Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Smith: Sleeping soundly through famine

Adam Smith wrote of the ordinary man:

If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he will not sleep tonight; 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. To prevent, therefore, this paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them?

A couple weeks ago, when I heard of UNICEF's estimate that 120,000 Ethiopian children will starve to death within the month, I felt disturbed and upset; but what I lay awake thinking of last night was whether my boss would be able to open my PowerPoint presentation on an excruciatingly minor business topic. Smith is not concerned with sleep patterns per se, but with the moral question of whether we would sacrifice our own lesser goods for someone else's greater good.

One might ask if I would exchange my precious PowerPoint file for the lives of the children. I find such formalized questions frustrating, because no bandit will attempt today to ransom the lives of the children by demanding my office effluvia. It seems not even to be a moral question, because it is not a real situation; to me, it seems the real must be the province of the moral.

But without the aid of such silly, fictional questions, how else can I examine myself to discover whether I am willing to sacrifice some of my own small concerns for the urgent, terrifying concerns of others?

Adam Smith. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. eds. D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie. (1790, reprint Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975) pp. 136-137. Quoted in "Humanity and Citizenship," by Amartya Sen, in For Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism. Martha C. Nussbaum with respondents. ed. Joshua Cohen. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.

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