Of Jerks and Justice

by Janet S. Bufton

August 5, 2019

By Carolita Johnson for The New Yorker

In Part 1, Section 1, Chapter 2 of The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS), Adam Smith writes: 
"Love is an agreeable; resentment, a disagreeable passion; and accordingly we are not half so anxious that our friends should adopt our friendships, as that they should enter into our resentments. We can forgive them though they seem to be little affected with the favours which we may have received, but lose all patience if they seem indifferent about the injuries which may have been done to us: nor are we half so angry with them for not entering into our gratitude, as for not sympathizing with our resentment. They can easily avoid being friends to our friends, but can hardly avoid being enemies to those with whom we are at variance." (I.i.2)

Tribalism seems such an ascendant feature of political life that many are surprised that so contemporary an observation can come from an 18th century text. Is it a truism about our moral sentiments and human nature, or a phenomenon that might wax and wane given the circumstances in which we interact with one another? 

To probe this question it’s worth asking why we may not be able to suffer our friends’ friendship with our enemies. Smith continues, 
“We seldom resent their being at enmity with the first, though upon that account we may sometimes affect to make an awkward quarrel with them; but we quarrel with them in good earnest if they live in friendship with the last. The agreeable passions of love and joy can satisfy and support the heart without any auxiliary pleasure. The bitter and painful emotions of grief and resentment more strongly require the healing consolation of sympathy.”

In other words, it might be awkward if our friends dislike our friends, but it’s unbearable if they like those against whom we feel resentment. 

To Smith, resentment is not something we can ever feel for mere want of charity or kindness (what he calls “beneficence”), but is felt in response to violation of justice. The “violation of justice is injury: it does real and positive hurt to some particular persons, from motives which are naturally disapproved of.” (II.ii.1)

Many insights from TMS can be explored if we think about the way that our sentiments are first developed—one of the great things about teaching TMS to adolescents is that they are actually building their own sense of sympathy and justice. This can put the high-stakes nature of teenaged friendships and rivalries in a new light. 

When you’re 16 and it’s harder to understand why break-ups happen and what justice demands, it’s normal to disavow a best friend’s ex (and all her friends). But by the time you’re in your thirties? In nearly all cases among grown-ups experience has taught us that this is more the realm of awkward moments than resentment. 

Maturity and resilience are important to maintaining the perspective we need to determine who—and what—is beyond the pale. We needn’t like everyone, but enemies shouldn’t be made lightly. Not every disagreement should kindle resentment. In fact, the best friends ought to challenge us, holding our conduct to a higher standard than they would if they were always to agree with us. 

With this in mind, we can re-examine the widening partisan divide. Something about the political environment we’re in today lumps more questions into the realm of justice and outside the realm of good behaviour. Whether it is the perceived lack of patriotism decried by the right or the perceived lack of concern about racism from the left, failure to sufficiently conform is thought to call not just someone’s actions, but their very character into question. 

It’s possible to be a jerk without ever violating the laws of justice. Justice isn’t enough to make the world good—it’s the bare minimum we need to keep it from falling apart. We should encourage people to go beyond what justice demands, but, Smith would caution us, we shouldn’t demand from them more than a well-developed sense of justice would.

More sober consideration of what constitutes a violation of justice is needed across the political spectrum. It can’t get us to a point at which we’re reaching across the aisle to make friends, but it can at least remind us that condemnation by affiliation is something that ought seldom be used. Except for in cases of the most questionable associations, individuals deserve to be judged on their own thoughts and behaviour.