Smith’s argument that morality is not calculated but built into us as social beings, with our conduct checked and balanced by the gaze of those around us, directly inspired one of the poet’s most cherished lines: “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us, To see oursels as others see us!”.
If we understand how others might view us, it might help us avoid blunders, such as the uppity woman described in Burns’ To a Louse.
Meanwhile, Smith’s view that morality is rooted in sympathy, what we would probably describe today as empathy, worked its way into To a Mouse. Burns’ apology to the cowran, tim’rous beastie whose nest he turned over in a field led to the poet imagining himself in the position of the little creature, who was left without a home for winter. As a tenant farmer, he could wholly sympathise.
Dr Craig Smith, an expert on Smith at Glasgow, believes the philosopher’s 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments is still relevant today, more so than his later Wealth of Nations, which earned him the crown of the ‘father of modern economics’. While economics have changed, human nature has not.
Getting a copy of the Theory of Moral Sentiments has got me thinking about how our actions are governed by other people. I’ve seen people act as judge, jury and social executioner in the most unjust manner, so I’ll be careful who I take my cues from. I’ve started thinking about my front door, handstripped of 100 years of paint a few months ago and not yet re-glossed, it's raw form – to me – a thing of unique beauty. But do those passing in the village just think someone who doesn’t care lives there? Maybe I’ll crack open the Dulux this weekend. Or maybe not. I’ll see how I get on with the book.
As the tercentenary of Adam Smith’s birth is marked at Glasgow University this year, it’s prime time to look back at what he offered – and what he can tell us about where we’ve been, where we are, and where we should be going.