June 9, 2021 Reading Time: 4 minutes

Last spring, cancel culture came for Adam Smith. The Slavery and Colonialism Legacy Review Group in Edinburgh interrogated Adam Smith’s links to “slavery and colonialism” and considered “reconfiguring” his statue and grave. The move was especially bizarre given Smith’s anti-slavery sentiments. 

As Daniel Klein observes, “For years Smith was acknowledged by British abolitionists as an opponent of slavery. Yet now, in 2021, we’re supposed to believe that his ‘link’ to slavery was discreditable?” Klein and others swiftly disproved the allegations, but the inquisition of other intellectuals continues apace.

It’s time for Adam Smith to take cancel culture in hand.

While Smith died centuries ago, his theories illuminate what is wrong with the methods and goals of cancel culture. Yet rather than presenting strategies for ruining activists, Smith explains how to achieve tranquility while pursuing prosperity for all.

“Though our brother is upon the rack:” Sympathy vs. the Finger

It starts with sympathy. Smith opens his Theory of Moral Sentiments by noting what is good in human nature. It’s a genuine interest in the fortunes of others, as exemplified when we see “our brother . . . upon the rack”—not when we put him there. 

Consider the case of one parent in Loudoun County, Virginia who opposes Critical Race Theory in schools. While she was interviewed by a reporter, a neighbor behind her made rude hand gestures, causing her visible distress.

“I thought that I could be conservative and a Republican and she could be liberal and a Democrat but we could still be friends. . . . I feel so betrayed right now and so sad for people who can’t move past that and judge me for my character,” she said.    

But the neighbor refused to engage in what Smith calls the impartial spectator process. By imaginatively placing ourselves in the position of the sufferer, Smith argues, we can understand something of what she might feel. By comparing our responses to hers, we can move to a fairer moral judgment. 

This process also applies to our judgment of ourselves. By stepping outside of ourselves, viewing our behavior from the perspective of a bystander, we can determine when to lower our passions to the pitch with which our audience can sympathize. Ideally, we can even judge when we are wrong.

Without this process of sympathy and judgment, individuals lose their way, as evident in a recent lecture at Yale on “The Psychopathic Problem of the White Mind.” The speaker declared, “I had fantasies of unloading a revolver into the head of any white person that got in my way, burying their body and wiping my bloody hands as I walked away relatively guiltless with a bounce in my step.”

“The very existence of human society:” Civility vs. “Bloody Hands”

Such rhetoric is not designed to persuade by sympathy. Instead, it expresses hatred and rejects the ideal of “civility,” which denotes “behaviour or speech appropriate to civil interactions; politeness, courtesy, consideration”(Oxford English Dictionary).

As Adam Smith explains, upholding the duty of civility in even casual encounters is essential. If we are unable to behave decently on trivial occasions, such as being interrupted by a friend, how can we fulfill the more important obligations of life? In fact, as Smith warns in The Theory of Moral Sentiments

But upon the tolerable observance of these duties, depends the very existence of human society, which would crumble into nothing if mankind were not generally impressed with a reverence for those important rules of conduct. 

Consider the financial costs of the riots last summer. Witness the rising tide of homicides today. Ponder the moral effects of a best-selling book in which the author prays, “Dear God, Please help me to hate white people.” And reflect on the long-term consequences of cancelling people, institutions, and even books by authors such as Homer.

This is not “social justice.” It is injustice fueled by political division. And as Adam Smith warns, the impartial spectator is never so far away as amidst factionalism:

The true party-man hates and despises candour. . . . The real, the revered, and impartial spectator, therefore, is, upon no occasion, at a greater distance than amidst the violence and rage of contending parties. . . . Of all the corrupters of moral sentiments, therefore faction and fanaticism have always been by far the greatest. 

The escalating rhetoric and the resulting violence in our culture pose this very danger. 

“Pieces upon the chessboard:” The Invisible Hand vs. the Controlling Fist

Smith’s warning about factionalism is especially relevant to political leaders and intellectuals engaged with cancel culture. He explains, “Amidst the turbulence and disorder of faction, a certain spirit of system is apt to mix itself with the public spirit which is founded upon the love of humanity.” With good intentions, leaders propose “to new-model the constitution,” including many of the systems that have enabled prosperity. 

Moreover, “the man of system” might love “the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government” so much that he insists on implementing it regardless of opposition:

He seems to imagine that he can arrange 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 on 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. 

People are not pawns to be aligned by color or moved around or knocked off the board or cancelled. Treating individuals in this way produces civil discord and hence the poverty of the nation.

The alternative offered by Smith is a practical morality. By embracing sympathy and moral reflection, we can come to understand others and ourselves rather than canceling individuals. By adhering to civility, we can restore the tranquility in our culture and move forward together, not splinter into hostile factions. 

And finally, by rejecting the controlling fist, we can accept the prosperity enabled by the invisible hand—Smith’s metaphor for the way in which individuals pursuing their own interests through ethical, mutual exchange leads to the prosperity that was not consciously designed by any intellectual. No person has that much knowledge.

In short, it’s time for cancel culture to read some Smith. Instead of ranting on social media, talk to the (Invisible) Hand.

Caroline Breashears

Caroline Breashears

Dr. Caroline Breashears is a Professor of English at St. Lawrence University. Caroline received her Ph.D. from the University of Virginia and specializes in eighteenth-century British literature. Recent publications include Eighteenth-Century Women’s Writing and the “Scandalous Memoir” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) and articles in Aphra Behn Online and the International Journal of Pluralistic and Economics Education.

She was recently an Adam Smith Scholar at Liberty Fund, and her current research focuses on Adam Smith and literature. She teaches courses on fairy tales, eighteenth-century British Literature, and Jane Austen.

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