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Adam Smith on Human Nature and Our Desire to Be Both Loved and Lovely

“Our basic human need to be understood, respected, and missed when we’re gone doesn’t get satisfied easily,” said Seth Godin in The Icarus Deception. “As a result, when genuine connection is offered, it’s often taken.” And perhaps the greatest connection one could ever feel is love—the feeling that someone understands you, wants you, cares for you, and ineffably, would die for you. What is it about being loved or being seen as lovely that seduces us? Why do we, unknowingly or not, chase after it?

Adam Smith, a Scottish moral philosopher and pioneer of political economics, is best known for his two classical works: The Theory of Moral Sentiment and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. In the former, Smith discusses the elements of human nature—self-interest, irrationality, the pursuit of happiness, fame, wealth, and more—and tells us what a good life is and how to achieve it. While The Wealth of Nations gave birth to the field of economics, making Smith famous, The Theory of Moral Sentiments was nearly forgotten—until recently.

Russ Roberts, author of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness, dives into Smith’s unrecognized book and unearths the gems of wisdom on human nature and the many pursuits we endeavor in our lives. Because the book was written during the 18th century, the wisdom could be easily lost due to confusing and outdated language—which is why Russ Robert takes individual gems, polishes them, and helps the reader understand what Smith was saying about our nature. Among the variety of topics discussed in the book, the core is focused on our desire to be loved and lovely.

Adam Smith said:

“Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love. He naturally dreads, not only to be hated, but to be hateful; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of hatred. He desires, not only praise, but praiseworthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be praised by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of praise. He dreads, not only blame, but blameworthiness; or to be that thing which, though, it should be blamed by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of blame.”

And Russ Robert continues:

“The first part of Smith’s summary of human desire—that people want to be loved—seems pretty straightforward, although Smith doesn’t mean loved the way we mean it today, as connected to romance and family. He means it in a fuller sense. He means that we want people to like us, respect us, and care about us. We want to be appreciated, desired, praised, and cherished. We want people to pay attention to us and take us seriously. We want them to want our presence, to enjoy our company.”

Perhaps the most obvious reason for this profound desire is that humans are hardwired for social connection. What we do, say, invent, create, or share is so deeply rooted in our biology. There are many ways we fulfill this desire, for good and ill.

A great example of this is our cultural admiration for celebrities or similar statuses. Adam Smith knew about this way before any celebrity gossip was considered “Breaking News”:

“. . . upon coming into the world, we soon find that wisdom and virtue are 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.”

Roberts shares a fascinating example of this:

“Much of Leigh Montville’s autobiography of Ted Williams is a meditation on what celebrity was like in the 1940s and 1950s. And it turns out to be not much different than it is today.
Montville tells the story of the time that Jimmy Carroll, a friend of Williams’s, borrowed Williams’s car, a distinctive Cadillac Coupe de Ville, for a date. Carroll and the date pulled into the parking lot of a restaurant and were confronted by a policeman. What was Carroll doing driving Ted Williams’s car? It turned out that all the cops in Boston knew the car. After Carroll convinced the policeman that he wasn’t a thief, the policeman had one more question. Could he sit in the car while Jimmy and his date had dinner? Sure, Carroll said. When Carroll came back out to the car, there were six policemen sitting in Ted Williams’s car. The first cop had called five buddies to share the thrill.
What was the thrill, exactly? How can celebrity transform an inanimate object into a glamorous object of desire? It’s one thing to love your watch for its accuracy even when you don’t care about being on time. But to love sitting in a car because someone famous has sat there before you and will sit there after you? Is it because you’re doing something few others are able to do? Is it because it somehow links you to someone who is gloriously skilled? Or is it a function of being one degree of separation from someone who is loved, that adored, that admired? No doubt part of the thrill is being able to tell someone you sat in Ted Williams’s car. But why does anyone care?
Something inside us reveres those who are revered. We idolize those who are idolized. We love those who are loved. Part of it is an awe for excellence.
Maybe Smith’s insight into our desire to be loved is part of the answer. Somehow, being near people who are loved is exhilarating. Celebrity was addictive in 1940. And it was addictive in 1759 in a world without television, radio, or YouTube. Smith’s insights into the celebrities of his day are just as timeless as his insights into money and gadgets. Who were the celebrities of Smith’s day? Many were nobility or the hangers-on at court, people who had inherited money and notoriety or who curried favor with the nobility. Some were his contemporaries. Others he knew from history. He didn’t think much of those who achieved fame simply by currying favor with the great and powerful.

So how do we overcome our own foolishness, avoid worshipping false heroes, and truly embark on the path of happiness? Adam Smith called this the impartial spectator, synonymous for what we call our conscience. He said:

“He is a bold surgeon, they say, whose hand does not tremble when he performs an operation upon his own person; and he is often equally bold who does not hesitate to pull off the mysterious veil of self-delusion, which covers from his view the deformities of his own conduct.”

Russ Robert continues:

According to Smith, our behavior sometimes falls short of our ideals not because we’re bad people and not because our self-interest outweighs our benevolence, but because we don’t realize we’re not living up to our ideals. It’s hard to say which idea is more depressing—that we fail to be lovely because we aren’t lovely or because we’ve fooled ourselves into thinking we are. We not only hide our deformities behind the mysterious veil of self-delusion—we transform our deformities into virtues. That’s how hard it is for us to face the impartial spectator.”

In short, self-awareness is ruthlessly hard. To simply become aware that we’re sitting in a celebrity’s car and having this false sense of meaning or pride is extremely difficult because the desire to be seen as lovely or loved is deeply rooted in our nature. It’s happens quickly and emotionally, not logically and slowly. Not only do we do this with celebrities, but with objects as well—clothing, jewelry, cars, homes, and more.

Smith believed that the path to fame and fortune is a path to avoid. A life of virtue and wisdom was considered far more fruitful and important than a life of false pride, excess, and consistently trying to please those that really don’t matter. Smith says with tough love:

“Are you in earnest resolved never to barter your liberty for the lordly servitude of a court, but to live free, fearless, and independent? There seems to be one way to continue in that virtuous resolution; and perhaps but one. Never enter the place from whence so few have been able to return; never come within the circle of ambition; nor ever bring yourself into comparison with those masters of the earth who have already engrossed the attention of half mankind before you.”

Adam Smith’s insights into human nature is timeless and worthy of rumination. Written in the 1700s, Smith’s understanding of our self-delusions and human desires is so relevant and timely to today’s cultural attitudes and beliefs, it often feels like it was written months ago.

(H/T to Niki Papadopoulos for sending this fantastic book.)