The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.
How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness is about a forgotten book by one of history’s greatest thinkers that reveals the surprising connections between happiness, virtue, fame, and fortune.
What is the good life?
Religion, philosophy, and modern self-help books grapple with the question, but the answer is elusive. Does it mean being happy? Or is it about wealth and professional success? What role does virtue play? Does the good life mean being good? Does it mean helping others and making the world a better place?
The Theory of Moral Sentiments
Two hundred and fifty years ago, a Scottish moral philosopher addressed these questions. The book was Adam Smith’s attempt to explain where morality comes from and why people can act with decency and virtue even when it conflicts with their own self-interest.
It’s a mix of psychology, philosophy, and what we now call behavioral economics, peppered with Smith’s observations on friendship, the pursuit of wealth, the pursuit of happiness, and virtue.
While few people still read The Wealth of Nations, it’s undeniably a famous book, a classic. Fewer still read or have even heard of Smith’s other book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
Smith’s opening sentence
How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.
Forty-two words. A long sentence by modern standards. I had to read Smith’s opening sentence twice before I understood what he was saying: that even though people can be pretty selfish, they do care about other people’s happiness.
Why is The Theory of Moral Sentiments such a secret?
Smith’s road map to happiness, goodness, and self-knowledge is an old road map. The language is a little bit dusty, betraying its eighteenth-century origin. More that that it’s a road map that takes a lot of difficult twists and turns.
Smith’s lessons on how to know yourself
Writing in 1759, Adam Smith made the observation that we feel worse, much worse about the prospect of losing our little finger than we do about the death of a multitude of strangers far away. That’s human nature, the same in 1759 as it is today.
Given our self-love, why do we so often act selfessly, sacrificing our own well-being to help others?
He rejects the argument that it is our benevolence or compassion that causes us to recoil from selfishly putting our own minor suffering ahead of the despair of millions:
It is not the soft power of humanity, it is not that feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love.
So if the milk of human kindness is in such short supply, why aren’t we more outrageouly selfish, more sordid?
Smith’s answer is that our behavior is driven by an imaginary interaction with what he calls the impartial spectactor–a figure we imagine whom we converse with in some virtual sense, an impartial, objective figure who sees the morality of our actions clearly. It is this figure we answer to when we consider what is moral or right.
This impartial spectator sounds a lot like our conscience. But Smith’s contribution is to provide an unusual source for that conscience. Smith doesn’t invoke our values or our religion or any principles that might inform our conscience to produce feelings of guilt or shame at our misbehavior. Instead, Smith is saying that we imagine being judged not by God, and not by our principles, but by a fellow human being who is looking over our shoulder.
Complement How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness with A guide to the good life: The ancient art of stoic joy.