MORAL CONSEQUENCES OF THE POOR LAW
Though Smith’s first concern with the poor law is economic—the distortion of the labor market—he spends a good deal more time in this section discussing moral effects of the law. He points out how the law affects the public perception of the poor laborers, which is tied to their ability to find work under the poor law. He also focuses on the justice of the law, namely whether or not workers who have families and especially need work or relief will be able to get it, and how the law affects the liberty of workers.
Smith characterizes the main problem with the law as the oversight of the parish wardens over the settlement of the poor laborers. They represent how the poor law, by administering poor people, teaches others to treat them as objects to be relocated, rather than as moral beings deserving of sympathy and respect. Smith explains again and again how workers were removed “at the caprice of any churchwarden or overseer” (WN I.x.c.54). In his eyes, these overseers were corrupt and did not make judgments according to principles of propriety.14 The Settlement Act was ineffective in its goal to promote free circulation of labor because laborers depended on the objectivity of the overseers. In what follows, I explain how what looks like an economic problem only, preventing laborers from following the market for labor, was actually a moral problem. By treating the poor as objects to be administered, the poor law placed overseers in a position of authority over the poor where the conditions of the law made it difficult for them to overcome social distance and sympathize with the poor. Though Smith discusses solutions to the problem of the extent of sympathy, such as the development of the impartial spectator and general rules of morality, the specific provisions of the Settlement Act that required poor laborers to be judged via a certificate that overseers would review prevented these solutions from being effective.
In Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith explains why the objectivity of overseers was unlikely because of the gap between rich and poor in sympathetic relationships. As part of his explanation of sympathy, Smith presents the difficulty of sympathizing beyond one’s social group, sometimes called the extent of sympathy problem. Sympathy is defined as “fellow-feeling with any passion whatever” (TMS I.i.1.5). It requires that we imagine the emotions of another person and try to experience them ourselves because we can never directly experience the emotions of another person. However, sympathizing then becomes difficult if we cannot imagine the emotions of another as they would experience them. He argues that though all people naturally sympathize with others, it is more difficult to sympathize with those outside of our immediate physical or social context (Forman-Barzilai 2005). In other words, it is difficult to sympathize with those who are unfamiliar to us, because we cannot imagine the emotions of this “other” or enter into their situation (Otteson 2002). Smith says, for example, “men, though naturally sympathetic, feel so little for another, with whom they have no particular connexion, in comparison of what they feel for themselves; the misery of one, who is merely their fellow-creature, is of so little importance to them in comparison even of a small conveniency of their own” (TMS II.ii.3.4). Though Smith asserts that sympathy for others is natural, he recognizes that it is difficult for us to think outside of ourselves and our immediate situation. This is precisely why in order to develop the impartial spectator and be able to judge ourselves, we must also gain distance from ourselves to be able to judge as an external person would judge us. Smith presents the same idea earlier in TMS. He argues that even if we succeed in imagining the situation of another, our own feelings prevent us from sympathizing with them completely. He puts it:
Mankind, though naturally sympathetic, never conceive, for what has befallen another, that degree of passion which naturally animates the person principally concerned. That imaginary change of situation, upon which their sympathy is founded, is but momentary. The thought of their own safety, the thought that they themselves are not really the sufferers, continually intrudes itself upon them; and though it does not hinder them from conceiving a passion somewhat analogous to what is felt by the sufferer, hinders them from conceiving any thing that approaches to the same degree of violence. (TMS I.i.4.7)
We can experience the emotions of another person, but never as fully as they experience them because the emotions are not ours. Therefore, though sympathy is a natural predisposition, it is also naturally limited by our own self-interest. And yet, “sympathy, however, cannot in any sense be regarded as a selfish principle” (TMS VII.iii.1.4). Self-interest for Smith does not mean selfish, but rather that we are “confined to ourselves” (Griswold 1999, 78). We will likely never achieve perfect unison with another person’s emotions, but we achieve correspondence “and this is all that is wanted or required” (TMS I.i.4.7). We always desire to sympathize with others and to be an object of the sympathy, even with those who are distant from us, but we are also limited by our experiences and surroundings.
It is also difficult for us to sympathize with those outside of our social rank, even if they share a physical environment with us (Hanley 2008, 48). Smith builds the case for this argument throughout TMS. First, we all desire to be the object of another person’s sympathy. Their fellow-feeling with our emotions “enlivens our joy” and “alleviates our grief” (TMS I.i.2.2). We desire to be the object of another’s approbation. However, this desire for relief means we are more likely to sympathize with joy rather than sorrow. We would rather take home to ourselves happy emotions rather than sad ones. Smith theorizes about this saying, “Nature, it seems, when she loaded us with our own sorrows, thought that they were enough, and therefore did not command us to take any further share in those of others, than what was necessary to prompt us to relieve them” (TMS I.iii.1.12). This proclivity extends to people whose condition is not pleasant for us to imagine or enter into, especially if we are unsure if we can provide relief. He offers several reasons for this and ties this tendency to sympathize with joy rather than sorrow to why we are predisposed to look down upon the poor:
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. Nothing is so mortifying as to be obliged to expose our distress to the view of the public, and to feel, that though our situation is open to the eyes of all mankind, no mortal conceives for us the half of what we suffer. Nay, it is chiefly from this regard to the sentiments of mankind that we pursue riches and avoid poverty. (TMS I.iii.2.1, 50)
We do sympathize with “great sorrows” but not everyday ones, because it is easier and feels better to sympathize with small joys (TMS I.ii.5.1). Because we are more inclined to sympathize with joy, and because it is difficult to sympathize outside of our social group, we are predisposed not to sympathize with the poor.
Our desire for approbation and our proclivity to sympathize with joy rather than sorrow causes us to praise the rich and look down upon, or worse, ignore the poor. He describes how harmful this is for the person denied the relief of the sympathy of his peers:
The poor man, on the contrary, is ashamed of his poverty. He feels that it either places him out of sight of mankind, or, that if they take any notice of him, they have, however, scarce any fellow-feeling with the misery and distress which he suffers. He is mortified upon both accounts; for though to be overlooked, and to be disapproved of, are things entirely different, yet as obscurity covers us from the daylight of honour and approbation, to feel that we are taken no notice of, necessarily damps the most agreeable hope, and disappoints the most ardent desire of human nature. (TMS I.iii.2.1)
We view the poor as others who are unworthy of our sympathy, and we avoid them so we do not have to experience the unpleasant realities of their lives. In another example, when discussing why religion should not be funded by the state but instead should raise its own funds, Smith explains the appeal of religious sects for the poor. These sects give the poor the recognition they do not receive in the large, industrial city. Whereas the rich man is always respected,
A man of low condition, on the contrary, is far from being a distinguished member of any great society. While he remains in a country village his conduct may be attended to, and he may be obliged to attend to it himself. In this situation, and in this situation only, he may have what is called a character to lose. But as soon as he comes into a great city, he is sunk in obscurity and darkness. His conduct is observed and attended to by nobody, and he is therefore very likely to neglect it himself, and to abandon himself to every sort of low profligacy and vice. (WN V.i.g.11)
The poor man is not given the approbation—or disapprobation—of his peers. His peers do not notice him at all. This is problematic for his sense of self, but also for his development of moral standards, especially of the impartial spectator. We develop our ability to judge our own behavior and that of others through our many, repeated sympathetic interactions with others in society.
The difficulty of sympathizing with others from a different social rank also causes us to try to make ourselves seem wealthy so we will garner the attention and sympathy of others. Smith notes that we are often the object of another’s attention when we adorn ourselves with nice things. We therefore desire to be wealthy because we know this attracts the attention of our peers: “From whence, then, arises that emulation which runs through all the different ranks of men, and what are the advantages which we propose by that great purpose of human life which we call bettering our condition? To be observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sympathy, complacency, and approbation, are all the advantages which we can propose to derive from it” (TMS I.iii.2.1). Conversely, we want to avoid poverty, because this makes it less likely that we will be able to gain the approbation of our peers. In these ways, when making moral judgments about our peers we substitute wealth, or the appearance of wealth, for virtue in our judgment of their character and moral worth as people deserving of our fellow-feeling.
Smith offers two solutions to the problem of the extent of sympathy in Theory of Moral Sentiments: (1) moral education through the development of the impartial spectator and (2) general rules of morality.15 The impartial spectator is a perspective one can adopt to judge one’s behavior as an objective observer would view it, or to view other’s behavior in the same way. “It is he who, whenever we are about to act so as to affect the happiness of others, calls to us, with a voice capable of astonishing the most presumptuous of our passions, that we are but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it; and that when we prefer ourselves so shamefully and so blindly to others, we become the proper objects of resentment” (TMS III.3.4). The impartial spectator is developed through repeated sympathetic interactions with others. Because it necessarily involves being objective or “impartial” with regard to our own behavior, it is difficult to adopt the perspective of this man within the breast, as Smith refers to him; however, this perspective can be developed and exercised with practice. Smith explains the exercise of the impartial spectator as self-command.
Similarly, general rules of morality are formed based on what human beings would decide if they were being their best selves and exercising self-command in various particular situations. Smith explains, “The general rule . . . is formed, by finding from experience, that all the actions of a certain kind, or circumstanced in a certain manner, are approved or disapproved of” (TMS III.4.8). General rules exist as “standards of judgment” to be referred to in moments of human weakness, when we would tend to be overly partial to ourselves, or when we cannot judge impartially because of the influence of our passions (TMS III.4.11). They are established on a society-wide basis to help guide human behavior toward standards of justice.
Though Smith offers these two solutions to the problem of what he calls “self-deceit” or our tendency to prefer ourselves to others, these solutions are ineffective in the case of the poor law.16 The rule being applied in the case of the poor law reinforces our tendency toward self-deceit; that is, it plays upon our difficulty with sympathizing outside of our social rank and our predisposition to value wealth and deride poverty. The law does not encourage the overseers or, as I will explain in the next section, the people of
England to overcome themselves, but appeals to their base inclinations that the poor should be treated as objects.
Smith explains how the problem of the extent of sympathy with respect to social rank plays out in the administration of the overseers. He explains that the main issue lies in how the legitimacy of the settlement of laborers is established—through the judgment of the overseers. As Smith explains in TMS, those of higher social rank, such as the overseers, are predisposed to ignore or look down upon the poor: “The mere want of fortune, mere poverty, excites little compassion. Its complaints are too apt to be the objects rather of contempt than of fellow-feeling. We despise a beggar; and, though his importunities may extort an alms from us, he is scarce ever the object of any serious commiseration” (TMS III.3.18). The overseers are unlikely to approach their interactions with the laboring poor as opportunities for sympathetic interaction. Further, it is unlikely that they will approach the poor with a favorable perspective. There was a similar assumption of guilt and depravity in the laboring poor on the part of lawmakers who assumed that the poor would try to take advantage of the system to get on the relief rolls of another parish. Indeed, Smith quotes Dr. Burns’s history of the poor law where he notes that all amendments to the law were to prevent poor people from “clandestinely” establishing residence in a parish (WN I.x.c.50).
Further, our propensity to substitute wealth for virtue when making moral judgments is an important part of Smith’s story of the failure of the poor law. The overseers are again and again put in charge of determining the legitimacy of incoming laborers to a new parish, and yet Smith notes how often they were corrupt: “Some frauds, it is said, were committed in consequence of this statute; parish officers sometimes bribing their own poor to go clandestinely to another parish, and by keeping themselves concealed for forty days to gain a settlement there, to the discharge of that to which they properly belonged” (WN I.x.c.48). Recall that the overseers were also responsible for raising the funds that would pay for the relief of the poor. They wanted to avoid being responsible for more poor than was necessary, even if this prevented men who wanted work from finding a job. Smith’s argument in TMS that our propensity to substitute wealth and rank for virtue often allows us to overlook corruption in the wealthy is particularly relevant here:
We desire both to be respectable and to be respected. We dread both to be contemptible and to be contemned. But, upon coming into the world, we soon find that wisdom and virtue are by no means the sole objects of respect; nor vice
and folly, of contempt. We frequently see the respectful attentions of the world
more strongly directed towards the rich and the great, than towards the wise and the virtuous. We see frequently the vices and follies of the powerful much less despised than the poverty and weakness of the innocent. (TMS I.iii.3.2)
Smith notes that we tend to use wealth as a measure for virtue when determining what behavior and which people deserve our approbation. This tendency causes us to approve of the rich and look down on the poor. Even worse than substituting wealth for virtue, we use their wealth to excuse the vices of the rich:
To superficial minds, the vices of the great seem at all times agreeable. They connect them, not only with the splendor of fortune, but with many superior virtues, which they ascribe to their superiors; with the spirit of freedom and independency, with frankness, generosity, humanity, and politeness. The virtues of the inferior ranks of people, on the contrary, their parsimonious frugality, their painful industry, and rigid adherence to rules, seem to them mean and disagreeable. They connect them, both with the meanness of the station to which those qualities commonly belong, and with many great vices, which, they suppose, usually accompany them; such as an abject, cowardly, ill-natured, lying, pilfering disposition. (TMS V.2.3)
Because we want to be like the rich and rise to their rank, assuming that we will be happier and more comfortable if we have the “superfluities” (TMS I.iii.2.1) and “trinkets” like ear pickers and nail clippers (TMS IV. 1.8) the rich have, we excuse the means that it took for them to get there. We excuse the bad behavior of the rich even though the standards of justice are “accurate in the highest degree, and admit of no exceptions or modifications” (TMS Ш.6.10). According to Smith, there was widespread corruption in the practices of the officers who were to administer the terms of the law: “But parish officers, it seems, were not always more honest with regard to their own, than they had been with regard to other parishes, and sometimes connived at such intrusions, receiving the notice, and taking no proper steps in consequence of it” (WN I.x.c.49). And yet, with each new revision to the Settlement Act, the overseers were given more power, in the form of certificates, to determine if a poor laborer would be allowed to move parishes.