A Theory of Moral Sentiments in the Era of Facebook

Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments is a fascinating read in moral philosophy. A few pages in, you get the sense that Adam Smith was very much not who you heard about in undergrad.* For a long version of my take on this, see here. One of Smith’s most interesting arguments, for me, was the connection between sympathy and ambition. Specifically, Smith argues in section III, ch. 2, “Of the origin of Ambition and the distinction of Ranks” that:

“It is because mankind are disposed to sympathize more entirely with our joy than with our sorrow that we make parade of our riches and conceal our poverty. … [I]t is chiefly from this regard to the sentiments of mankind, that we pursue riches and avoid poverty.”

So, because we prefer to sympathize with happy, successful people, and not major downers, we end up pursuing riches and avoiding poverty. Sympathy breeds self-interest.

What struck me this morning was how this plays out on Facebook. A friend of mine posted about an ill relative and I was struck by the desire to say something, express some generic emotion. But how? Smith thought mankind was “disposed to sympathize more entirely with our joy” back in the 18th century. Facebook has taken that disposition and encoded it technologically. Every time a friend posts a happy status update, a funny story, etc., you can “like” the post, easily expressing your positive sympathies. No equivalent feature lets you so readily express generic sympathy with unhappy updates. Facebook has channeled our expressions of sympathy, reinforcing a trend Adam Smith saw 250 years ago.

Now, you could say, ‘just write some generic platitude and move on!’ There are certainly plenty of handy expressions floating around for expressing sympathy with a negative outcome (i.e. “scripts”, think of Get Well Soon cards). But somehow, Facebook “likes” have made such generic expressions of joy more insincere seeming, while the asymmetry highlights how useless and invasive it feels to say something generically sympathetic on a negative status (especially to a friend who is only a weak tie, so to speak). Also, to all my friends with sick relatives this morning (as sadly that set is non-singular today), well, pretend I clicked the “I’m here for you” and “I’m so sorry” buttons.

* Schumpeter referred to the apparent tension between Smith’s selfish rational individual in Wealth of Nations, and the sympathy driven individual of Moral Sentiments as “Das Adam Smith Problem.” I agree with others, like Gavin Kennedy, who don’t think there is as much a contradiction as a systematic misreading of Wealth, which doesn’t really rely on a selfish individual.

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