Sympathy as social virtue: Adam Smith’s solution for disruption
Religion & Liberty Online

Sympathy as social virtue: Adam Smith’s solution for disruption

In our dynamic and disruptive economy, we see an increasing cultural anxiety about the automation and outmoding of all things, leading us to increase our focus on technical knowledge and “hard skills.” At the same time, we see increases in social isolation and declines in virtue and communal life, causing many to wonder what might be missing.

There’s hand-wringing and finger-pointing aplenty, with both progressives and (now) conservatives eager to blame “market capitalism.” The solution, we are told, lies in variations of top-down control, whether through the blind redistributionism of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or the trade protectionism and Silicon-Valley “trust-busting” of the populist right.

Yet it’s unlikely that any such measures will stunt or slow the pace of globalization and economic disruption. Likewise, even if we accept and embrace the status quo of the current global marketplace, what might we consider beyond our culture-level efforts to boost specific “skills” and “competencies”? As workers, creators, and consumers, what might we pursue to better embody our free society?

In answering the question, we’d do well to consider Adam Smith, who, in his own era of economic disruption and social “discohesion,” found a solution in sympathy.

In a recent essay for the American Enterprise Institute, economist Daniel Klein highlights Smith’s views on the subject. For Smith, “sympathy meant fellow feeling or shared sentiment,” Klein explains, offering a powerful force for addressing and overcoming a range of moral challenges.

“Competence is key, but the crucial competence is in sympathy,” Klein writes. “The individual needs competence in sympathy to find a place to work and contribute and to find his own life satisfying…Sympathetic deftness is a kind of competence or ability. Employers are wise to look for it. Workers with sympathetic deftness are more productive—lower cost, higher revenue.”

As Smith points out in various ways, whether in The Wealth of Nations or A Theory of Moral Sentiments, sympathy has a way of fostering civilizational wellbeing and empowering collaboration and cooperation, whether among “familiars” or “unfamiliars.” It has a stabilizing influence over our social nature and orients our attitudes to align with our activity, and vise versa.

One of the glories of a free economy is that it already facilitates and incentivizes such sympathy, but is there more ought to pursue?

In our workplaces and economic partnerships, for example, Smith observed sympathy at work. “Colleagues in office, partners in trade, call one another brothers; and frequently feel towards one another as if they really were so,” Smith writes. “Their good agreement is an advantage to all; and, if they are tolerably reasonable people, they are naturally disposed to agree. We expect that they should do so; and their disagreement is a sort of a small scandal.” What if we embodied those partnerships with more intentionality in our empathy and attitudes—building, rather than settling, on that basic foundation?

Such sympathy also plays a role in continuously strengthening our relations with “unfamiliars,” or strangers, at the levels of personal partnership or exchange. “In sympathy you realize how others perceive you—and what they may tell others about you,” Klein explains. “Sympathetic deftness isn’t only a social virtue. It’s the better part of prudence….Reputation starts locally but extends farther…Reputation is a glue of the modern world.”

In our globalized world, this has increasingly been the case. Our hands are exchanging with countless partners in a great and mysterious web of collaboration, and in doing so, have the opportunity build networks of trust, stability, and sympathy. As Smith wrote: “When the greater part of people are merchants they always bring probity and punctuality into fashion, and these therefore are the principal virtues of a commercial nation.” Again, much of this comes from capitalism’s baseline incentives; but what might we gain if fully embrace it beyond mere contractual obligation? “If reputation is a glue to markets,’ Klein observes,” sympathy is a glue to reputation—the glue behind the glue.”

More broadly, if we are to take a step back and observe our place in the current disruptive flow of things, we see how stewarding our sympathy can have transformative effects across what Smith calls “the toil and bustle of this world.” As Klein explains:

The conscience is a work in progress; it is a job that lasts the days of our life. Life should be balanced with hours of cool reflection or sympathy with the man within the breast; hours of sympathy with friends and family; and, finally, hours of sympathy with others: strangers, trading partners, shop clerks, coworkers, people of the world—unfamiliars. We need to sympathize with unfamiliars as well as familiars.

Smith tells us that virtue develops over the lifetime. The development brings forth, we hope, the “just man who has been thoroughly bred in the great school of self-command, in the bustle and business of the world.”

Bustle and business draw us into moments of sympathy with unfamiliars. Although brief and shallow, those moments of sympathy put us in mind of someone who has no special partiality toward us. The world’s bustle and business teach us to see ourselves at a distance, as but a small part of a greater whole. As we realize our dependence on the institutions and market relations of that greater whole, we learn to care for its well-being and to ponder how our own small part contributes to such well-being.

There’s plenty more that needs to fall into place—not least of which is thriving social and spiritual communities and institutions—but within the economic order, specifically, embracing “sympathetic deftness” is sure to make us both more competitive and more healthy as a society.

In our daily work and economic activities, sympathy sets our hearts and hands to sowing seeds of trust and stability across an otherwise disruptive environment—distinguishing both our character and capability in a competitive marketplace. As a result, we may find a place “[w]here the necessary assistance is reciprocally afforded from love, from gratitude, from friendship, and esteem,” as Smith writes. “…All the different members of [society] are bound together by the agreeable bands of love and affection, and are, as it were, drawn to one common centre of mutual good offices.”

When it comes to public policy, and our various efforts to micro-manage the moral challenges of our day, the government’s inability to boost “sympathetic deftness” is clear, reminding us of the limits of top-down tinkering. We are reminded that while “market capitalism” may produce a range of new challenges, these spring from a genuine quest for partnership, and it is only through improved relationships that they can be overcome. The solution is found in expanding and extending our sympathies—the transformation of our attitudes across everyday activities in everyday life.

“By improving the amiable and respectable virtues we can enhance our reputation with employers, customers, and trading partners,” Klein concludes. “We can enhance affection among friends, family, and workmates. And we can secure greater tranquility within our own breast.”

Image: Works of Adam Smith, British Library, 1812 (Public Domain)

Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.