Adam Smith and the morality of spectacle

I want to write a brief post about Adam Smith, because I think he's one of the most important philosophers for modern culture (not just economics), and also one of the points at which modern culture went wrong. You can trace the meme that is making our culture sick back to his Theory of Moral Sentiments, which came out 251 years ago.

Smith was one of a number of Enlightenment philosophers who sought to create a new rational and 'natural' moral system, to replace old-fashioned systems based on Scripture, dogma, and superstition. Smith's moral theory, one of the best of the bunch, is based on the idea of the 'impartial spectator'.

The theory goes like this:
1) Nature, who is wise and benevolent, placed in our breasts the natural desire for approval. We naturally want others to sympathise with and approve of us, and this desire for approval is the moral mechanism by which wise Nature fits us for society.
2) The best test of the propriety or impropriety of an action or emotion is whether it wins the sympathy of the 'impartial observer', by which Smith means an ideal sort of spectator who watches us and judges us calmly and wisely. More generally, he means the Public, although he warns that the Public will not always be entirely wise and calm in their judgements.
3) We learn to command ourselves out of the desire for the sympathy of others. We learn that we must control our behaviour, temper our sentiments and discipline the violence of our inner states if we are to win the sympathy of other people.
4) This natural system of morality is wise and good, because it naturally leads to good people being happy and successful, because the good win the most approval of others, and therefore tend to do the best.
That is Smith's theory of moral sentiments in a nutshell. It's a great idea - sleek, catchy, and it clearly passes the feasibility test. Human behaviour is clearly driven by the desire for approval and status, and this strong evolutionary desire obviously leads us to obey social rules and to civilize our anti-social tendencies.
So it fits with our evolutionary nature. And it also fits with the culture we have created. Smith was writing near the birth of the financial markets, and yet his moral theory fits beautifully with financial markets.
Our success in society, he tells us, depends on the manner in which others perceive us and the extent to which they approve of us. That is particularly true in the financial markets, where CEOs must bear themselves politely and impressively if they are to win the respect of market investors. All it takes is for a CEO to let slip his polite front, as the CEO of Enron did when he called an analyst an 'asshole' during a conference call, and the markets could suddenly lose confidence in you and your company would go bankrupt. So Smith invented the idea of 'market discipline' as a moral check on individuals' and companies' behaviour.
Here's what's wrong with Smith's moral theory:
1) It leads to a morality based on performance and spectacle.
If you read Smith's book, almost every one of his ethical examples are taken from theatre. Morality becomes, in his system, a question of performance, an act, from the pitch of your voice to the trembling of your lower lip. His book is less a moral theory and more a work of theatre studies. When wondering what is appropriate or inappropriate in human behaviour, Smith constantly asks himself 'what looks good in the theatre? what do we sympathise with there? what wins our applause?'

In creating a moral system that doesn't rely on God, Smith has made the Public the ultimate judge of what is right and wrong - just like the Sophist Protagoras did in the fifth century BC. But as Plato wrote in response to Protagoras, if you do that, then people will not try to be good, merely to look good. Morality will become a question of spin.
In fact, in a culture where value is based on winning the approval of the Public, you will end up with millions of people pathologically obsessed with getting the attention of the Public, however they can, for their five minutes of fame. You'll end up with an X Factor culture, in which a girl changes her identity every week in an attempt to win the Public's vote, before her grandmother tries to win the Public's attention by announcing that she is a prostitute; with celebrity couples getting married, not because they're in love, but because it will boost their ratings. And when they inevitably get divorced, they are advised not by marriage therapists or even lawyers, but by PR agencies, telling them how to spin it so they retain the sympathy of the Public. You'll end up, in other words, with where we are today.
2) The Public gets it wrong
The Public is not a reliable arbiter of right and wrong. They often don't have the full information and are basing their judgements on superficial appearances. This much was repeatedly affirmed by the Stoics, who insisted that the applause of the Mob was worthless. Think about the people who win it. Think about the people who rise to the top in our culture. Are they the most moral people?
Behavioural economics has shown quite how wrong our judgements of others can be. We're affected by all sorts of arbitrary criteria: we think just because someone is good-looking, or good at sports, they are likely to be reliable sources of information (behavioural economists call this the 'Halo effect'). We tend to give our approval to people with charisma, even if they turn out to be frauds or psychopaths, like Hitler. We tend to give our approval to the rich, and to despise the poor, the homeless, the mentally sick - although their misfortune may be through no fault of their own, and the good fortune of the rich may likewise by through luck.
Older moral systems recognized that people could be outcasts, and yet still be good people. That's what the story of Oedipus told us. It's what the story of Christ told us. These moral narratives challenge us to go beyond the morality of spectacle, to see the worthwhile human beings behind loathsome exteriors. With Smith, the surface is all. He says: "We despise a beggar...he is scarce ever the object f any serious commiseration" because the misfortune of becoming homeless "can seldom happen without some misconduct, and some very considerable misconduct too, in the sufferer".
Nature teaches us to respect the rich and to despise the poor. And Nature is always wise. Therefore, Smith concludes, the rich are usually virtuous, and the poor are usually vicious.
3) Nature gets it wrong
We may agree that we have a strong natural desire for the approval of others. But this desire can fuck us up. It can make us extremely anxious about how other people are perceiving us, and this anxiety can actually make us so inhibited that we clam up, with the result that other people judge us badly. This is what happens to people with social anxiety, which affects between 5-10% of the population today. Their natural desire for approval and fear of disapproval has become so overgrown, so exacerbated by growing up in a culture obsessed with public approval, that they have become pathologically sick.
The point here is that our idea of our selves and other people's perception of us can become stuck in feedback loops which diverge from reality - this is true at the market level as well. So you can't always rely on other people's judgements, because those judgements get affected by self-fuelling booms and busts.
Alternately, we may become so obsessed with winning approval and status, that we devote our whole lives to becoming rich, famous and glamorous. And yet, Smith admits, we may find at the end of our exhausting search for richness, that we are no happier than we were at the beginning of our journey. Perhaps we are even less happy.
So Nature has fooled us, by making us think that fame and wealth would make us happy. The desire for others' approval, far from making us self-possessed, seems instead to make us wretched alienated creatures who, as Rousseau put it, "live constantly outside ourselves, in the opinion of others". We end up becoming the slaves of Public Opinion, devoting our entire lives to winning the good opinion of people we may never meet, and who care little for us.
Smith admits this, and yet goes on to say "it is well that nature imposes upon us in this manner. It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind." Nature, then, leads us with "an invisible hand" on a deluded rat-race that will ultimately make us miserable nervous wrecks, all for the sake of....GDP growth? Does Nature care more for industrial output than human wellbeing? And if so, why?
Smith's admission that Nature deceives us and makes us miserable for some inscrutable and apparently economic goal of its own undercuts his argument that his natural moral system naturally makes people good and happy.
The problem, then, and this is a problem typical of Enlightenment moral theories, is that Smith tries to create a moral system based on Nature, but in so doing, he has tended to look for how humans typically and naturally behave, and he then says 'this is good'. Humans typically seek status and approval. Therefore 'this is good'. But it isn't always good. In fact, it's often bad, in the sense that it often leads to human suffering, alienation, and an empty morality of spectacle.
Smith should have read his Greek philosophy closer. It's not enough just to base your moral system on how man conventionally is. You have to ask: what is the best in human nature? What deserves cultivation? What is human nature at its most flourishing and how do we get there?
If you want to find out more about Adam Smith, you might enjoy this podcast interview from Philosophy Bites with Nick Phillipson, who recently brought out a new biography of Smith.