Academics often struggle to communicate ideas to the wider public, but Russ Roberts
has made a living doing just that and doing it well. His latest entry into the public
discourse is a beautifully written guidebook to Adam Smiths other book, The Theory
of Moral Sentiments, about how to live a full and virtuous life. It might seem strange
for the author of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, a
book about commercial self-interest, to write a book about virtuous living. Members
of the German Historical School thought so as well and labeled the seeming contradiction
das Adam Smith Problem. Smith scholars have since resolved the contradiction
by arguing Smith was writing about two different spheres of life, the one dominated
by impersonal interactions in which we rely primarily on our self-interest (The Wealth
of Nations) and the other dominated by personal interactions requiring us to use
more than just our narrow self-interest (The Theory of Moral Sentiments). Properly
understood, both books become essential for understanding the Smithian view of the
world and its relevance to our own lives and the way we organize society. The problem
for modern readersdas neue Adam Smith Problem, if you will is that Smiths
full relevance is obscured by the fact that The Theory of Moral Sentiments remains
largely unread, undiscussed, and unappreciated. Robertss new book helps pave the
way to resolving das neue Adam Smith Problem.
Roberts has written an easily accessible guidebook to The Theory of Moral
Sentiments. As his title suggests, he conceives his book as a way to introduce the
modern reader to Adam Smith the self-help author. Roberts does a fine job relating
how we can use Smiths theory to improve our everyday lives and further connects the
modern reader to Smiths thought by applying his theory to modern examples. These
aspects of Robertss book will resonate with a wider audience. However, the book can
also be read as an introduction, a type of extended prologue, to The Theory of Moral
Sentiments itself. One of the great strengths of Robertss guidebook is that he
allows Smith to speak directly to readers by use of extensive direct quotations from
The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Roberts introduces direct quotations from Smith,
elaborates on Smiths point for the modern reader, and then repeats the process. The
technique flows seamlessly and guides the reader through Smiths theory in an accessible
way. More importantly for resolving das neue Adam Smith Problem, Roberts
makes the reader want to pick up Smiths book.
Roberts describes different parts of Smiths theory over the course of a series
of how-to chaptersfor example, How to Know Yourself (chapter 2), How to
Be Happy (chapter 3), and How Not to Fool Yourself (chapter 4). To introduce
Smiths theory, he begins with Smiths observation that we feel much worse about
the loss of one of our fingers than about the deaths of thousands of strangers in a far
off land such as China. People are self-interested. At the same time, Smith recognizes
no man of humanity would ever choose a finger over the lives of thousands.
Although people are clearly self-interested, they sometimes act against their selfinterest.
Why? Enter Smiths impartial spectator. We make decisions based not only
on our own self-interest but also on what we imagine an objective figure, an impartial
spectator, would think about whether our decisions are right or wrong. Roberts suggests
we can use the impartial spectator as a powerful mental tool for self-improvement.
Faced with a difficult moral choice? Imagine an impartial spectator hovering above as
you think about your decision and what others might think of it. An impartial
spectator also allows opportunities to step outside ourselves and observe who we
really are. More importantly, imagining an impartial spectator allows us to go through
life mindfully, which, as Roberts suggests, is the art of paying attention instead
of drifting through life oblivious to your flaws and habits (p. 31).
Happiness and our desire to achieve it are central to Smiths theory. We achieve
happiness by being loved and being lovely. By loved, Smith does not mean in a
romantic sense but rather simply being liked, respected, and cared about by other
people. The term lovely, then, refers to being worthy of being loved.We not only want
to be loved but also want to come by that love in an authentic and deserved fashion.
We desire a good reputation, honestly earned.
Unfortunately, Smith knows people are prone to self-deception, which breaks
down the functioning of the impartial spectator and fuels our natural self-interest. As
a result, self-deception can hurt our ability to be lovely. We deceive ourselves about
the true nature of ourselves, which prevents the process of growth and improvement
the impartial spectator helps us to achieve. Self-deception prevents us from taking
a true look at ourselves in the mirror. We think we are lovelier than we actually are,
so we go through life failing to address our flaws.
Smiths theory does not leave us helpless against self-deception, though. We
have access not only to an impartial spectator but also to real spectators as well. We
can observe the people around us, who themselves are flawed, as a means of identifying
our own shortcomings and a motivation for remedying them. Interacting with
our neighbors also weakens the powers of self-deception because we observe social
norms about good and bad behavior in practice. Our neighbors judgment provides
incentives for us to act in ways consistent with achieving happiness.
Next Roberts addresses how Smith proposes we achieve being loved and being
lovely. Smith acknowledges two paths to being loved, but he favors only one. The first
path to being loved by others is through fame, fortune, and power. One of the
reasons we seek riches and fame is that we observe celebrity being loved by the masses
in society. Our desire to be loved provides a powerful temptation to pursue this path,
but Smith does not mince words about the pitfalls of such an approach. For him, the
pursuit of riches and fame never satisfies. The glittering path of riches and fame causes
much unnecessary anxiety, and if we achieve riches and fame, we give up forever many
comforts of life, such as our leisure and privacy. Smith also invokes (although not in
these words) the hedonic treadmill as a reason why we never achieve what we are
promised if we pursue riches as a means to be loved.
The second path to being loved, the one advocated by Smith, is to pursue
wisdom and virtue. Living a good life is how one becomes lovely and thus loved.
At a minimum, Smith encourages propriety, by which he means acting appropriately.
He has in mind our ability to act with sympathy to those around us. Our behavior
conforms to the expectations of those around us, which allows us to gain trust and
share emotions with one another. As Roberts notes, this is the beginning of respect
and loveliness. To be admired and celebrated, however, we must also be virtuous.
Smiths most important virtues are prudence, justice, and beneficence. By prudence,
Smith means taking care of yourself mentally, financially, physically, and socially (i.e.,
taking care of your reputation). By justice, he means not hurting other people.
An impartial spectator helps remind us of what is just. Beneficence requires being
good to one another, which is more difficult to define than justice. Smith gives
gratitude as an example of beneficence. In summary, Roberts states, Virtuous
behavior is like good writing. We know it when we see it, but it is not easily taught
or described with any precision (p. 160).
This concludes what I consider the core of Smiths theory that runs throughout
Robertss book. Although Robertss book is much shorter than I would prefer, each
page contains many thought-provoking ideas related to Smiths theory and its applications.
In describing the core of Smiths theory, I have had to leave out many aspects
of the book. Roberts is at his best when he relates Smith to our own lives and society.
The passages on celebrity (pp. 97116), for example, shine and are some of the best
in the book. Anyone in our Instagrammed and YouTubed world would profit from
these passages. Likewise, Roberts allows Smith to opine on our desire for newer and
better gadgets but also to remind us of their inability to make us happier (pp. 8794).
Or consider why people tolerate the abuses of the politically powerful: To oppose
the tyrant goes against our nature, not because it is dangerous, says Smith, but
because we idealize his greatness and happiness (p. 107). Roberts provides an elegant
description of the spontaneous moral order arising in a society populated by people
seeking to live a virtuous life (chapter 8, How to Make the World a Better Place).
How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life serves as a worthy introduction to
The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Reading it will help you solve das neue Adam
Smith Problem for yourself and allow you to have a fuller appreciation of the
Smithian point of view. Those wanting an even shorter introduction to Robertss
book should consider watching Nick Gillespies hour-long interview with Roberts on Youtube.