Can Adam Smith Help Us Recover From COVID-19?

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Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has completely turned society upside down. Plagued by uncertainty the entire planet was alarmed in went into full panic mode. Leading us to the immediate question of how do we contain a novel virus when its origins are shrouded in mystery? Many of these reactionary policies may have modestly slowed down the spread of COVID-19, however, most of the state-sanctioned restrictions ended up causing unforeseen problems. The shelter-in-place orders resulted in the highest recorded rate of job loss since The Great Depression. The economic ramifications of various lockdown measures go beyond the immediate consequences. There was a November 2020 study conducted by USC projecting an overall GDP loss of $3-4 Trillion over the next two years.

Lengthy book treatments could be composed to fully detail all of the intricacies of the economic carnage of COVID-19. Unfortunately, the fall-out of the pandemic reaches well beyond the economic repercussions. Our overall health has been impacted. Not necessarily by the direct symptoms of COVID-19, but by a result of the lockdown orders. People have been less active leading to weight gain, which may lower an individual resistance to the virus. While physical health may be most salient to us because it can be observed by the naked eye, what about mental health? It is well documented that social isolation is a contributing factor to depression. A multitude of stories has been published describing the psychological struggles of Americans during the pandemic. The hardnosed statistician may be quick to dismiss these narratives as being purely anecdotal. However, many of the risk factors for suicide have been magnified since the beginning of the pandemic. There has been a notable increase in the suicide rate from 2019 to 2020.

The pandemic has also fractured relations between us and our fellow citizens. Clinging to our inner circles to avoid spreading COVID-19, we begin to become more tribal. The trust we once held for our neighbors has become eroded over the past year. Anytime someone sneezes we give them the side-eye. Fostering a climate of distrust and paranoia. This distrust has manifested itself in actual hate crimes and discrimination. Some reports estimate that hate crimes against Asian-Americans increased by 150 percent in 2020. What does this have to do with COVID-19? Quite a bit. It is speculated that the outbreak originated in the Wuhan province of China (p.2). Leading some to erroneously blame people of Asian ancestry for the spread of the virus. Creating friction between various communities across the country and only serving to make an already tumultuous situation worse. Asian Americans much like all other Americans have been grappling with the stresses of the pandemic. Adding racial tensions to the mix only serves to create more division and distrust. We need trust to have a stable society. 

Could a voice from the past help us navigate these difficult times? Provide us direction in helping us heal from the carnage caused by a global pandemic? I would argue yes. That voice of reason comes from no other than The Enlightenment-era moral philosopher Adam Smith Many readers are probably thinking to themselves “… isn’t this the guy that told us to follow our self-interest. In other words, to be selfish?”. In a sense, yes. However, limiting the body of Smith’s work to the following passage is nothing more than a caricature of his overall contributions to economics, never mind moral philosophy.

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities but their advantages. (The Wealth Of Nations, Book IV, Chapter II, p. 456, para. 9)”

The above paragraph may be the most famous one ever written by Smith, but it does not wholly define his breadth of work. Smith believes that markets and morality were inseparable, and you could not have one without the other. At the crux of voluntary trade is interaction. If we treat each other poorly and do not foster a good-working relationship trade cannot take place. To foster strong relationships, we as a society need a firm moral backbone. Morality provides us with the precepts to facilitate just and fair interactions despite conventional wisdom, this is crucial to success in business. If you are not running your enterprise justly your client will eventually find out and choose to do patronize another vendor. 

Business ethics and social morality are intimately interconnected, one cannot exist without the other. That is why the two great works of Smith were meant to be read in tandem. The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) addresses social morality and The Wealth of Nations (1776) details the inner mechanics of economic exchange (catallactics). Both books dovetail together so well, reading one leaves you with a missing piece of the puzzle. COVID-19 has unquestionably harmed society economically and socially and both books contain the wisdom to help us get back on the right track. I am a great admirer of economist Don Boudreaux, but I do have to take issue with his recent assessment of Smith’s possible perception of the impact of social isolation resulting from COVID-19. Dr. Boudreaux states that Smith could certainly empathize with and rationally understand the distress caused by social isolation. I do not disagree with his inference, but I would surmise that Smith would want us to draw lessons from his work. To apply the concepts in both books to help us as a society overcome the hardships imposed by COVID-19. His work was not intended to be confined to the postulations of lofty ivory tower discussions, but also for practical application. What good is moral philosophy if it is never put to practical use? Why not look to the works of Adam Smith for guidance and solutions to help us navigate the uncertainty that is the COVID-19 pandemic?

Suicide As A Property Rights Issue- Part II

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PART I

The moral argument for a right to suicide is firmly grounded in property rights. To many readers the very notion that suicide and ownership of tangible objects are interconnected is farfetched. Upon a superficial assessment of the premise, it is easy to jump to this conclusion. Once we get to the philosophical taproot of the concept of ownership the overlap between the two concepts becomes much more apparent. Fastened to the pillar of natural rights, the right of ownership is crucial in establishing all other rights. The ability to retain, transfer, and exclude others from one’s property lays down the framework for all other negative rights we cherish. For example, if a dinner guest offends us with an off-color joke at our house, we have the right to ask them to leave. The right of excludability. If the dinner guest is aware, we are offended by specific kinds of jokes, they fully consent to the conditions of the dinner party by opting to attend. Due to this variety of informal rule creation, there is no need to implement laws prohibiting offensive speech. Individual property owners can decide what types of jokes or language will be tolerated in their household.

The basis for ownership of tangible items goes back to an even deeper principle of self-ownership. If we do not own ourselves how can we possibly possess physical property? Either in the title or tangible form. The philosopher who bridges the gap between self-ownership and ownership of objects, locations, and intellectual property is no other than the great John Locke. At the most rudimentary level, we must own ourselves before we can possess any additional property. The extent to which this self-ownership is applicable is debatable. We can legally own ourselves. We have autonomy over (in most cases) our corporeal vessel that holds our inner organs. An individual can also exert control over their mind. Where does the right of an individual to own one’s self arise from?  This merely the abstract pontification of an out-of-touch philosopher? Most who have read Locke would staunchly disagree with the prior inference. Locke developed a concise explanation linking self-ownership to an unwavering natural right.

In Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (1689) he further expounds upon the natural basis for self-ownership. Arguably laying down the nascent substrate for the ethical arguments against slavery later on in the 19th century. The right to self-ownership is the result of divine providence. In Locke’s view, God gives us life and we are born free. For those who have more of a secular view of the world, it could state we are born free by our humanity. There is no grand authority that we must oblige by involuntarily transferring self-possession to as a result of cohesion.  

“…Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his person: this nobody has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. (p.11)..”

Locke establishes that no one person has the right to own another human being. The implications of the above quote go beyond the abstract conceptualization of self-ownership. Due to a person owning themselves they also possess the fruits of their labor. If you work and toil to harvest lobsters in the icy waters off the coast of Maine, whatever you catch is rightfully yours. Providing you are not capturing so many lobsters that you are preventing others from having a chance to obtain the seafood delicacy. Nor are you procuring so many they will go to waste (p.12-15). Through self-possession and possession of our labor and the results of our labor, the natural rights argument for property ownership is pithily conveyed.

John Locke was correct about all people being born free and having possession of overall commodities, lands, and intellectual property that they have rightfully obtained through their labor. Where he went astray was asserting that natural rights are inalienable. Regardless of whether we procure these rights from god or as a result of our personhood, you can alienate these rights. Whether or not it is ethically justifiable is completely contingent on the consent of the individual. We have a natural right to free speech for example. While at work we temporarily or indefinitely suspend (for the duration of our employment) our right to unfettered speech as a condition of employment. There is nothing illegitimate about this arrangement because it expresses a form of tacit consent.  If you truly disagreed with the rules of the company you otherwise would not accept the job offer. Agreeing to conditions of employment can operate as a form of selling our natural rights. If we truly own ourselves and possess all of the natural rights we are guaranteed in the Constitution, why couldn’t we sell the title to our rights to other people? That is effectively what we do when after signing an employment agreement. Our natural rights cannot be transferred or relinquished unless we willingly agree to conditions or arrangements that nullify these rights.

One particularly controversial example of this concept was formulated by the Austrian economist and political theorist Walter Block. Dr. Block postulates that voluntary slavery is not incompatible with individual freedom. Such a position sounds antithetical to liberty, however, understanding the context is key. There is a difference between being forced at gunpoint into slavery and choosing to be a slave. Why would anyone choose to be a slave? They or a family member may owe an astronomical amount of money to a private individual and the only means of making restitution on their debts would be a lifetime of unpaid servitude.  It highly unlikely that anyone in modern times would consent to such an arrangement. Being able to sell one’s self to another person demonstrates an unfettered view of self-ownership. The laws prohibiting voluntary slavery are essentially are equally as unjust as keeping involuntary slavery legal. We can’t say that we truly own ourselves if we cannot do as we please with our bodies. That includes opting to sell ourselves into slavery.

The question becomes how does the argument for voluntary slavery apply to suicide? Logically it is predicated on the very same principle of self-ownership. If you truly own yourself and no one else has possession of your body and mind, then you have a right to kill yourself.  As jarring as this statement maybe it is nevertheless true. If we truly possess an object or an idea we can do as we please with it. We can sell the item or bit of intellectual property, or we can dispose of it. Nothing is stopping us from purchasing the latest iPhone at full retail price and then upon receiving the device, abruptly throwing it into a trashcan. While by the assessment of convention sensibilities such an action would irrational or foolish, no one has a right to prevent this behavior from occurring. Regardless of the perception of others, the notion of ownership prevents others from intervening. Some may criticize this example because it is comparing a replaceable item with the irreplaceable essence of human life. This critique is a fair one, however, that does not make this a false analogy.  The operative condition is the concept of ownership not what the individual is choosing to dispose of.  Regardless of the origin of where we obtain our natural rights from we do own ourselves. Much like anything else we own we have a right to dispose of ourselves. This is not making a moral judgment about the act of suicide in-of -itself. Nor is this a tacit endorsement of suicide. However, legality is no measure of morality. Nor is pressure to conform to societal norms.  If we legalized heroin use and prostitution tomorrow, these activities would not necessarily be moral.  But they would be legal. While these activities may be immoral, inferring an individual’s right to poison their body or engage in infidelity is also immoral. Immoral on a grander scale. When victimless crimes have codified sanctions, they are generally backed by the threat of incarnation, fines, or state violence.  

The decision to commit suicide is a deeply personal decision that should not be felt in the hands of doctors, psychologists, and especially nor legislators.  Attempts to intervene in suicide attempts are naturally transgressive against the individual’s property rights.  If indeed, we truly possess self-ownership.

COVID-19 and The Rejection of Civility

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Amid all the chaos spurred by the COIV-19 outbreak, the deterioration of civility seems inevitable. People are being reduced to quarreling and fight over toilet paper. Conflicts over cases of bottled waters and other forms of provisions are becoming more prevalent. Such emergencies have the proclivity to bring out the worst in people. Similar occurrences aren’t relegated to this one instance. Look no further than the looting that transpired during Hurricane Katrina. The line between civilization and lawless chaos is razor-thin. All it takes is one natural disaster or national emergency to shift incentives away from cooperation to antisocial behavior.

 

Social Psychology has a litany of various theories to help explain the descent into pillaging and violence. Describing the psychological mechanisms driving mob behavior does explain the behavioral element of such actions. However, it fails to address the deeper moral questions of the “temporary” erosion of civility. It is reasonable to question whether this loosening of societal standards would be temporary if the precipitating circumstances remained. This question can only be indulged with pure conjecture. I would be so bold to suggest that the circumstantial decay of social standards serves as an indictment on the Enlightenment.

 

I am not addressing concepts of the Enlightenment but the intellectual movement of the whole. It was the thinkers of this era that lead us from the barbarism of the dark ages to the relative calm of modernity. To avoid falling into the trap of the Whig interpretation of history, the Enlightenment did not nullify classical philosophy. Rather expanded upon it. The Enlightenment is what orientated the Western world towards poverty rights and the rights of the individual. Neither can be validated in a climate of wanton destruction and disregard for your neighbor. In times of panic, we revert to our fight-or-flight reflect negating reason, principles, and decorum. Reducing our behavior to that of Neanderthals. Fear is antithetical to reason. Making it caustic to the clear thinking required to respond in a civilized manner. Causing us to plummet to the mentality of primitive man.

 

Many may see this phenomenon of “disaster panic” as a temporary rejection of Enlightenment ideals. I would argue otherwise. I would contend that many people never acquainted with the moral considerations or etiquette required for civility. There are a lot of people that behave rudely even under regular circumstances. Compound their incentives for boorish deportment with fear, society unravels rapidly. Which makes it reasonable to question whether the Hobbesian conception of human nature is true. It appears as if the rule of law is what typically constrains transgressions such as assault and looting. It should be noted that in the instance of the present crisis that this isn’t necessarily true. In most municipalities throughout the United States, law enforcement agencies are still operating. The fear of punishment can be ruled out as a constraint on antisocial behavior. But such behavior demonstrates a deep-seated lack of respect for property and fellow person.  Vandalism and theft demonstrate a lack of respect for property rights. Violence and confrontation displaying a lack of respect for our fellow person. Behavior falling short of the movement inspiring liberal values. The precepts that helped levitate Europe out of the squalor and pestilence of intellectual and physical serfdom.

 

What enforces mutual respect of person and property are informal social norms. Once panic sets in the strength of these norms are greatly reduced. It isn’t true respect, but rather an overt avoidance of opprobrium from our peers. Which does not demonstrate a true comprehension of person-hood or natural rights. Rather punishment avoidance. Merely an informal form of punishment evasion. An individual possessing a true understanding of natural rights would be able to reason why it is wrong to punch someone over a pallet of toilet paper. Not abstaining from such an action due to the consequences of legal or social punishment. Classical thinkers tended to believe that action in of itself wasn’t righteous unless the intention of the action was also righteous.  While we are veering slightly from the thought of the Enlightenment there is still quite a bit of truth here. If respect for person and property is not instilled in us on an intellectual and moral level it will not remain resolute. When the comfort and security of modernity frays so will our courtesy and civility. Then comes the downfall into a primitive mindset.  Hence, why I question if humans ever really adopted or even understood the ideals of the Enlightenment. Because if we did we would be able to better manage our savage urge to pursue self-preservation. If so, we would be reduced bludgeoning one another over toilet paper.  Then again, such conduct has been evident over so much less. Such as a $5.00 toaster on Black Friday. This leads me to postulate that we do not even a time of crisis to witness such regressions.

 

The Man of System- The Folly of Planning

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Planning on an intuitive level always appears to be the most logical course of action. If we could only harness the same methodical rigor of a physics experiment, we could all live in the blessed light of “reason”. Few of a scientific disposition stop to question if there are certain aspects of life we shouldn’t attempt to control. In their haughty hubris, the proponents of planning bumptiously trudge forward. In full faith that they can implement the next pivotal stage of progress in the history of man. For those who pray at the altar of pure reason, such oversights are a consequence of believing that they possess more knowledge than it is possible to know. A point clearly elaborated on by Nobel Laureate F.A. Hayek decades prior to 2019. Most notably in his seminal book The Road to Serfdom published at the tail end of World War II, an era when the debate about economic planning was raging.

 

Even when we are armed a plethora of empirically verified statistics and data planners are still merely guessing. Often guessing with information collected under idyllic experimental conditions. Conditions that are meticulously controlled and don’t account for the invariability of a natural environment. An environment that is more constrained by natural law than by experimental controls. While science has brought forth the advantages of modern medicine and technological advances, there are specific areas where its breadth of knowledge is insufficient or inappropriate. Social engineering and economic matters being sublime examples.

 

If such measures could bring about a utopian society it would have already been implemented. Attempting to subvert the effects of the law of Supply and Demand through price-fixing and subsidizes will invariably fall flat. Regardless of their intentions, the central planners will always fail. Venezuela’s financial woes spiraled out of control after a subsequent chain of ill-fated interventions initiated by artificially manipulating oil prices. However, Venezuela is merely a drop in the bucket, such measures have backfired on just about every country that has entertained similar policies. It starts to become quite salient that when immutable laws are violated the ramifications can be disastrous. This premise isn’t merely regulated to economic law, but all forms of natural law. The intellectuals, bureaucrats, technocrats, and other authority figures rank among men foolish enough to attempt to undermine static and enduring.

 

The sin of such arrogance is far from a new pathology of the human condition and has proven to be quite a pervasive vice. From the dawn of civilization to the Middle ages gout-ridden men reeking of entitlement and excess felt their privileged station was anointed by the will of God. Making them immune to the conventions and morals that bound common men. While monogamy was imperative for the butcher, baker, and the brewer; the king had his court filled with concubines. The king not only felt he was above moral convention, but that of natural law. After all, he is literally a step away from being a deity in his own right. Many medieval rulers in an attempt to keep wealth within their own national boundaries implemented highly protectionist policies. Composited policies that reflect the economic system known as Mercantilism. Which erroneously disregarded just about every basic economic law we hold in high regard.

 

At the apogee of the Scottish Enlightenment, there was one man who saw the folly in the lofty assumption of central planners. He was also an outspoken critic of Mercantilism, that man was the moral philosopher Adam Smith. He expounds upon this phenomena in his 1759 book  The Theory of Moral Sentiments in the personified construct dubbed “The Man of System”:

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamored with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder. (Page 212, para 2)

 

The king believes he can circumvent the will of his subjects and impose import tariffs that will encourage them to buy domestic goods. By virtue of natural law, purchasing cheaper imported goods does not constitute theft or assault, but rather a byproduct of free will. Due to the tariffs being legitimate in the eyes of the royal subjects an expansive smuggling ring is formulated. Illegally importing untaxed goods into the kingdom. People are not chess pieces, nor are they objects. They possess free will (or the illusion of such), an individual set of morals, and the capacity for subjective attributions. It is faulty to surmise that people can be treated as pawns when social law and their own volition will most likely hamper any attempts at planning.

 

It becomes truly horrifying when individuals believe they can legislate morality. The abject failures of alcohol and drug prohibition provide sufficient insight into the shortcomings of such endeavors. Utopia does not exist on planet Earth. The nature of man is imperfect and is incapable of mimicking the pristine deportment of cherubs. We are not saints, no amount of legislation or penalities can correct for this deficit. This not intended to provide immunity for the murder, rapist, or thief. However, they have transgressed against a higher moral code making their actions universally reviled. While the moral indiscretions of the prostitute, the drug addict, and the bookie are not universally seen as wrong.  In the sense that they are victimless crimes. More of a passive acquiescence than an endorsement.

It isn’t natural law that decrees the need for punitive measures for such conduct, but government fiat. This is where we cross the line into legal positivism. An action is either moral or immoral purely on the basis of legislative command. A Pentagon directed bombing campaign that kills innocent civilians was justifiable. A convenience store owner shooting a burglar that is attempting to rob his establishment at gunpoint is a civil infraction. Considering the gross insensitivity to property rights and higher moral values can we truly trust  ” The Man of System” (bureaucrat, legislator, etc.) to codify morality in a self-serving legal system? The prison unions have a storied history of lobbying against the legalization of Marijuana. Who is to say that many of our petty laws exist purely for justifying the existence of a task force or bureaucratic department?

 

It isn’t merely just the conservative Christian or the “law-and-order” types that can assume the proverbial role as “The Man of System”.  The progressive left-wingers have also utilized the government apparatus to legally impose their own brand of  “morality”. Any form of government funded safety-net or subsistence program is a legal attempt at evening the odds for the economically disadvantaged. While it is fair to disagree or agree with such policies, the real line of demarcation is when initiatives to criminalize intolerance are suggested. Most of these policy suggestions amount to compelled speech laws. If certain speech is deemed as hateful it must not be tolerated. To such an extent that there are legal repercussions for using “hate speech”.  As outlandish as it may sound you need to look no further than Bill C-16 passed in Canada to see the ultimate outcome of such ill-advised policies. Implement such sanctions against our speech is purely an assault on the principle of free speech. Even criminalizing the right to be a member of a hate group tramples upon the relished right to free association. If either right is nullified by legislative constraints you are an inch away from living in a dictatorship.

 

These legislative crusaders may be well-intentioned they are willfully ignorant of human nature. Much how you cannot legislate Judeo-Christain values into the psyche of an individual the same holds true for the virtues of social justice. Despite what you do, intolerance will never be completely relinquished as long as humans walk the Earth. The human mind is glutted with biases that push many to favor individuals that are similar to themselves. Similar to themselves in a shared language, values, religion, political identity, ethnic identity, national identity, sexual identity, etc. Considering these proclivities for tribal behavior it becomes quite conspicuous that tolerance is merely another incurably ill of mankind. Sure you may be able to enlighten individuals of the errors in their thinking, but not on any kind of grand level.  Intolerance dies on the same day that man longer yearns for a pint of beer, a dose of opium, and no longer lusts for a voluptuous misteress. Anyone convinced otherwise is profoundly mistaken.

 

I am still perplexed by people who unquestionably trust the judgment and authority of those who insist upon controlling the lives of others. Politicians, bureaucrats, intellectuals, judges among others. All of these individuals are human and none are infallible. All are cable of sin, all are subject to psychological biases, and other influences that would make them biased.Why is the law contrived and fabricated by these purported experts superior to the “golden rule”? Holding the authority of mortal men in such a high degree operates as a perverse form of deification.  Their credentials and education are what separate them from ordinary people. That is it. There aren’t any further qualifying factors that make these individuals morally superior to common folks. In most cases, laws don’t even make us any safer or product our property rights. Most laws if anything is hostile to our property rights. Leaving it reasonable to question, why are lawmakers incentivized to legislate such grotesque sanctions against some of our most basic rights?

 

 

Praise Needs To Be Earned (Wisdom From Adam Smith)

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A few months ago, I was sitting among my co-workers in a meeting reviewing the previous quarter’s sales numbers. My manager just recently completed our quarterly performance reviews. Unbeknownst to me, my well-meaning superior would give me an unwarranted shout out. I had completed an optional industry-related training course and happen to mention this fact to my boss during my quarterly review. My motives being demonstrating my willingness to be a self-directed learner. Surprise, surprise!  My boss decides to articulate my achievement publicly to my team during our team meeting. All 30 of my co-workers, a nice composite of salespeople and pre-sales staff.

 

The natural consequence being applause, most likely a byproduct of social convention. Right, in-synch with all of the social cues that it is almost a semi-automatic response. However,  I did not feel good about this moment of unsolicited praise. As I looked around the room I see slow clapping that mirrored all the signs of a conditioned response. There was something insincere about as gazed at the blase demeanor of my coworkers.  A fitting demeanor coupled with irritated looks skepticism. For some, clear unspoken opprobrium was being expressed by their frustrated glares.  A silent censure. Unarticulated disapproval, not the kind of response I  was intending to invoke. Especially considering I am a very reserved person at work who avoids the spotlight at all costs.

 

Where my coworkers being unreasonable? That is a debatable question, however, their frustration was understandable. At the time I hadn’t even been with my current employer for a year and my workload was lighter than that of my coworkers. The new guy getting praise when everyone else is working circles around him is a recipe for contempt. While I  have many disagreements with my coworkers this was one point we all had some common ground, I didn’t deserve praise. Hence why my stomach sank when it was announced that I had completed the previous referenced training course. I only mentioned it to my boss for any potential exculpatory benefit for my lighter workload. In the end, this ploy only ended up backfiring.

 

My grief and the annoyance of my teammates is far from a new behavior phenomenon.  Rather is an enduring fixture of the human condition and how guilt weighs on our psyche. No other than the great moral philosopher Adam Smith expounded this in his initial book The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Yes, Smith did write a book prior to his classic 1776 The Wealth of  Nations. While The Wealth of Nations focused on behavior patterns on more of a macro level,  The Theory of Moral Sentiments concentrated on human interrelations on the individual level. Smith through the book analyzes the dichotomy between self-interest and the common good. The “impartial spectator” often clashing with the “that passion arises in our breast”.

 

Smith in his first treatise does address the human need for praise and admiration. However, praise is the only gratifying and comforting if it is justifiable. In other words, praise must be obtained under conditions in which we do something that is praiseworthy.

 

As ignorant and groundless praise can give no solid joy, no satisfaction that will bear any serious examination, so, on the contrary, it often gives real comfort to reflect, that though no praise should actually be bestowed upon us, our conduct, however, has been such as to deserve it, and has been in every respect suitable to those measures and rules by which praise and approbation are naturally and commonly bestowed. We are pleased, not only with praise, but with having done what is praise-worthy. We are pleased to think that we have rendered ourselves the natural objects of approbation, though no approbation should ever actually be bestowed upon us: and we are mortified to reflect that we have justly merited the blame of those we live with, though that sentiment should never actually be exerted against us. The man who is conscious to himself that he has exactly observed those measures of conduct which experience informs him are generally agreeable, reflects with satisfaction on the propriety of his own behaviour. When he views it in the light in which the impartial spectator would view it, he thoroughly enters into all the motives which influenced it. He looks back upon every part of it with pleasure and approbation, and though mankind should never be acquainted with what he has done, he regards himself, not so much according to the light in which they actually regard him, as according to that in which they would regard him if they were better informed. He anticipates the applause and admiration which in this case would be bestowed upon him, and he applauds and admires himself by sympathy with sentiments, which do not indeed actually take place, but which the ignorance of the public alone hinders from taking place, which he knows are the natural and ordinary effects of such conduct, which his imagination strongly connects with it, and which he has acquired a habit of conceiving as something that naturally and in propriety ought to follow from it. Men have voluntarily thrown away life to acquire after death a renown which they could no longer enjoy. Their imagination, in the mean time, anticipated that fame which was in future times to be bestowed upon them. Those applauses which they were never to hear rung in their ears; the thoughts of that admiration, whose effects they were never to feel, played about their hearts, banished from their breasts the strongest of all natural fears, and transported them to perform actions which seem almost beyond the reach of human nature. But in point of reality there is surely no great difference between that approbation which is not to be bestowed till we can no longer enjoy it, and that which, indeed, is never to be bestowed, but which would be bestowed, if the world was ever made to understand properly the real circumstances of our behaviour. If the one often produces such violent effects, we cannot wonder that the other should always be highly regarded. (Page 104, Para 2, The Theory of Moral Sentiments )

 

As it is clearly demonstrated from the excerpt above, by the convention of our conscience we know when we have earned praise. Our peers can ascertain when our actions align with proper virtue are in-turn worthy of admiration. Undeserved praise for most people is an empty gesture devoid of any true satisfaction. By virtue of our norms,  our unwritten but universally understood societal rules, displeasure is experienced by both parties. The individual who receives undue praise is overwhelmed with guilt.  In contrast, the observing peers are frustrated by this minor but notable injustice. There are two principles at play eliciting both responses. The party who receives unearned accolades feels guilty as they know they didn’t rightfully earn them. It mirrors the concept that you appreciate more what you work for than what is given to you. Deep down in your subconscious, you know you are cheating someone who is deserving out of their time in the spotlight. Your disgruntled peers know that they got cheated out of justifiable recognition for their hard work. Unjust violation of norms constitutes cheating. Even if the  “cheating” wasn’t intentionally perpetrated. Cross-culturally humans in general adversion to cheating.