Adam Smith Knew the Truth About Empathy

20Apr07

Adam Smith lives in the economics department. He sleeps on a back shelf found in the offices of every professor and research assistant in the western world. He’s comfortable. Understood. Dull. A mid-afternoon nap in the sunset years of the mind.

Supply and demand, invisible hand, the division of labor. Lovely.

I’m over-doing it, of course. Smith’s economic theories were absolutely revolutionary. Prior to his landmark Wealth of Nations, the theory of mercantilism prevailed. I think we can all be relieved that Smith realized that vast stockpiles of gold bullion were not the only path to economic growth. Laissez-faire, self-interest creates wealth and all that jazz.

But I’m not writing this post to tell you something you’ve heard before. I come here to argue for the misunderstood Adam Smith.
Because to really understand where Adam Smith’s economic theories come from, you need to understand his moral and social theories. You see, Smith trained as a moral philosopher. His first, almost-forgotten book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, is devoted to defining the origins of morality. Many thinkers in the field, including Smith’s mentor, Francis Hutcheson, believed that morality was an innate sixth sense.

Smith, ever a man of the Enlightenment, disputed the theory of a moral sense, instead arguing that true morality is a function of sympathy. Smith’s sympathy is a many-splendored thing — some might call it altruism, some pity, some compassion — but the big idea underneath it all is that people occasionally do things where the only possible positive outcome is the happiness of others. And he’s not confused, either. The whole book is a plea for sympathy as the driving force behind functional societies, and, presumably, components of those societies. Like, say…commerce.

Look at what he has to say about sympathy:

But 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.

Wait a minute, this isn’t sympathy at all. It’s empathy. Smith argues, extensively, that the fundamental driving force behind moral actions is the drive to understand the people around us and walk in their shoes. Why doesn’t he use the word empathy? Well, it didn’t exist as a word in the English language until 1904, according to the OED.

So what’s the big takeaway from all this? Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations set generations of businesspeople down a path based on self-interest and an extreme disinterest in other people. But he himself believed quite strongly that our moral sensibilities, what we believe to be the better parts of ourselves, are derived from interest in other people.

Empathy is not an emblem of weakness or sensitivity, in Smith’s view. It’s a way to practice self-interest on the lives of other people. And since self-interest leads to prosperity, understanding the self-interests of the people around you leads to the creation of wealth more broadly. Empathy is the most important business strategy of all. Well said, Adam.

Chapter 3: Anthropology Lifts Its Weary Head.

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One Response to “Adam Smith Knew the Truth About Empathy”


  1. 1 Vive la Difference | Empathy is Hard Wired- And Adam Smith Was Right

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