Thursday, April 09, 2009

OZ Economist Explains Moral Sentiments

Nicholas Gruen, a long time reader of Lost Legacy, writes on the publication 250 years ago, April 1759, of Adam Smith’s, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in The Sydney Morning Herald Here:

Cut-throat behaviour makes empathy flow

Like his compatriots in the Scottish Enlightenment, Smith felt that self-interest was too powerful a force to be demonised in moral philosophy, as he felt Christian teaching had done. As he observed: "The appetites of hunger and thirst, the … sensations of pleasure and pain, of heat and cold, etc may be considered as lessons delivered by the voice of nature herself … Their principal object is to teach [us] how to keep out of harm's way."

And Smith's Theory Of Moral Sentiments argued that people seeking their own interests in a society were united by their sympathy or fellow feeling for others. If that sounds a bit lame to you - a monopolist's sympathy for his customers rarely stops him exploiting them - Smith wasn't arguing that people always do the right thing. His point was subtler and more powerful. Smith observed the way we internalise others' values and live enmeshed in social meanings and expectations.
In thrall to Newton's explanation of the movement of planets via a single, uniform principle - that of gravity - he looked for a similar foundation for human behaviour in society. … The whole of human sociality is built on these foundations. Indeed, armed with his theory, Smith argued that those who strive for riches do it not principally because of the utility it buys but because they crave the esteem of others. Smith despaired that we were so impressed by the wealthy.

Just as Shakespeare observed that all the world was a stage, Adam Smith introduced a similar idea to social science (or moral philosophy, as he called it). Reflecting on our own observation of others, we realise that others observe us and form opinions about us just as we do about them. This thought makes us all actors and spectators, not just of others' actions, but ultimately of our own. We keep an eye on our own conduct contemplating what others might think of us.

In the 1990s Italian neurophysiologists placed electrodes in monkeys' brains to study how they co-ordinated their hands and mouths to eat. Having located the small region that fired when an animal lifted food to its mouth, they found that the same region fired - only less strongly - when one monkey simply watched another lift food to its mouth. An extensive network of so-called "mirror neurons" was discovered, which fire and enable monkeys to recreate within their own brains what's going on in the brains of their fellows. Critically, mirror neurons don't respond in a mechanical way to given physical movements but only when the observer interprets such movements as having been made with a given intention - for instance, eating."

An excellent introductory start for readers who want to know something about Adam Smith’s moral philosophy (strengthened, of course, by reading Moral Sentiments and by listening to the Robert-Klein Podcasts introduced in the previous post).

You can read all of Nicholas Gruen’s article by following the link above.

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