McGowan: A Christmas Greeting from Adam Smith
Our friend and adjunct has written this year’s Christmas Letter as if by Adam Smith. He notes that Smith was an ethicist first and an economists only second, writing “Theory of Moral Sentiments” in 1759 (without a revision) and “Wealth of Nations” sevens years later (with five revisions before his death in 1796).
I write in the spirit of the times, that you would be more suitably disposed toward charitable acts in this most giving of seasons. And I ask that you may indulge me the spirit of charity as I use language from my books and do not always put pen to page anew.
Were such an indulgence granted, I would most humbly be grateful, for such indulgence would be consistent with my first book’s opening sentence: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.” After all, “nature exhorts people to acts of beneficence,” though no recompense may be forthcoming nor gain made. In this glorious and festive season, set aside self-interest and pursue beneficence.
It may be added, too, that we realize more fully our humanity when exercising action based on “fellow-feeling.” It is as I said, “to feel much for others and little for ourselves, to restrain our selfish desires, and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature.” Think of that perfection during the year’s season of joy. Go forth and greet others with the warmth of fellow feeling.
Reflect upon your good fortune and, particularly, take note of and care for the less fortunate among us. I observed that “The disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and powerful . . . and to neglect persons of poor and mean condition . . . is the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.” As well, it is good practice to help the needy and the indisposed, for our fortunes may turn someday and we be among them — and “we suffer more . . . when we fall from a better to a worse situation, than we ever enjoy when we rise from a worse to a better.” We do well to concern ourselves with people in all stations of life, for life’s fortunes may turn against us.
You who have had great blessings in life, provide for others generously. It is sensible “that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more in that proportion.” You who have much, be thankful and give of those blessings. It is as I noted, “all for ourselves and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind,” but “if masters would always listen to the dictates of reason and humanity,” they would be led to kindness and, nay, gratitude for the chance to help others.
Let us all realize that every person’s “own interest is connected with the prosperity of society, and that the happiness, perhaps the preservation of his existence, depends upon its preservation.” I pray we be mindful of our blessings and attentive to those in “poor and mean condition.” Such care and attention are appropriate for this season and necessary in every season.
Be of good will and a glad heart.
Most faithfully yours, Adam Smith.
Richard McGowan, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, has taught philosophy and ethics cores for more than 40 years, most recently at Butler University.