Monday, January 03, 2005

Adam Smith on Earthquakes--Part One

Kant, Rousseau and Voltaire were not the only great thinkers to discuss earthquakes and the moral implications of such disasters. Here's Adam Smith (from the Theory of Moral Sentiments):

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befal himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.
Just the type of thing one might expect from the founding intellectual father of commercial society. Heartless bastard. But there's more going on in this passage than initially meets the disapproving eye. Read in a broader context, Smith has something interesting to tell us about how and why we respond as we do to the miseries that befall ourselves, our friends and family, our compatriots, and "hundred millions of...[our] brethren".

To be continued.

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