Updating Adam Smith

Amy Willis for AdamSmithWorks

May 25, 2020

Part 2 of a #ReadWithMe series

In my previous post, I shared some reflections on thus first two chapters of Sam Fleischacker’s terrific new book, Being Me Being You. In these, he provided a helpful explanation of what we mean by empathy today, what it meant for Smith (hint: it’s basically his “sympathy”), and why empathy is a necessary condition for our sense of self and the development of our humanity.

In the next section of Fleischacker’s book, he announces his intention to “update” Adam Smith, drawing on fields as diverse as cognitive psychology, psychotherapy, animal science, and literature. These were fascinating, and often deeply technical, sections.

 What most interested me in these chapters were the applications to how we develop and use our empathy, which Fleischacker convinces is uniquely human. Fleischacker’s grappling with justice is particularly interesting. He acknowledges its fundamental role in empathy, and takes the challenge of bias and prejudice head-on. He seeks a humanism which he defines as “an ethical orientation that gives supreme importance to our capacity for individualization, our ability to develop and maintain distinct perspectives. (The concept of perspective did a good deal of heavy lifting earlier in the book; see my previous post.) His discussion of testimonial versus hermeneutical injustice is particularly interesting and provides a great deal of food for thought.

In Chapter 4, Fleischacker takes on empathy and culture, a section I found especially relevant to public discourse today. Smithian empathy, he claims, “should enable us to understand people in any and every culture.” (page 77) Can we ever escape our culturally shaped biases? And if our empathy too is culturally shaped, how is it possible to empathize with others from cultures very different from our own? Fleischacker does a fantastic job dismantling such arguments in detail.

In Chapter 5, Fleischacker drills down from the level of culture to consider our affectional ties- Smith’s famous concentric circles of sympathy. Assuming our natural tendency to empathize most with those closest to us, Fleischacker uses this chapter to describe how we can use our empathy against its own pitfalls. He makes a standard economic argument regarding the simple efficiency of caring and helping those closest to us, but is convincing that this same sort of caring could extend to cosmopolitanism.  

Below are some of the questions I hope you might be willing to discuss, as I hope you are reading along with me:


1.       The second sentence of Chapter 3 poses a challenge: “How realistic is it to use him (Smith) as a model for thinking about empathy today?” How successfully do you think Fleischacker answers this challenge?  
2.       Fleischacker brings Smith’s impartial spectator to bear in Chapter 3. Is this spectator more universal or particularistic? How would this matter with regard to the impartial spectator’s role in our practice of morality?
3.       Again with regard to universality… If we admit that cultural differences exist, do we agree as Fleischacker suggests, that a “universal human empathy cuts across cultures?” (page 81) 
4.       Like many of you, I suspect, I have become increasingly disheartened by our apparent inability to communicate without anger, especially during this pandemic, and especially, well, online. In contrasting Smithian with Herderian empathy, Fleischacker says, “Empathy of this sort also gives us the ability to see the tendency in ourselves to assume too quickly that we know what everyone else really wants.” (page 83) Is empathy, rather than civility what we really need more of today? How might we accomplish this? How do you think empathy and civility are related?
5.       Fleischacker ends Chapter 5 with the caveat that cosmopolitanism “cannot be achieved directly.” (page 101) How then are we to achieve it? Fleischacker is tremendously convincing with regard to why we care for our inner circle, but is it too great a stretch to assume that we can really foster cosmopolitanism? He admits a great deal of “work” within one’s group is required. Is there sufficient motivation for such work? (Recall the story of the “traitor.”)