Adam Smith and Vedantik Self

Here is an unintentionally comical epitaph of a soldier of mid-5th century CE in Greece: “This memorial is set over the body of a very good man. Pythian, from Megara, slew seven men and broke off seven spear points in their bodies…………….This man, who saved three Athenian regiments….having brought sorrow to no one among all men who dwell on earth, went down to the underworld felicitated in the eyes of all”.

With the above example, Peter Singer, a well-known philosopher of this century points out that until a couple of thousand years ago, our moral circle was limited to city-states meaning that the qualification for goodness is to protect the citizens one’s city by slaying men living in the neighbouring cities! In Greece, it was Plato who for the first time advocated the principle of expanding the moral circle beyond a city to the country. He insisted that a Greek should extend his goodness to other Greeks living within Greece. Peter Singer argues that we have come a long way since then in extending our moral circle. He attributes this to literacy and the age of reason. While, it sounds good as a theory, it is perhaps not borne out by facts. To take a recent example, Chennai floods brought together all Chennaites living across the globe. Overwhelming support was extended by Chennaites living in  all corners of the world – a great example of total loyalty within the narrow circle of Chennaites. However, I wonder how many Chennaites bothered to help out when Uttarakhand suffered a huge calamity of large-scale destruction due to land slides and floods in 2013.

Adam Smith, the Scottish moral philosopher of 18th century, in his theory of Moral sentiments, makes a similar point. He asks us to imagine a scenario like this: Let us say a big calamity like a severe earth quake strikes China killing a million people and you are a complete stranger to China. How would you react? He answers saying that one would perhaps feel very sad for a while after hearing about the calamity and then get back to work on the following day as though nothing had happened. In today’s world, one would perhaps go a step further and write out a cheque for the victims and then forget about the whole thing. On the other hand, Smith asks, what would one do if an accident were to happen and one cuts his finger. Smith surmises that the same guy would keep brooding over it for several days and would find it difficult to get it out of his mind.

Are we humans condemned to be selfish all the time? No, says Adam Smith. He explains this with another example. He asks us to imagine another scenario wherein you have a choice of either protecting your little finger or killing a million Chinese. He says we would most certainly choose the former. No sane person would refuse to sacrifice his little finger for the sake of saving a million Chinese lives. He attributes this to an inner voice or a neutral spectator within. To quote: “It’s not the feeble spark of benevolence ……. counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love. It’s a stronger power , a more forcible motive that exerts itself on such occasions. It’s principle, conscience the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct…………..It’s from him only that we learn the real littleness of ourselves….and the natural misrepresentations of self-love can be corrected by the eye of this impartial spectator. It’s he who shows us the propriety of generosity………; the propriety of resigning the greatest interest of our own for the yet greater interests of others and the deformity of doing the smallest injury to another in order to obtain the greatest benefit to ourselves”.

These are very interesting lines coming from Adam Smith. He concludes his discussions on an optimistic note invoking an inner spectator! Isn’t this thesis close to what Vedanta refers to as Sakshi within. Vedanta goes a step further to state that the Sakshi within is universal. Sakshi which is Consciousness is understood by Vedantins as the non-dual reality which illumines everything else.

Published in: on June 27, 2016 at 12:55 am  Leave a Comment  
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