Adam Smith on Humanity’s Greatest Weakness
No longer blinded by self-deceit, our freedom to choose is restored.
Most weeks, the non-fiction bestseller lists have one or more self-improvement books promising specific techniques you can use to be healthier, more productive, happier; you name it.
Since almost any technique will work for some people, a well-written self-improvement book can quickly raise an army of evangelicals to sing its praises. Since it is also true that no technique will work all the time for all people, there is great demand for the next new “best way,” which will fade into oblivion after its day in the spotlight. Yet, as G. K. Chesterton wrote, “It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It is that they can’t see the problem.” A deeper problem is that techniques are only bandages; they do not address our deeper problems.
Great moral philosophers have always encouraged us to look at ourselves in the mirror to see our problems instead of looking outside. Notice your self-talk, and listen to what you say in conversations with family and friends. The problems we diagnose are often with the world, another person, or a group. We are often sure the source of our upset comes from what somewhat else said or did. We never seem to notice that while the characters in our life may change, the plot of our story is replayed as we claim to be the innocent victim of all our troubles.
There is more than a bit of Larry David (as he exaggerates himself in Curb Your Enthusiasm) in all of us. We are sure everything would be all right if everyone behaved according to our rules. We can go through our life, like Larry, having an external focus, lasering in on what others are doing, and learning nothing about how to have a life with more grace and internal freedom.
In his The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith pointed us to the underlying problem. Smith explained that “self-deceit” is the “fatal weakness of mankind” and “the source of half the disorders of human life.”
Suffering a physical disorder, we may find the cause and remedy well-diagnosed; and few would resist, for example, a physician setting a broken arm. But “self-deceit” is a mindset disorder; if we are unwilling to accept the diagnosis, a mindset disease is incurable and spreadable.
Others, having engaged in their own acts of self-deceit are ready to collude with us in a downward spiral of self-deception. The results of this plague of self-deceit can be war as nations aggress against others, destroyed economies as arrogant planners cannot recognize the limits of their knowledge, and attacks on free speech as individuals demand censorship of ideas different from their own.
Smith observed why our “self-deceit” can be so lasting. Simply, “It is disagreeable to think ill of ourselves.” We are sure we are right; and if our certainty makes us miserable, so be it. 'Tis better to be right than happy, seems to be a code of living many of us have adopted.
Stubbornly, we don’t want to see ourselves the way a morally neutral observer would see us. Smith writes, “So partial are the views of mankind with regard to the propriety of their own conduct, both at the time of action and after it; and so difficult is it for them to view it in the light in which any indifferent spectator would consider it.”
Smith observed, “If we saw ourselves in the light in which others see us, or in which they would see us if they knew all, a reformation would generally be unavoidable. We could not otherwise endure the sight.” Yet, others have their own biases, and, in any case, such seeing is difficult. Along with our self-deception comes the resistance to accepting that we have a problem.
Worse, the choice to fool ourselves may be purposeful. We may want to pose as an innocent victim to eschew responsibility for our decisions.
Contemporary philosophy professor emeritus C. Terry Warner provides some of the most leveraged ideas for those eager to overcome self-deceit. In a collection of academic papers published by the Arbinger Institute—the Oxford Papers—Warner lays out the intellectual foundations of his theory of self-deception.
The Arbinger Institute, founded by Warner, has drawn out the practical implications of Warner’s theory in a series of bestsellers: Leadership and Self-Deception, The Anatomy of Peace, and The Outward Mindset. In their introduction to the Oxford Papers, the Arbinger Institute writes, “we humans are in large part self-deceived about what kind of beings we are, why we act as we do, and the quality of living available to us if we can bring our self-deceptions to an end.”
Warner tackles the issue at the heart of self-deception: “We regard our emotion as a condition provoked or aroused in us—'You are making me angry’—or as a condition that has befallen us—'I think it’s her son’s rebelliousness that’s saddened her so profoundly.’”
As Warner writes, anger is just one example of emotions where we have reversed cause and effect. Warner explains that the angry person sees themselves as a victim that is “being caused to be angry” and merely “responding to a threat wholly independent of her will.” In summary, Warner denies the assertion that we are not responsible for our false interpretation of reality:
By our self-presentation we make the claim that they are responsible for what we are suffering and that we bear no responsibility for it. Thus we present ourselves as passive in our offense taking/accusing attitudes. We present ourselves as ‘only responding to the circumstances,’ as ‘only reacting to what is being done to us.’
Warner’s cure requires some bitter medicine as you uncover your own self-deceit. Yet, the treatment turns sweet; under all our caked-on mud, the best of our human nature is revealed as we subtract our self-deception.
What moral philosophy could be more helpful than that of Smith and Warner, who reminds us we have a mind that can make a different choice?
Both Smith and Warner point us to consider our resistance to suggestions that reality is other than how we see it. When we are self-deceived, we mentally justify our thoughts and behaviors. With each justification, we construct what we think is our airtight justification for our misconstrued interpretation of reality. Smith observes,
Rather than see our own behaviour under so disagreeable an aspect, we too often, foolishly and weakly, endeavour to exasperate anew those unjust passions which had formerly misled us; we endeavour by artifice to awaken our old hatreds, and irritate afresh our almost forgotten resentments: we even exert ourselves for this miserable purpose, and thus persevere in injustice, merely because we once were unjust, and because we are ashamed and afraid to see that we were so.
Our desire to protect our self-deception causes us to double down. The worse we feel, the more we attribute how we feel to other people and circumstances. Notice how that gets you off the hook, a chance to play the part of a victim, feel sorry for yourself, and perversely luxuriate in your self-deceit.
Self-deceit can lead to two types of impacts. One impact is we suffer and cannot live up to our potential to have a purposeful life. The other impact occurs when our self-deceit actively leads us to aggress against others. Consider those who threaten free speech because someone else's words offend them. Alarmingly, a recent poll of college students found that 48% were willing to apply the death penalty for offensive speech. Students’ self-deception—their claims that mere words harm them—has now been elevated from a threat to living their own life with fulfillment to a threat that menaces the lives of others. Such behavior is not motived by virtue, as the self-deceived present it to be. Warner explains:
We deceive ourselves by adopting a self-deceiving rhetoric of moral conscientiousness and excuse—the rhetoric includes our avowals of emotion—and, by this means, presenting ourselves as morally justified. Such self-presentation is contrary to what a straightforward outsider can plainly observe of what we are doing. We make ourselves out to be acting conscientiously, whereas others can tell that, rather than acting conscientiously, we are merely making ourselves out to be doing so, which is a dissembling rather than a conscientious thing to do.
If we are willing, there are limits to our self-deceit. No one, Smith believes, lacks access to the moral sense to overcome one’s “deformity of passions and affections.” Moral sense arises, writes Smith, as:
reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct. It is he, who, whenever we are about to act so as to affect the happiness of others, calls to us with a voice capable of astonishing the most presumptuous of our passions, that we are but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it; and that when we prefer ourselves so shamefully and so blindly to others, we become the proper objects of resentment, abhorrence, and execration.
“The great judge” within each of us Smith also calls the “impartial spectator.” Of the “impartial spectator” Smith writes, “It is from him only that we learn the real littleness of ourselves, and of whatever relates to ourselves, and the natural misrepresentations of self-love can be corrected only by the eye of this impartial spectator.”
As we listen to our inner voice, we learn to abhor the “deformity of injustice” and “the love of what is honourable and noble, of the grandeur, and dignity, and superiority of our own characters” comes forward. The inner voice is never silent, but our willingness to listen varies greatly.
Listening to this inner moral conscience is far from easy. No one is exempt from the universal problem of self-deceit. Smith writes, “Even in good men, the judge within is often in danger of being corrupted by the violence and injustice of their selfish passions, and is often induced to make a report very different from what the real circumstances of the case are capable of authorizing.”
Our mindset of self-deceit is like background noise from the busy boulevard in front of our house; we have learned to take it for granted.
When we are in the grips of self-deception, we are resistant to considering the needs of others. We fool ourselves into believing others deserve how we treat or think about them.
The more we thicken the walls of our self-deceit, the more we obstruct the reception of the urges, impulses, and prompts coming from the inner “impartial spectator.” We may protest our terrible circumstances while self-deceit is happy to be in control, offering guidance.
We can resist learning about our self-deceit by projecting our failings onto others. When we don't see our intolerance, we accuse others of it. We try to do the impossible and build a happy and fulfilled life on a rotting foundation constructed from our distorted interpretation of reality. Worse than refusing to see our self-deceit, we feel morally justified in transgressing against others. Smith was right, self-deceit is responsible for much of the suffering of humanity.
It is difficult to look directly, without resistance, at our mindset of self-deception. Smith instructs us to be “bold” and “not hesitate to pull off the mysterious veil of self-delusion, which covers from [our] view the deformities of [our] own conduct.” The rewards of pulling back that veil are great; no longer blinded by self-deceit, our willingness to look within restores the freedom to choose differently.
A shorter version of this essay was originally published at the American Insitute for Economic Research.
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