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Thousands of Lives or Your Little Finger

Posted on November 14, 2014 — 2 Minutes Read

Many know Adam Smith as the father of modern economics. His work, The Wealth of Nations, provides a solid foundation for a capitalist economy by means of division of labour and market allocation. It sparked the Industrial Revolution. Little do people know that he was also a philosopher. He told a thought-provoking story in his work in moral philosophy, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and it goes like this. If I tell you that tomorrow, in a faraway country, thousands of people will die, how would you feel? You have not met or seen any of these people. They are people no less, yet they are people you do not know of by names but only by existence. Knowing their tragic death you will be devastated for sure, it is unlikely however that you will be startled.

Yet if I tell you that tomorrow, you will lose your little finger. Now that is rather disturbing. You probably cannot stop thinking about why and how it would happen. You probably cannot stop thinking about how your life would be without one little finger. You will probably be missing your little finger already. These are our passive feelings. They are selfish no doubt. But they are also true and honest. Following these feelings, if you were to choose between saving your little finger or saving thousands of lives in a faraway country, will Smith be right to assume that you would sacrifice thousands of lives, just to save your little finger? Our passive feelings maybe selfish, but our reason, our principle, our conscience, or as Smith put it ’the man within’, are not. I am sure he would, and so would I, give up one little finger to save thousands of lives.