I am reading through Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, currently Part 2 Section 2, and am struck by the difference between Smith’s statements of what, by nature, humans feel toward justice and kindness, and the ideas stated by many modern people. Smith posits justice as a “negative virtue,” meaning to practice justice toward others is to refrain from harming or taking their person, property, or reputation. Justice lies between harm and beneficence, and therefore deserves no punishment or special praise. I have the sense that today many people have a different view of justice: that it is about equality, and receiving the subjective desserts of effort, which usually means less for the wealthy and more for the poor. Perhaps those sentiments were also common in Smith’s time, but were seen more as envy.
Today, the ugliness of envy is excused by proclaiming one’s envy to be on behalf of another who has no voice. I think especially of the Occupy movement of two years ago. A large portion of Americans thought the protests justified because the wealthy had unjustly taken wealth from the rest of the country. This may be true for some wealthy people, but it doesn’t justify condemning one in a hundred people. The thought that kept going through my head while reading this section was, “How did an entire nation move from largely agreeing with Smith to seeing mere justice as he describes it as something deserving judgment?”