College and the Theory of Moral Sentiments

Yesterday, Corey Robin posted on his blog a few lines from Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The snippet of text pointed out the long-standing tendency of people to disproportionately attribute virtue to the rich and powerful while condemning the poor as a consequence of their poverty. It struck a cord with many readers who tweeted it and posted it to Facebook in large numbers. For me, it was timely because I have been working on an academic article about the pursuit of virtue through college aspirations and the links between education, the increase in productive capacity, and the social good. With the spread of the college-for-all ideology, the relationship between class position and virtue runs through college.

Adam Smith noted that the tendency to attribute moral status based on class position was not a new phenomenon. As Robin already shared, Smith writes that,

“This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue; and that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, has been the complaint of moralists in all ages.”

His concern was that the world more often admired and respected wealth and greatness as opposed to wisdom and virtue. Moreover, the “vices and follies of the powerful” were less often objects of contempt than poverty and weakness. Lamenting the preponderance of these sentiments, he contended that,

“The great mob of mankind are the admirers and worshippers, and, what may seem more extraordinary, most frequently the disinterested admirers and worshippers, of wealth and greatness.”

In You Must Change Your Life, Sloterdijk argues that the “revaluation of values” that separated power from virtue in the transition from the pre-Christian to the Christian world was undone by “a class system that saw a nobility without virtu reaching the top in many places.”

What changed over the course of industrial capitalism’s development was that the binary separation of wealth and greatness from wisdom and virtue broke down to a greater extent with the European Renaissance that elevated virtuosity in the public sphere, the spread of mass schooling, and the bureaucratization of talent seeking and social mobility. In Weber’s terms, this reflects the co-presence of charisma and rationalization supplanting the stupidity and repetitive staleness of hereditary aristocracy.

In his essay “Americanism and Fordism,” Gramsci savaged the aristocracy, writing, “One could even say that the more historic a nation the more numerous and burdensome are these sedimentations of idle and useless masses living on ‘their ancestral patrimony’, pensioners of economic history.” America, without the burden of history, was able to rationalize society around productivity. As productivity increases do not translate into higher rates of growth or reductions in inequality, demands that the masses raise their level of education and become ever more productive, inventive, and innovative increase. As such, virtue is wedded to college-going while retaining its attachment to wealth and power. While Smith’s observation about the distribution of virtue continues to cut to this day, education serves as both a defensive force against condemnation and a source of mystification about wealth and power.


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