Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Adam Smith’s Fear of "the Corruption of Our Moral Sentiments"

One of the most puzzling and disturbing aspects of the contentious run-up to the passage of the healthcare legislation was the strategy that the administration was forced to utilize. They initially began with a moral argument for legislation that would provide coverage to tens of millions who had none. This approach went nowhere. Eventually the argument became one best described as "what’s in it for me?" Have we become so self-absorbed as a society that 40 million people without healthcare insurance means nothing to us?

Tony Judt addressed the state of society in a wonderfully perceptive article in the New York Review of Books: What is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy. We discussed his thoughts in Tony Judt on the Future of Social Democracy. In rereading Judt’s article I was struck by a passage that I had not thought much about previously. Judt was discussing the welfare reform legislation enacted under Clinton and describing it as a massive regression that discarded much of what progressive democracy had strived to attain.

"Why do so few of us condemn such "reforms"—enacted under a Democratic president? Why are we so unmoved by the stigma attaching to their victims? Far from questioning this reversion to the practices of early industrial capitalism, we have adapted all too well and in consensual silence—in revealing contrast to an earlier generation. But then, as Tolstoy reminds us, there are ‘no conditions of life to which a man cannot get accustomed, especially if he sees them accepted by everyone around him’."

"This ‘disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition…is…the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.’ Those are not my words. They were written by Adam Smith, who regarded the likelihood that we would come to admire wealth and despise poverty, admire success and scorn failure, as the greatest risk facing us in the commercial society whose advent he predicted. It is now upon us."

Do we "admire success and scorn failure?" Of course we do, but that is not necessarily a fundamental flaw. Do we have a "disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition?" Perhaps we do. It is the notion that we might be able to despise and neglect the poor and those in trouble that is the most disconcerting. Are these flaws in us as human beings? Are these sentiments imprinted in us by a materialistic society?

Leonard Mlodinow addresses these issues in his book The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives. The human subconscious hates to leave an issue unresolved. It will resort to mental contortions to explain what is merely a random fluke. Mlodinow tells us that the trappings of exceptionality, such as wealth and power, will drive us to conclude that the person possessing these attributes must in fact be exceptional in some way. Mlodinow’s thesis is that this "special" person is often one who benefited from random occurrences that provided him with opportunities that others of equal ability could not benefit from. This approach is highly reminiscent of Malcolm Gladwell’s theme in Outliers. Viewing the successful person with undue adulation is perhaps unwise, but it does not qualify as a moral failing.

Mlodinow tells us that there is a dark side to this human tendency. The flip side would be to assume that people who were poor or who were some way in trouble had somehow earned their fate.

He describes an experiment designed to elicit this type of response. A woman was selected from a group of subjects. She was to participate in an exercise requiring her to learn sequences of syllables. If she failed she would undergo a painful electric shock. She was a part of the experiment and would only pretend to be in pain, but that was not known to the other participants.

"At first, as expected, most of the observers reported being extremely upset by their peer’s unjust suffering. But as the experiment continued, their sympathy for the victim began to erode. Eventually the observers, powerless to help, instead began to denigrate the victim. The more the victim suffered, the lower their opinion of her became. As Lerner [the researcher] had predicted, the observers had a need to understand the situation in terms of cause and effect."

For Mlodinow this sort of experiment demonstrated that people do tend to conclude that others who do not succeed, or who suffer, must somehow deserve their fate. He was led to conclude:

"We unfortunately seem to be unconsciously biased against those in society who come out on the bottom."

Is there a lesson one can take away from these considerations?

The great social advances took place in times of great urgency. For Europe the time for reordering society was in the post-war years. For the US, it was during the Great Depression. These were times when almost everyone was suffering and people were moved to collaborate and set up support systems to provide aid to all citizens. We are no longer in such times. Judt tells us that our children have forgotten the dire straits their parents and grandparents experienced, and are not capable of picturing themselves in the same situation.

Perhaps we will not be able to understand the condition of the least among us until the day comes when we realize that we ourselves could suffer that same fate. Perhaps we are too comfortable right now. Perhaps that will change. What is that quote about people who forget history?

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