Social media can expand our ability to sympathize with others, but it also makes it easy to dehumanize them.

Adam Smith and the Digital Economy

Lynne Kiesling is Co‐​Director of the Institute for Regulatory Law & Economics at Carnegie Mellon University. Lynne has a Ph.D. in Economics from Northwestern University and a B.S. in Economics from Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. Her areas of expertise include technological change, energy economics, and regulation of public utilities.

American public discourse is infamously partisan and divided right now, and social media contributes to that process, for better and for worse. This summer social media is influencing two important phenomena: demonstrations against racial injustice and police brutality, and social media vilification and moves to “cancel” people, with some people even losing their jobs after being targeted online. Demonstrators articulate justifiable demands for justice and invoke sympathy when doing so, while participants in “cancel culture” seem to ignore sympathy.

We can get a better understanding of the role of sympathy in human interaction through the work of Adam Smith. He is one of the most important social theorists who developed the concept of sympathy and how it affects our social institutions. Smith’s work gives us some ideas for adapting to these changes so they contribute to creating a flourishing, harmonious society rather than divisiveness and conflict.

Adam Smith’s Moral Psychology

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS), Smith develops an analytical moral psychology for how self‐​interested individuals can live together harmoniously in civil society. His framework relies on sympathy, which he thinks is the foundation of our ability to live together in society:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.

TMS I.I.1

Smithian sympathy is not about expecting reciprocity. We derive happiness from other people’s happiness, and we derive sorrow from other people’s sorrow, regardless of whether we receive anything in return. For Smith this assertion forms the emotional anchor of our interpersonal connectedness, and he builds to social institutions from there by invoking our desire for mutual sympathy.

But whatever may be the cause of sympathy, or however it may be excited, nothing pleases us more than to observe in other men a fellow‐​feeling with all the emotions of our own breast; nor are we ever so much shocked as by the appearance of the contrary. … A man is mortified when, after having endeavoured to divert the company, he looks round and sees that nobody laughs at his jests but himself. On the contrary, the mirth of the company is highly agreeable to him, and he regards this correspondence of their sentiments with his own as the greatest applause.

TMS I.I.14

Fellow feeling, that feeling of connection with each other and correspondence of our sentiments, has profound psychological power. Whether conscious or unconscious, our desire for mutual sympathy shapes our social behavior and the informal and formal institutions governing our conduct.

Sympathy and mutual sympathy are more than just an emotional connection. Smith adds an evaluative function to sympathy, because sympathy is about finding fellow feeling in how another person’s conduct, or our own conduct, aligns with the situation in which we find ourselves and to which we are reacting. If the response is a proper response, then we can enter into it and sympathize with each other; if it isn’t, we can’t. Sympathy involves evaluating the propriety of conduct in a particular situation, which means having feelings that are in concord with each other as a precondition for mutual sympathy. Propriety is a complex concept because it entails both coordination of expectations and judgements among people interacting socially and coordination on agreed‐​upon behavior that leads to socially beneficial outcomes reflecting the four classical virtues: self‐​command, prudence, beneficence, and justice.

As the person who is principally interested in any event is pleased with our sympathy, and hurt by the want of it, so we, too, seem to be pleased when we are able to sympathize with him, and to be hurt when we are unable to do so. We run not only to congratulate the successful, but to condole with the afflicted; and the pleasure which we find in the conversation of one whom in all the passions of his heart we can entirely sympathize with, seems to do more than compensate the painfulness of that sorrow with which the view of his situation affects us. … If we hear a person loudly lamenting his misfortunes, which, however, upon bringing the case home to ourselves, we feel can produce no such violent effect upon us, we are shocked at his grief; and, because we cannot enter into it, call it pusillanimity and weakness.

TMS I.I.19

Harmony means coming together, but not doing the same thing, much like the diverse musicians in an orchestra all play different things but create a harmonious, ordered sound (a metaphor that Smith uses to illustrate this point). Harmony is not uniformity—it’s the ability for diverse elements to come together and cooperate, out of which a beautiful, ordered outcome emerges. We are all different but can come together to create a beautiful, ordered outcome.

Sympathy and mutual sympathy are the foundation of our ability to live together as free and responsible individuals, in peace, harmony, and cooperation in civil society.

Sympathy has limits, though, because we cannot sympathize perfectly with each other since we haven’t had exactly each other’s life experiences. But we do have imaginative capacity. We cultivate sympathy by imagining being the other person, with the other person’s traits and experiences, in their situation. Our sympathy and imaginative capacity are part of why we protest and demonstrate even if we personally have not experienced injustice. Sympathizing with those who have been treated unjustly entails imagining being them, in their situation.

Social distance provides another limit on perfect sympathy. Smith argues that we naturally sympathize most with people with whom we are most familiar because we have the most similar life experiences, and this sympathetic capacity radiates out and decreases, from family, to friends, to neighbors, and so on. Our ability to sympathize varies with social distance. Part of the challenge of harmony in a diverse, pluralist, open society is finding ways to surmount social distance—how do we generate sympathy for the other, particularly the unjustly treated other?

Social media discombobulates this social distance, for good and for ill.

The Advantages and Dangers of Social Media

Face‐​to‐​face interaction has traditionally been the medium for building sympathy and fellow feeling. In face‐​to‐​face interactions we respond and adjust our behavior by using facial expressions as cues or feedback effects. Social media removes those cues and truncates that natural social feedback loop.

The internet connects us with more people and more places than ever before, and connects us with people that we might not otherwise encounter. We create and share connected moments with digital technology, and social media can help us cultivate and enlarge the fellow feeling that is a necessary component of mutual sympathy. Social media facilitates staying in touch with more people, and can enable us to have richer relationships in addition to the thinner connections we make.

It also, however, enables behaviors inconsistent with living together responsibly, harmoniously, and cooperatively in civil society. Conduct such as internet shaming, trolling, Twitter “outrage mobs,” and moves to “cancel” and deplatform people arise from the same impulse toward sympathy. Such behavior feeds on mutual sympathy among people who share a worldview, but it also encourages a lack of sympathy for those who see the world differently. This pernicious use of social media is antithetical to the sympathetic foundations of a liberal social order because it denies our common and shared humanity.

The Impartial Spectator

Smith has useful insights for thinking about this problem of socially pernicious selective sympathy and the negative effects of social media. The most useful is the impartial spectator, the psychological device that represents how we can evaluate conduct as dispassionately as possible, using propriety as a standard.

When I endeavour to examine my own conduct, when I endeavour to pass sentence upon it, and either to approve or condemn it, it is evident that, in all such cases, I divide myself, as it were, into two persons; and that I, the examiner and judge, represent a different character from that other I, the person whose conduct is examined into and judged of. The first is the spectator, whose sentiments with regard to my own conduct I endeavour to enter into, by placing myself in his situation, and by considering how it would appear to me, when seen from that particular point of view. The second is the agent, the person whom I properly call myself, and of whose conduct, under the character of a spectator, I was endeavouring to form some opinion. The first is the judge; the second the person judged of. But that the judge should, in every respect, be the same with the person judged of, is as impossible, as that the cause should, in every respect, be the same with the effect.

TMS III.I.6

As an essential step in this formation of inclusive mutual sympathy, Smith encourages us to evaluate our own conduct. The combination of emotion and evaluation in sympathy leads each of us to temper our conduct by imagining how an impartial spectator would evaluate our conduct, by being as disinterested, as impartial as possible. Judging proper conduct is a feedback mechanism for producing a more smoothly functioning social order, because the impartial spectator makes you evaluate propriety and ask “does this conduct really contribute to the kind of world I want to live in?” By dehumanizing others with differing views and truncating spectator‐​like feedback effects, negative uses of social media promote neither responsibility nor harmony.

The capacity for sympathy, imagination, and introspection enables us to live together as free and responsible people in peace, harmony, and cooperation. We achieve mutual sympathy using the impartial spectator. The sympathy‐​spectator process is how we embed the virtues in our social institutions.

Achieving impartiality is a challenge, as Smith acknowledges that we rationalize our choices. It’s easy for us to be partial in evaluating our own conduct, but we should strive to make our internal spectators as impartial as possible. We can use this valuable insight when we reflect on negativity in social media. We should use the impartial spectator device to reflect on our own conduct and that of others. Is it really proper for me to respond to that person in that way? Is it proper for that person to say what they said/​do what they did? If not, then I can’t enter into it and cannot sympathize with it. If I do join in the outrage, what kind of world am I really creating?

Conclusion

The internet can make experiencing fellow feeling easier and increase both the number and diversity of people with whom we can enter into fellow feeling, but it can also lead us to dehumanize each other. Our impartial spectators help us create and enjoy sympathy and mutual sympathy, which enable us to create internal socially beneficial feedback effects that are lacking in social media, and can thereby temper our tendency toward outrage. A deeper understanding of the sympathy‐​spectator process helps us understand how social media catalyzes both laudable protests against injustice and dangerous, illiberal orthodoxy.