Adam Smith on Good Company

I've noticed that good people tend to have good friends. Many people chase the friendship of people who are rich and famous or entertaining and lavish and loud. But good people don’t seek the same thing. Good people simply enjoy good people.

This has left this vague curiosity in my mind: Why do good people end up surrounded by other good people?

The obvious answer as to why has always been the maxim, “You are who you spend your time with.” But I’ve noticed that people who are already good on their own tend to gravitate towards each other, and good people work hard to maintain friendships with other good people.

I was reading How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life by Russ Roberts (of Stanford’s Hoover institute and EconTalk fame), and he gives an explanation to this question that I found convincing.


The book is a short treatise on Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments. According to Adam Smith, one reason that we have a functioning society is that it is in our nature, as granted by God, to police each other. On the one side of the exchange, we are predisposed to seek the approval of our brothers and to avoid their disapproval. On the other, we are predisposed to grant the approval and the disapproval of our brothers’ behavior in a way that will create a good society:

“The all-wise Author of Nature has, in this manner, taught man to respect the sentiments and judgments of his brethren; to be more or less pleased when they approve of his conduct, and to be more or less hurt when they disapprove of it. He has made man, if I may say so, the immediate judge of mankind; and has, in this respect, as in many others, created him after his own image, and appointed him his vicegerent upon earth, to superintend the behaviour of his brethren. They are taught by nature, to acknowledge that power and jurisdiction which has thus been conferred upon him, to be more or less humbled and mortified when they have incurred his censure, and to be more or less elated when they have obtained his applause.”

Russ Roberts rephrases it: in order to maintain a decent society, we must not only behave ourselves, we must “honor those who are honorable and dishonor those who are dishonorable.”

We are, by necessity, a cooperative species. In order to survive and promulgate as hunter-gatherers, we needed to rely on a society of cooperation, trust, and decency. And that necessity persists. The most natural way to create the norms of cooperation is not through laws and rules, but through social reinforcement. It is in our nature not only to seek praiseworthiness, but to offer praise.

Which explains why we want to surround ourselves with good people. Having good friends fulfills our natural desires for praise, and their praise means much to us because they themselves are praiseworthy. And because they are praiseworthy, they also offer to us the opportunity to fulfill the natural tendency to praise.