Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Of Fingers, Earthquakes and Moral Sentiments

Reason Hit and Run, a Blog about ‘free minds and free markets’ (hear, hear!) carries an article (29 May) by Ronald Bailey called “Neuroscience Confirms Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments”. This is a well-reported piece and I do not have anything to say about its main theme.

However, it uses as evidence the scenarios of the European man and the Chinese earthquake and his preference, apparently, for his own little finger. Ronald Bailey comments:

What accounts for this difference in moral response? The Washington Post recently ran an interesting article which reported some neuroscience research that might help explain the difference in how we respond to our neighbors and to people living far away.”

Sorry to spoil Ronald Bailey’s argument in reference to the man, his finger and millions dying in an earthquake in China, and his apparent indifference.

Smith did not say that the man would in the end prefer his finger to millions of hypothetical Chinese dead. If you continue reading the paragraph, and a couple more, you will find that Smith turns the scenario at the beginning round completely and makes clear that the man will sacrifice his finger to save the victims.

I do not have my Liberty Fund edition of Moral Sentiments with me in France at this moment (where the quote is on page 136 from memory). I do have an old 1872 edition here and you will find the full reference in Part II, Chapter III: 'Of the Influence and Authority of Conscience' in all editions.

Smith writes of the triumph of conscience over perverted self-love and humanity. Many readers make this 'mistake'. I made too, until inimitable Sandra Peart explained it to me in her usual patient manner.


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