An earthquake kills more than 150,000 people in Asia. How should we as individuals respond? Is government obliged to help those in need simply because they are members of society? Should the private market or the government take charge of relief? These questions were posed by Adam Smith, the Scottish moral philosopher and promoter of markets, in 1759. Like his questions, his answers also resound today.
Contrary to popular myth, Smith did not endorse selfish individualism. The issue of assistance for others was real and germane, especially in times of calamity.
Smith posed this prescient scenario: "Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity."
Smith says this humane person would show sorrow and regret at the loss of precious life. Yet, after pausing to lament this tragedy, he would return to his own routine of work or leisure, without having changed the way he acts or thinks in his own life.
Even worse, Smith says that if the same person were "to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren."
This analysis might seem cynical, suggesting that apathy, not compassion, lies in the heart of man. But this is not what Smith means. He is emphasizing that humans are limited in the ability to sympathize - or empathize - in today's language. Smith was telling us that as much as we might feel sorry for unfortunate people halfway around the world, our genuine sympathy might not reach that far.
Smith was one of the great believers in the power of the moral imagination. Selfishness is at times overcome by even stronger passions for benevolence and justice - but only when we can experience the passions of others. To Smith, the moral imagination awakens our conscience - "the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct" - that calls us to action.
The events in the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami over these past three weeks have shown us that Smith's account of moral sentiments still resonates, only more so due to the reach and impact of television. While imperfect, media coverage amplifies our ability to imagine the horror and the devastation of our fellow human beings in Asia.
Exercising moral imagination and experiencing a sympathetic alignment with others is the first part of Smith's system of virtues. The second part entails converting these sentiments into appropriate and meritorious action. Virtuous behavior is often taken in support of self-interest, but also, when required, of benevolence and justice.
What action should be taken? During "normal" times, a competitive market and property rights will generally provide the best means of helping the poor. But contrary to another misperception about the "father" of classical economics, he had strong reservations about pure laissez-faire economic policy. Times of national emergency were one such clear exception. Acting quickly to alleviate suffering is more fundamental than the market. It is part of a just society that relies upon internal motivations for building social institutions. Civic virtues are a necessary foundation for people to flourish economically, socially, and politically.
There are economic insights to be applied in disaster relief - efficient delivery of goods and services, whether they are purchased, loaned, or given. Prudence is an important goal as well. Thoughtful attention to the building up of human capital and infrastructure - even as emergency needs are met first - is an important part of the long-term effort.
But most of all, as Smith tells us, our humane response to a massive and devastating earthquake in Asia depends upon our own moral imaginations. It is time to emphasize Smith's account of "fellow-feeling" as one of the mechanisms that binds society together. In our globalized world, it allows us to act more effectively halfway around the world than Smith himself could have imagined.
• Jonathan B. Wight is the author of 'Saving Adam Smith: A Tale of Wealth, Transformation, and Virtue.' Douglas A. Hicks is author of 'Inequality and Christian Ethics.' Both teach at the University of Richmond.