Social Cohesion and Economic Prosperity

division of labor sympathy education civil society

Aviral Chawla for AdamSmithWorks

August 3, 2022

Fractured societies will be less able to benefit from the prosperity that's possible with a more cohesive social existence. Smith saw this and offers his conception of "sympathy" and recommendations on education of the lowers classes as  way to bridge the gaps between people. 
The division of labor is one of the centerpieces of Adam Smith's An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Wealth of Nations). Division of labor, by dividing manufacturing processes into simpler parts, allows for the higher productivity and cheaper goods. It is one of the key factors that fuels the growth of any developing nation. The idea and execution of the division of labor is critical to any semblance of civil society and luxury. Not only that, Smith considers division of labor unavoidable. However, the division of labor is not without its deleterious effects. The goal of this essay is to explore the moral structure and need for social cohesion in Smith’s Economic philosophy.

While discussing the consequences of the division of labor, Smith says:
The torpor of his mind renders him, not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life.
 Para. 45, Article 2nd, Chapter I, Book V, Vol. 2

In contrast to an economic concern, Smith shows a moral concern for the poor citizens under the division of labor. According to him, a poor person will not be able to form “tender sentiments” in the course of their private life. Smith’s concern for everybody’s ability to partake in a rational conversation with a fellow citizen demonstrates his interest and importance in the value of social cohesion following the consequences of the division of labor.

The argument from “ordinary duties of private life” points us to Smith’s work in Theory of Moral Sentiments. This book revolves around the elementary unit of social cohesion: sympathy. Smith begins:
How selfish soever man may be supposed, 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.
Para. 1, Chapter I, Part I
In the Wealth of Nations, selfishness is a machine for economic prosperity. The wheels of division of labor run primarily on the axiom that we have a selfish propensity to trade what we want in exchange for something we want less. For as long as we can be counted on to always trade with our private interest in mind, we will always keep the wheels of division of labor moving. Smith acknowledges the selfish sentiments in human condition, but adds another axiom, stating that despite everything, humans have a necessary tendency that keeps us interested in each other beyond satisfying our material needs. We have the desire to both feel sympathy and garner sympathy from others; this conclusion is axiomatic for Smith because it is self-evident. He takes it as a given that as humans, we have an interest in seeing other people happy.

Sympathy works on the ability for men to put themselves in the place of another. Since they cannot physically be in the position of another, they rely on their imagination to form sympathies. (Para. 2, Chapter I, Part I) The dependence of sympathy on imagination makes it a delicate moral sentiment, and an important one too. Smith notes that “whatever may be the cause of sympathy, or however it may be excited, nothing pleases us more than to observe in other men a fellow-feeling with all the emotions of our own breast; nor are we ever so much shocked as by the appearance of the contrary.”(Para. 1, Chapter II, Part I) Sympathy is not only universal, but also very desirable. We all desire that our counterparts sympathize with our sufferings and our happiness. However, the expression of sympathy must be in tune with our own feelings. If you crack a joke and nobody laughs, you are not prone to be particularly comfortable in the company of those people. Therefore, the correct sympathies and sharp imagination are the key to good company.

Why is it important to feel moral sentiments for others? For Smith, it is that having a sense of how they react to our own tells us whether we will gain the approval or disapproval of others for how we show our feelings. The first book of The Theory of Moral Sentiments is dedicated to an anatomy of how this works in practice. Although Smith begins with the idea that we self-evidently feel an interest in the way other humans experience happiness, he tacks on an important qualifier: because we can’t be instantly or physically transported into the minds and emotional centers of others, what we can feel for them has severe limitations: “Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers.” (Para. 2, Chapter I, Part I,) What follows from this is that if we are upon the rack, our brother will never really have a sense for what we suffer. Smith says that we must keep this in mind when we think about how we want to represent our feelings to others if we want to gain sympathy from them. If we are too melodramatic in our sufferings, people will find it hard to sympathize with us, because they will not be able to enter into the extreme emotions that we are displaying. They will find them, and us, off-putting.

The goal of Smith’s sympathy, which he states early in the book, is to learn how to “feel much for others and little for ourselves,”(Para. 5, Chapter V, Part I,) and we do this both by trying to raise our natural feelings for the sufferings of other people but we also realize how hard this really is in practice. Realizing how hard it is in practice will help us understand that others are not very capable of doing this for us. This will cause us to lower the pitch of our emotions. Smith describes this process in depth:
To see the emotions of [other people’s] hearts in every respect, beat time to his own...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.
Para. 6, Chapter IV, Part I

On the other hand, the person who wants to feel sympathy with another must 
“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”
Para. 5, Chapter IV, Part I 

Doing so will teach him how hard it is, and he will in turn be less melodramatic about his own feelings in the future. The point of all this lowering and raising of our emotions becomes clear when Smith writes about the emotional effect that it has on us. If we get good enough at putting ourselves in the place of others, both when we want sympathy from them and when we want to give it to them, it influences the way we experience our own sorrows and joys. In conclusion, it is our “sole consolation” to see our feelings in concord with our company, and that the consolation carries great weight in moving forward the social mechanics of a society. I think no other passage of Smith’s describes this as well as when he says, “How are the unfortunate relieved when they have found out a person to whom they can communicate their sorrows?” (Para. 3, Chapter II, Part I)

            The impact of the consolation arising from mutual sympathy contributes to the general tranquility and well-being of the population. Smith remarks, “Society and conversation, therefore, are the most powerful remedies for restoring the mind to its tranquility.”  We have observed so far that being in good company is the backbone of human happiness to a certain degree. There is nothing more important than sharing our sorrows. Smith says that while there are countless episodes of Philoctetes crying and fainting from pain, what excites us is not the pain of the foot but his solitude.(Para. 11, Chapter I, Part II) Therefore, the tragedy of Philoctetes was not in his physical suffering, the tragedy was in his isolation. We cannot sympathize with his incredible pain in his foot since we cannot imagine it. But we strongly sympathize with Philoctetes when he is unable to share his pain with anyone else. At the end, when he finds redemption and purpose, we, too, are relieved. Though his foot is still in pain, we are relieved that it will one day be healed. We imagine that happiness with Philoctetes.

Therefore, in the process of sharing our happiness and our sorrows with our peers, we find ourselves happy. Smith says, 
 “Sympathy enlivens joy and alleviates grief. It enlivens joy by presenting another source of satisfaction; and it alleviates grief by insinuating into the heart almost the only agreeable sensation which it is at that time capable of receiving.”
Para. 2, Chapter II, Part I 

The fortune to be able to share our joy and grief with our friends brings us tranquility. Like Philoctetes, if we were to live in isolation, our mind would be constantly plagued by the suffering of not being able to share our suffering. If we do not find an agreeable company, a company that does not laugh at our jokes or laughs too much, we still feel alienated. It is only under good society and good company that we can find tranquility in life. Social cohesion and social agreeableness like this become a human necessity, and by virtue of that also a political and social necessity.

When Smith remarks in The Wealth of Nations that the conditions of the poor make it unlikely that they will be able to feel the tender sentiments of private life, he is referring to the deficit of sympathy. That deficit comes about because of the limited opportunities that the occupation of the poor gives them to exercise the muscle of their imagination, which is necessary to form proper moral sentiments. The person with poor moral sentiments is unable to make sense of another’s sufferings and his own, or to view them with any kind of perspective. The lack of sympathy and imagination is most vivid when a person of acute imagination interacts with someone who lacks it. Smith says, “We blush for the impudence and rudeness of another, though he himself appears to have no sense of the impropriety of his own behaviour.”(Para. 10, Chapter I, Part I) We have all been in situations where we at times cringe at the behavior of a stranger. The reason we cringe, or blush, is because we imagine ourselves in that embarrassing situation. Even though the stranger may not have the imagination to understand the situation himself, our imagining of it for him makes the experience vivid to us. Perhaps we additionally despair that their lack of recognition of the impropriety of the behavior will mean that they will never correct it. We don’t want to spend time in the company of someone who makes us cringe, or who may never learn from their mistakes. Here it is clear that to have proper social bonds, people need to tune their imaginations well. They need to understand what is permitted and what is not. They need to understand how people in their company feel about their actions if they want other people to continue spending time with them.

As a consequence of the deficit of sympathy, Smith fears that the poor person under the division of labor is unable to form good company. They are unable to enjoy the most fundamental necessity that is needed for a tranquil life. But if the division of labor encourages these problems, it’s not as if societies that lack the division of labor don’t also have them. Sympathy is something that is lacking in Smith’s “barbarous” societies, as he makes clear in Part V of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. By virtue of their lifestyle and the need to scrabble for a bare subsistence, “savages” are continually reduced to their needs. They must fend for themselves and are responsible for their own survival. The savage is “in continual danger: he is often exposed to the greatest extremities of hunger, and frequently dies of pure want.”(Para. 9, Chapter II, Part V) By being in continual danger, they don’t get the opportunity to exercise their mutual sympathies. As a result, they don’t offer any sympathy to their neighbor and don’t expect any in return. “The weakness of love, which is so indulged in ages of humanity and politeness, is regarded among savages as the most unpardonable effeminacy.”(Para. 9, Chapter II, Part V) They are incapable of enjoying the delicacies of life like love. For Smith, people who live in a society that does not have a certain level of leisure and “opulence” must contend with the daily presence of much more physical violence. This need to cope with physical violence—and the expectation that they will cope with it—makes them less likely to pity themselves. Because they don’t pity themselves, they have trouble forming pity for others, or seeing the point of pity. 

Sympathy is a corrective that is only available to members of an advanced, commercial society. The trouble is that it may fail to form in members of the lowest classes, because they are subjected to the same kind of scrabble for existence that Smith’s savages in barbarous societies experience. This lack of sympathy makes it difficult for them to act appropriately (or with “propriety” as Smith says), which makes it difficult for their social betters to extend sympathy to them, or even recognize them as fully human members of their same society. The lack of social cohesion brings about a grave concern to the social and political stability of any nation. Consequently, Smith’s economic ideals of division of labor stand only so much as the social cohesion is sustained.

Author note: This essay is a revised and excerpted extract from, "The Moral Education of the Wealth of Nations: Smith’s Moral Argument for Public Education in a Free Market Economy," my senior essay (St. John's College, Santa Fe, 2022).