November 11, 2023 Reading Time: 5 minutes
Fragment of Memorial dedicated to victims of the Holodomor, 1932-1933. Kyiv, Ukraine.

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith gives the example of a hypothetical great earthquake in China that killed millions. Smith suggests 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 supposes, that if this man were to ”lose his little finger,” he would be profoundly absorbed by his misfortune.  

Smith poses 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, more important than the rights of the individual is the assigned merits of the group they belong to. (A recent conversation between the AIER’s Phil Magness and Kate Wand helps to illuminate aspects of the issue.) 

Smith offered guidance so we can pass his finger test. 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, without bias, our ethical conduct):

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 finger test would apply to the millions of American college students and professors whose minds are twisted by rigid social justice scorecards of the oppressor and the oppressed. Remaining true to their identity politics is their prime directive. Smith might say without the guidance of their impartial spectator, they have lost their humanity. 

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 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 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 finger 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.

Now is the time to inquire into the active principles guiding our own conduct so we do not allow ideology to drown the voice of the impartial spectator within us. 

Barry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore.

He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership, and his essays have appeared in publications such as the Foundation for Economic Education and Intellectual Takeout.

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