Take Time to See the Harmony

with Amy Willis

June 10, 2019

We had a thoroughly lovely evening last Tuesday in Indianapolis, when we welcomed EconTalk host Russ Roberts to Liberty Fund to deliver one of our Adam Smith lectures. Russ’s talk, “The Hidden Harmonies of Everyday Life,” developed a theme he’s been exploring for several years now. While it seems that our world is growing ever more angry and uncivil, Russ offered a welcome reminder of how many things there are to celebrate in the simplicity of every day.

In describing Smith’s work, Roberts suggested it might be boiled down to one simple question: “Why are we nice to each other?” 

Part of the answer for Roberts is harmony. In an EconTalk episode with Smith scholars Vernon Smith and James Otteson Russ asks, “Why is there so much harmony in our lives? There's so much harmony in our lives we don't even think about it as a question to ask, because we take it for granted that we can sit around with people at a table and joke and laugh and interact and socialize and have a pleasant conversation.” I do take for granted the very pleasant interactions I have every day, don’t you? Can you think of all the people with whom you’ve transacted today? Both socially and commercially?

Humans, it seems, are wired to remember negative experiences more than we remember the positive. Is this why it’s sometimes so hard to catalog all the positive interactions we have with others? I remember the name of the Uber driver who stranded me at LaGuardia last week; but I have no idea about the names of the ten other drivers I’ve ridden with since. Similarly, the shirt my husband shrank in the laundry is gnawing at me far more than all the lovely things he’s done for me since (not to mention helping with the laundry!).

Our tendency to focus on the negative reminds me- what about those times when our social harmony is out of whack? I mean, we haven’t always all gotten along. In another EconTalk episode with Otteson, Otteson explains:
All of us genuinely desire to see our own sentiments, our own thoughts, feelings, judgments, whatever they are about the things we care about--we want to see those echoed in other people we care about. He thinks that's just a fact of human nature. So, the sympathy of sentiments you and I have--it's not that I feel sorry for you. Sympathy means more harmony. Harmony or concord--those are other words he uses. So, if you and I go to a lecture, and the lecturer is giving a talk and I lean over to you during the lecture and say: Boy, this guy's full of it. And you say: I actually think it's brilliant. Well, then we are not having a sympathy of sentiments. Then we are having an antipathy of sentiments. Or, to take an issue of morality, if somebody sitting in the front row takes a phone call and I say: Boy, that's rude. And you say: Well, come on, sometimes you have to call. That would be another example of where we would be unsympathetic with each other and I would have been unsympathetic with the caller's decision to take the call.

How about this one? I was at a show at the Shubert Theater in New York last weekend, and the usher came to my friends and me midway through the first act admonishing us to quiet our devices. Yet all our devices were powered off and stashed in handbags. We were not in sympathy with said usher.

Maybe I need to think about that moment again, though. The usher made a mistake. My friends and I were behaving correctly. We weren’t the ones causing the disturbance, and we were embarrassed to be accused of doing so. But it has to be hard to pick out the cell phone offenders in the middle of a packed theater. It was an honest mistake. 

So even though we were embarrassed and mad, and even though the usher thought we were misbehaving, no one punched anyone. No one even yelled. We may not have sympathized with the usher’s accusations against us, but we did sympathize with her desire for a quiet auditorium. We weren’t in perfect harmony, but we were in enough harmony for all of us to enjoy the rest of the show.

Have you found times when an imperfect sympathy or an uneasy harmony can be enough? Do you think Adam Smith allows room for that as well?

Shal Marriott

I’m curious as well about the idea of patience in the discussion on sympathy. It seems to me that sometimes we expect an immediate response from people, that prevents them from pause and reflection before speaking. Such as if a waiter makes a mistake on our order at a restaurant, and we challenge them immediately about it - expecting a quick response.

Perhaps this might also be a source of our difficulty sympathizing at times. For example, if after realizing our sweater is destroyed in the wash we paused and took a moment and made an effort to focus our energy on a positive of that day instead, it might temper our initial burst of passion. It might require more effort but maybe it would enable us to sympathize better with those who wronged us?

Amy Willis

That's a great point about patience, Shal. We learn from Smith, at least indirectly, that the impartial spectator must weigh a number of factors, such as an actor's intentions, the volubility of their sentiments, etc., before he can render judgment. The more interesting question might be how MUCH time? And how much time for the impartial spectator to arrive at a judgment about his OWN conduct versus the conduct of others? Thanks- I hadn't thought about this before!

Shal Marriott

I think it might be one of those things that varies based on the people involved and the situation. But I think it’s safe to say that some emotions we are quicker to enter into than others, and perhaps the ones that we enter into immediate are the ones most as risk for being misguided?

Being immediately excited for example, at good news, is something that we are often quick to enter into. And that’s appropriate conduct in many cases, such as a friend announcing an engagement. Compare this to being in a rush on the way to work and driving behind a slow driver. Some of us would be quick to anger, which upon reflection may have been unnecessary and not what the impartial spectator would have done.

Perhaps we ought to be concerned about our negative passions, since they are most likely to create a barrier between us and others and therefore hinder our ability to sympathize?

Jon Murphy

Very good stuff. I think your experience with the usher also highlights another point Smith makes about merit and demerit. He points out that if we unjustly receive demerit, and even if that demerit is believed by all our friends and family, we take solace that, in the end, God (or the "all seeing Judge"; Smith never uses the word "God," so this is a little of me imputing my own perceptions onto Smith) will know our true merit and give the honor we had lost (see TMS, pgs. 130-132).

So, your happiness is restored not only through the sentiment with the usher (although that is part of it), but knowing that, though the demerit be unjust, it is not earned and thus you will be ultimately vindicated.

Alice Temnick

While I'm far from being a master at it, patience has improved many social circumstances for me at this point in my life and teaching career. I think I gained practice through the 'wait time' I slowly learned to embrace in the classroom that enables a chosen student the time to formulate a response. Fellow students learn to not blurt out or otherwise assist the called upon student until an appropriate amount of time has been offered after they get used to the practice. I've heard from and learned more about introverts and had to change assumptions about who may or may not have a conversation gem to contribute.

Amy Willis

Alice, I love the example of wait time here! One of the hardest pedagogical skills to master...who knew how looooong 10 seconds can feel?

Jon, you're right about unjust demerit, and thanks for the citation.

P.S. Alice was with me in the theater! ;-)