With the recent elections, I’ve been coming back to this quote over and over again.

Adam Smith’s reputation mostly rests on his works in economics (i.e. The Wealth of Nations) and how rational self-interest in a free-market economy leads to economic well-being. However, many don’t know that his first major work actually concentrated on ethics, charity, and what it means to be virtuous.

I first read Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments when I was a senior in college, and its core arguments have guided the arc of my thinking ever since.

Within it, Smith argues a simple yet subtle tenant:

Being loved and being lovely are two completely separate concepts.

Anyone can be loved. It is bestowed upon us by the identities, possessions, and deeds we take on in order to win the affection and approval of others. The pursuits of money, fame, or power are all part of the same temptation—various paths to being loved, paths to being relevant and noticed by others.

Being lovely, however, is something quite different. We, ourselves, are the barometer by which we bestow loveliness. It is the moral code behind our intentions and what we do when no one is looking. And it’s what leads to the truest form of admiration from ourselves and others at the end of the day.

Let me explain -

Being lovely starts with that small voice in the back of our heads.

Say you’re contemplating taking credit for someone else’s work.

Even if there is 0 chance of being found out by others, you know. And as you contemplate committing the act, you imagine how an outsider, an impartial spectator of your crime, would react to your moral failure.

This impartial spectator forms the small voice that reminds us that pure self-interest is grotesque and that thinking of others is honorable and noble. That if we harm others in order to benefit ourselves, we will be resented, disliked, and unloved by anyone who is looking on impartially.

To ignore this small voice and shun your morals in the pursuit of attention, is to be loved, but not lovely.

More concretely through examples:

  • Madoff was loved for his wizardry as an investor. But he knew that he was a fraud. He knew he wasn’t lovely because his returns came not from his skills as an investor but from his ability to deceive.
  • Trump may be loved (by some) for his powerful position in politics, sprawling estates, and copious media empires. However, the way in which he secured these emblems - through bullying others, cutting legal corners, etc. - fails to make him a lovely person.
  • By taking credit for someones work, you’ll be loved by those who think you’re smart, however you yourself know you aren’t worthy of these praises. You’re loved, but not lovely.

Smith illuminates that we may be tempted at times to be loved without actually being lovely in the quest to secure attention from others. The wise person avoids that temptation in order to secure self-respect instead.

In Joan Didion’s seminal 1961 essay “On Self-Respect”, she alludes to this same internal battle:

To live without self-respect is to lie awake some night, beyond the reach of warm milk, phenobarbital, and the sleeping hand on the coverlet, counting up the sins of commission and omission, the trusts betrayed, the promises subtly broken, the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice or carelessness.

However long we post- pone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously un- comfortable bed, the one we make ourselves.

Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves.

..I wonder how Trump and Madoff sleep at night.

Yet despite the heinous and public nature of their crimes, the reality is that we all experience similar turmoil in our own lives. Indeed, we’re all engaged in an ongoing battle to secure our own self-respect every single day. Sometimes during large, trajectory-changing moments. Other times, in the whisper of an unconscious choice. Flashing through the vents of our daily routines. Gone in a breath.

In these moments we can choose to either take full responsibility for our faults and triumphs, or point the finger at others. We can choose to act out of malice or out of integrity, honesty, and good principles. We can decidedly short-cut our characters to acquire love or remain truly worthy of the love bestowed upon ourselves.

Deep down we know we are truly lovely when the reputation we secure, mirrors who we actually are. We are no longer an imposter. We become loved as a result of being lovely.

As Smith suggests,

To satisfy the desire we all have in us to be noticed and to be somebody, there are two ways to be loved:

The first path is to be rich, famous, powerful.

The second path is to be wise and virtuous. To earn the admiration of others honestly by being respectable, honorable, blameless, generous, and kind.

And this, I believe, is the great equalizing denominator among all humans. Because no matter if you were born into a life of riches or abject poverty, we all start at the same baseline of self-respect - every step down either Path 1 or Path 2 teeters us across the spectrum of love and loveliness. Towards a mind that is peaceful or fraught.

And so, like Smith, we ask this timeless question to ourselves at the crossroads of life’s kaleidoscope of decisions:

What can be added to the happiness of the wo(man) who is in health, who is out of debt, and has a clear conscience?

Does one choose to be loved or to be lovely?

To more of our collective loveliness ♥️,


P.S. some of my favorite quotes on self-respect below 👇

“Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one's own life — is the source from which self-respect springs.”
Joan Didion, On Self-Respect

“I cannot conceive of a greater loss than the loss of one's self-respect.”
Mahatma Gandhi, Fools, Martyrs, Traitors: The Story of Martyrdom in the Western World

“I think the reward for conformity is that everyone likes you except yourself.”
Rita Mae Brown

“When you are content to be simply yourself and don't compare or compete, everyone will respect you.”
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

“The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.”
Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays