept or rejoiced right along with one of the characters."
Each year for more than a decade, I took the graduate students in my Indiana University “Ethics of Philanthropy” course to see a stage production of Charles Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol.” The protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge, is man who over time has been corrupted by greed, to the point that he sees in other people little more than their net effect on his balance sheet. Another character who appears in relatively few scenes yet exerts an outsize influence on the narrative is “Tiny Tim,” the crippled son of Scrooge’s underpaid and abused clerk, Bob Cratchit. It is Tiny Tim, more than any other character, who catalyzes Scrooge’s transformation from a shriveled miser into a joyful benefactor.
On some readings of Adam Smith, such a transformation might seem both disingenuous and undesirable. After all, Scrooge the miser has accumulated a great deal of capital, which he puts to use in amassing even more. From Smith’s point of view, it is perfectly right that those who generate wealth should continue doing so, moved as if by an invisible hand to serve the larger interests of society. Scrooge has no interest in charity, which would only divert capital from productive uses and sustain idleness. When told by a charity worker that the poor would rather die than go to prisons and workhouses, he responds, “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
Some readers of Smith would agree that it is in society’s best interest that those who provide what other people are willing to pay for should prosper, while those who find no buyer should suffer. Over time, such a system not only rewards contributors but also schools the unsuccessful to mend their ways. But what would Smith himself say of those who, like Tiny Tim, sally forth in life with a handicap of one kind of another, one which limits or perhaps even forecloses entirely their opportunity to become productive members of society? Should “survival of the fittest” be invoked as a rationale for allowing the weak to meet their “natural” end through poverty, starvation, and death?
That Smith is a strong advocate for competition there can be little doubt. In Wealth of Nations, he writes,
In general, if any branch of trade, or any division of labor, be advantageous to the public, the freer and more general the competition, it will always be the more so.” Even though competition always produces winners and losers, and individual losers suffer as a result, the net effect is to the public benefit. “No human wisdom of knowledge could ever be sufficient” to substitute for such free competition, and to promote it and the public welfare that springs from it, every man should be “left perfectly free to pursue his own interest in his own way.
Yet what provision, if any, would Smith have us make for the Tiny Tims of the world – those who, through no fault of their own, cannot compete on an equal footing with the able-bodied? And what of those who, while laboring under no physical disability, suffer from mental deficits or mental illness? To find Smith’s answer, we must turn from his best-known work, Wealth of Nations, to his earlier and more philosophically significant work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. For it is here that he develops one of his most important concepts, sympathy. It turns out that even the self-interested care not only for themselves but also for others.
Smith would agree with Aristotle’s suggestion that human beings are innately social or political creatures. In sharp contrast to the “state of nature” accounts of political life we associate with Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, Smith has no use for a hypothetical state in which human beings were once isolated from one another, and then, for whatever prospective advantage, chose to band together to form communities. To the contrary, for Smith we have no moral conscience and therefore no real humanity except by encountering one another. We come to know ourselves by learning to see through the eyes of others, eventually internalizing the notion of what he calls an “impartial spectator” as moral judge.
Just as we see ourselves as others see us, so we see ourselves in others. We can imagine what it would be like to walk in another person’s shoes, so to speak, as when someone experiences great misfortune or great joy. To be sure, this capacity is imperfect, and we never suffer or rejoice so deeply as the person with whom we sympathize. Yet we both know and feel, to some extent, what other people are experiencing, and in so doing, their experiences are both accessible and a matter of genuine concern to each of us. To be unable to enter into the experiences of others in this way would be to lack a conscience, and in a sense, to be less than human.
Consider Smith’s account of someone enduring torture:
By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him. His agonies, when they are thus brought home to ourselves, when we have thus adopted and made them our own, begin at last to affect us, and we then tremble and shudder at the thought of what he feels.
For Smith, the moral imagination enables us not only to know what others are experiencing but to become “in some measure the same person.” So highly developed is this capacity that theatergoers who are in no danger will jump out of their seats when something on the screen startles them, and many a reader of novels has wept or rejoiced right along with one of the characters. What we mean by a morally good person has a lot to do with this capacity to feel and to know what others are experiencing, to look at situations from their points of view, and to draw appropriate moral judgments based on such understanding.
Yet this sympathy is not uniformly distributed. When we look at a painting, we perceive large objects as nearby and small objects as far away, and so too, when we regard the world around us, we tend to see as more momentous things in relatively close proximity to us. Smith drives this point home by imagining how someone might react to news reports of a natural disaster in some far-flung corner of the earth.
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 labors 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. To prevent, therefore, this paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them? Human nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it. But what makes this difference? When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble? When we are always so much more deeply affected by whatever concerns ourselves, than by whatever concerns other men; what is it which prompts the generous, upon all occasions, and the mean upon many, to sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others? It is not the soft power of humanity, it is not that feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love.
To those who prize Smith primarily as an unabashed advocate of self-interest and free markets, it is easy to read this passage skeptically. Smith talks a good game about fellow-feeling and benevolence, but he is too much of realist not to admit that, when push comes to shove, most people care far more about themselves and those close to them than they do anyone else. They may indeed find themselves donating to disaster relief funds, but the best interests of society are served not by giving to charity but by investing wisely, thereby both augmenting personal wealth and, by virtue of the invisible hand, serving the public welfare.
But this is not what Smith intends. Smith knows that, while we may not be able to care about a stranger in China as deeply as our next-door neighbor, we can nonetheless be moved by accounts of such suffering. For this potential to be realized, we must first know of their existence. Secondly, we need to know what they are going through. And third, as we understand their travails more deeply, our capacity to care is enhanced. This is where Smith’s limitations as a philosopher come into sharp relief. For Smith is indeed writing philosophy, not poetry, or drama, or literature. Working in this mode, he can convey us only so far into another person’s experience.
Other forms of discourse, however, are not so limited. For example, a novelist – especially a great one – can provide us with a much deeper understanding of another person’s situation, even to the point that we sometimes feel more sympathy for a literary character than for an actual person. Just as for Smith at the core of our moral nature lies the moral imagination, so imaginative literature has the capacity to engage, deepen, and educate our moral faculties. To elicit a philanthropic response to the plight of Chinese earthquake victims, it is not enough to rack up statistics about numbers of casualties and dollars of damage. We need to encounter the faces and stories of one or more of the afflicted.
And here is where a writer like Dickens can perform a real service, not only to Smith but also to humanity. For Dickens’ portrait of Tiny Tim engages the sympathy, the moral imagination of his readers. In so doing, he is not committing some fanciful betrayal of the buying and selling that constitute the real foundation of human existence. Far from it, he is summoning forth and developing one of the best parts of humanity – our ability to see the world from other persons’ points of view and experience life as they do. Dickens is not a mere sentimentalist, appealing to human weakness. Instead, he is exercising perhaps our most important faculty, our moral imagination.
The particularities of Tiny Tim’s life are crucial. His family is large and poor. They can barely afford to feed themselves, and tending properly to Tiny Tim’s illness is far beyond their means. Tiny Tim himself is small and walks with a crutch. When we first meet him, he is being carried on his father’s shoulders, symbolizing both the burden he represents to his family and, despite his utter lack of productivity, the family’s great devotion to him. According to the ghost of Christmas Present, the family’s poverty will result in the boy’s death. When Scrooge finally comes to his senses, having seen firsthand how little his life would have amounted to, his first concern is to know whether he can still make a difference for Tiny Tim.
Dickens’ Tiny Tim calls forth what is best in us, in a way Smith’s philosophical treatise can allude to but never capture. This is not to say that Smith or philosophy is somehow inferior to Dickens or imaginative literature. Both have vital roles to play. But if we are to engage and develop the moral imagination to the fullest extent, we need to feed it a truly balanced diet, including both the conceptual clarity and elegance of philosophy and the intimacy and poignancy of literature. We need to know both the human, an account at which Smith excels, and the person, which is Dickens’ forte. The composite nature of human beings requires multiple accounts.
Consider again their respective contributions. Writes Smith of his impartial spectator, upon whom we depend for our capacity to keep our personal concerns in perspective, 
It is he who shows the propriety of generosity and the deformity of injustice; the propriety of resigning the greatest interests of our own, for the yet greater interests of others; and the deformity of doing the smallest injury to another, in order to obtain the greatest benefit to ourselves.
Notwithstanding Smith’s defense of political and economic liberty, if we are to our best selves, we must see ourselves not as the center of the universe but as parts of a larger whole, against which our own interests must be balanced.
Dickens shows us through Tiny Tim why we should not only tolerate but also celebrate the presence of the disabled in our midst. Says Bob Cratchit, his father,
Somehow he gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas day who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.
Tiny Tim has as many reasons as one could imagine to regard himself as a member of the “surplus population” and wallow in self-pity or self-condemnation. Yet he thinks not of himself but others, offering them his own diminished life as an opportunity to find their own true calling. Who, Dickens asks in a way Smith cannot, are the Tiny Tims in our own life, and how are we reaching out to them?
Herein lies an important lesson for my philanthropy students. While philosophical analysis can contribute a great deal to our understanding of the nature, purposes, and outcomes of giving, it alone cannot fully engage or develop the moral excellence of generosity. To give fully and freely, we need to understand in some depth the particular opportunity before us, and this relies more on the education of the moral imagination than mere economic considerations. Earning, spending, giving away, and receiving all play important roles in enabling generosity, but its inspiration must come from the narratives of those we aim to help.