Discover more from Mindset Shifts—Essays by Barry Brownstein
Barbarians Can’t Pass This Adam Smith Test
Amoral justifications bury the voice of conscience.
Almost 300 years ago, Adam Smith offered us a barbarian detector, a simple hypothetical test he thought everyone would pass.
In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith gave the example of a hypothetical great earthquake in China that killed millions. Smith suggested that a "man of humanity" would passively express his sorrow for the lives lost. Yet, once these "human sentiments" were expressed, he would maintain the same tranquility as if no such tragedy had happened. Yet Smith supposed if this man were to ”lose his little finger,” he would be profoundly absorbed by his misfortune.
Smith posed this question, “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?”
To Smith and almost anybody reading this essay, the answer to this question is an unequivocal no. Smith observed, “Human nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it.”
Of course, Smith didn’t live to see the rogues’ gallery of 20th-century villains. In his book about the Holodomor, The Harvest of Sorrow, Robert Conquest quotes a 1934 Soviet novel that explains the dehumanizing rationale for starving the Ukrainian kulaks. “Not one of them was guilty of anything, but they belonged to a class that was guilty of everything.”
The dehumanization of the kulaks began a decade before. Referring to an earlier Soviet famine, Lenin said in 1922, “Psychologically, all this talk about feeding the starving and so on essentially reflects the usually sugary sentimentality of our intelligentsia.”
Lenin couldn’t pass Adam Smith’s test, but what about today’s “intelligentsia?” In academia today, the merits assigned to groups of people are more important than the individual's rights.
In an essay written for The Atlantic, Helen Lewis argues that “progressives,” particularly in academia, are flunking what she calls the Hamas test: “Can you condemn the slaughter of civilians, in massacres… sadistic and outrageous, without equivocation or whataboutism?” For minds twisted by rigid social justice scorecards of the oppressor and the oppressed, the answer is no. To some, even babies were colonizers who deserved what they got.
We could have seen the twisted reactions of progressives coming, reactions that Adam Smith would say are not those of normal human beings. Each time you relinquish your humanity, you have chosen to be a barbarian.
Smith offered guidance so we can pass his simple morality test. If we have lost our humanity, we can regain it. He inquired: “When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble?”
Here is Smith’s answer as he refers to the impartial spectator (our inner voice that evaluates our ethical conduct without bias):
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. It is a stronger power, a more forcible motive, which exerts itself upon such occasions. It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct.
Our impartial spectator brings to our awareness “the real littleness of ourselves” and “the deformity of doing the smallest injury to another in order to obtain the greatest benefit to ourselves.” With this awareness, Smith points to leavening forces in our conduct: “the love of what is honourable and noble, of the grandeur, and dignity, and superiority of our own characters.”
While Smith never saw the horrors of the 20th century, his morality test would apply to the millions who justify depraved brutality, including rape and the burning and decapitating of babies. For those twisted minds, the comfort of remaining true to their identity politics is their prime directive and worth the slaughter of Jews. Smith might say that without their impartial spectator's guidance, they have lost their humanity. They are barbarians.
What would Smith say, for example, to the Cornell University professor who publicly revealed he was “exhilarated” by the pogrom? Or to the writer sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania who joked about a news report that Hamas terrorists baked a baby in an oven?
Consider the results of this Harvard/Harris poll:
More than half (51%) of 18- to 24-year-olds and nearly half (48%) of 25- to 34-year-olds, with 24% overall, said that the Hamas attacks “can be justified by the grievance of Palestinians.”
[Only] 53% of 18- to 24-year-olds, and 54% of 25- to 34-year-olds said that Hamas “indiscriminately targeted civilians.”
When asked if it was true that “Hamas terrorists killed 1,200 Israeli civilians by shooting them, raping and beheading people including whole families, kids and babies,” almost “a third (32%) of 18- to 24-year-olds said [this] was a false story.”
In The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, “Those who go to the Archipelago to administer it get there via the training schools of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.”
In the spirit of Solzhenitsyn, today, we can observe many of those who justify a barbarian pogrom attend and teach at American colleges and universities.
In his 1693 work, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, John Locke argued the “welfare and prosperity of the nation” depends on the “well educating” of children. Is the nation's welfare at stake when students are more likely to be familiar with the 1619 Project than America’s founding documents? We have allowed our institutions to be hijacked by illiberal authoritarians posing as humanists. Should it surprise us that morality is in short supply?
In the aftermath of the Russian revolution, intellectuals were, in Vasily Grossman’s words, “hypnotized” and “enchanted by the might of the new world.” In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn explained they had no idea of the horrors to come:
If the intellectuals in the plays of Chekhov who spent all their time guessing what would happen in twenty, thirty, or forty years had been told that in forty years interrogation by torture would be practiced in Russia; that prisoners would have their skulls squeezed within iron rings, that a human being would be lowered into an acid bath; that they would be trussed up naked to be bitten by ants and bedbugs; that a ramrod heated over a primus stove would be thrust up their anal canal (the “secret brand”); that a man’s genitals would be slowly crushed beneath the toe of a jackboot; and that, in the luckiest possible circumstances, prisoners would be tortured by being kept from sleeping for a week, by thirst, and by being beaten to a bloody pulp, not one of Chekhov’s plays would have gotten to its end because all the heroes would have gone off to insane asylums.
In Stalin’s Soviet Union, ideology trumped morality and human rights. Amoral justifications buried the voice of conscience within individuals. Even after truths about communism were known, Solzhenitsyn observed, many justified its horrors by claims of “progress”:
If we start to recall the sufferings of millions, we are told it will distort the historical perspective! If we doggedly seek out the essence of our morality, we are told it will darken our material progress! Let’s think rather about the blast furnaces, the rolling mills that were built, the canals that were dug.
Is civilization hanging by a thread? A generation of college students now have no respect for the virtuous cycle of morals arising with and sustaining human civilization. Hayek was clear:
[O]ur civilization is indeed largely an unforeseen and unintended outcome of our submitting to moral and legal rules which were never “invented” with such a result in mind, but which grew because those societies which developed them piecemeal prevailed at every step over other groups which followed different rules, less conducive to the growth of civilization.
In one of his most important essays, “Individualism: True and False,” F. A. Hayek issued a crucial warning that should be better known: “While it may not be difficult to destroy the spontaneous formations which are the indispensable bases of a free civilization, it may be beyond our power deliberately to reconstruct such a civilization once these foundations are destroyed.”
I offer no good news today. Our educational system trains minds to flunk Smith’s morality test. Those who flunk offer illiberal ideas that stunt human flourishing. For them, ideology trumps morality and human rights; amoral justifications bury the voice of their conscience. Barbarians are storming the gates because we have allowed barbarian ideas to take root in our educational system and our minds.
Now is the time to inquire into the active principles guiding our conduct so we do not allow ideology to drown the voice of the impartial spectator within us. Our inner arbiter, our conscience, prompts us to end our silence so that twisted minds do not shape the future of humanity.
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Thank you for bringing clarity to my confusion.
Great writing Barry.. Keep up the fight to educate.