In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith develops a picture of human nature which shares several similarities with the conception of human nature advanced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. It is interesting to see, however, how differently Rousseau and Smith conceive of the impact which their similar concepts of human natures have had on human society, and the impact which society has had upon the development of human nature. Both Rousseau and Smith assert that humans in modern society live to compete with one another. Further, Rousseau and Smith both assert the ultimate importance of basic human emotions such as sympathy and pity in the formation of human relations. Beyond these generalizations, however, Smith and Rousseau diverge hugely, especially when discussing humans' relations with their society and applying their thought to society.
In Smith's work, he speaks extensively of the human faculty of sympathy. It is this faculty which largely governs our conduct with respect to other people. Sympathy provides us with the ability to imagine ourselves in the place of another person and determine how we might feel should we find ourselves in their place. Further, Smith defends the competitive nature of modern capitalistic society, saying that competition amongst the people, and the great success of the few, will lead to an increase in the general standard of living for the many. Besides this, to Smith, competition is a natural consequence of the existence of the faculty of sympathy, as our faculty of sympathy leads us to imagine ourselves as happier if we were in the place of a rich man, and far, far worse off if we were in the place of a poor man. In fact, to Smith competition is a natural expression of our fundamentally good and sympathetic human nature; it is the same sympathy which leads us to give money to the poor that allows us to contribute to society and prevent ourselves from becoming poor.
Rousseau, on the other hand, offers far more in the way of a critique of modern society. Rousseau sees that much of the conduct of men today is bad, that is, morally wrong. To further the example of the giving money to the poor, to Rousseau, even though we may give money to the poor, it is our fault as a society, and a fundamental moral failure of society, that the poor man exists at all. To him, however, man is not fundamentally bad. Instead, modern society corrupted the originally good nature of man, and only serves to further corrupt and oppress him. To him, modern society only developed as a result of man's desire to possess as much as and be as good as his neighbor, that is, as a result of greed, vanity, and selfishness. As soon as man began to covet and compete, an unnatural form of social inequality was established, which was based on a combination of arbitrary natural inequalities and fortune. As this progressed, the men who had benefited from the competition began to set up institutions and governments which guaranteed the maintenance of their accumulated wealth and socially created superiority, and which came to form modern society. Finally, Rousseau believes that modern society destroys man's sense of pity, that is, Rousseau's concept of the faculty which allows us to feel bad for other men. Modern society makes competition far more important than listening to our sense of pity, so we are willing to harm and oppress to achieve our personal success.
It may appear from an examination of these general outlines of Rousseau's and Smith's thought that there are far more differences than similarities in their thought. However, I would assert that this is merely because Rousseau focuses far more on critiquing society, that is, stepping outside of established patterns of thought, and criticizing the development of society in his work, while Smith seems to, far more, embody the "bourgeois logic" of the system. However, many conclusions of these two men seem to be surprisingly similar, and often times, the difference seems to lie primarily in Smith's seeming unwillingness to go the whole way, that is, to take the fairly radical step of criticizing society. For example, when Smith discusses how men would feel much worse if some small injury befell them personally, than if all of China fell into the earth, he fails to criticize this obviously strange and suspect aspect of modern human conduct. Yet, its very presence in Smith's work is something Rousseau would agree with. The fact that men would indeed care more for themselves than all of China, however, seems to vindicate Rousseau's ideas on how this might be a bad thing, and be a product of a modern society which elevates competition to the point that we care far more for our personal well-being than for that of anyone else. Yet Smith reaches no such conclusions. Instead, he defends this bit of insanity on the part of modern man through a theory of concentric rings of sympathy. We feel the greatest sympathy for ourselves and those close to us, and the least for those furthest from us, because we find it hard to imagine how those men far from us, with whom we have never spoken, feel about things. Is this truly a legitimate theory? Should we not have some innate sense that being swallowed by the earth would engender some feelings of distaste and sadness in any man, especially ourselves, but regardless of how little contact we have had with him?
But of course we have some sense of this. This is why Smith acknowledges that we would gasp at the news, or feel slightly shocked, but would carry on with our everyday affairs like nothing had happened. Is this not a wholly unnatural behavior though? Why should our feelings of sympathy be insufficient to cope with the mass death of billions whom we have never met? This is precisely what Rousseau criticized about our society. It has produced men in whom such grossly inadequate feelings are possible. Society itself has created, perpetuated, and encouraged the corruption of man and his morals and his emotions. Yet Smith offers no such criticism, and merely refers to some innate flaw in our feelings of sympathy. Even one who wished to follow Smith's reasoning could provide criticism of society in such a place where criticism of someone is obviously needed. Yet Smith does no such thing.
Finally, Smith takes one important step which Rousseau does not, and that is the formulation of a sort of Big Other by which we morally judge our actions. This Impartial spectator, as Smith calls it, is a purely imaginary being which we construct in our own minds when we take an action and imagine ourselves in the place of (or sympathize with) to see exactly how others might, impartially, view our actions. Though this is something Rousseau never even touches upon, it is important because it illustrates the difference in purpose, but not in fundamental thought, between these two thinkers, just as Smith's unwillingness to criticize society did.
And so it may be seen that, while there were some large differences in the thought of these two extremely influential thinkers, the differences lay more in the realm of application rather than in theory. Smith sought to develop a total moral system by which we might understand our relations with other men. Rousseau sought to criticize and change society, and develop a picture of what relations with other men might actually look like without the influence of modern society. Both men, however, developed the fundamental insight that competition is paramount in society today, and that competition somehow is affected by and, in turn, affects, our fundamental human nature. In Smith, competition is good, and the only path for a society which wishes to prosper to take. In Rousseau, competition is the corrupter of our humanity. However, these radically opposed views illustrate perfectly the importance competition had come to have in modern society and the discourse which is necessarily conducted concerning any such driving social force.