Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Adam Smith on Egalitarianism

Quite lot has been published in academic journals reporting the parallel findings of neurological and behavioural research and some of the ideas outlined in Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). Recently, echoes of those research projects began to appear in more popular media, which widens the name recognition of the audience for Adam Smith, and for some versions of his ideas.

Here are parts of the latest publicity from the genre publisjed today. HERE

“New finding offers neurological support for Adam Smith's 'theories of morality”

“The part of the brain we use when engaging in egalitarian behavior may also be linked to a larger sense of morality, researchers have found. Their conclusions …. offer scientific support for Adam Smith's theories of morality … based on experimental research published in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study … was conducted by researchers from: New York University's Wilf Family Department of Politics; the University of Toronto; the University of California, San Diego; the University of California, Davis; and the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
Previous scholarship has established that two areas of the brain are active when we behave in an egalitarian manner—the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and the insular cortex, which are two neurological regions previously shown to be related to social preferences such as altruism, reciprocity, fairness, and aversion to inequality. Less clear, however, is how these parts of the brain may also be connected to egalitarian behavior in a group setting.

To explore this possibility, the researchers conducted an experiment in which individuals played a game to gauge brain activity in decision-making. In the "random income game" participants in a group are randomly assigned a level of income and the group is assigned to one of three income distributions. Subjects are shown the income of all members of their group, including their own, on a computer screen. Individuals are then asked if they wish to pay a cost in order to increase or decrease the incomes of group members. Subjects are told they may keep the money they don't give away to the others shown on their screen, so there is a strong incentive not to part with any of the money already allocated to them. Nonetheless, the researchers found that the study's subjects frequently sought to reallocate resources so the money was more equally distributed among the group members.

During this period, the researchers gauged the subjects' neurological activity through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). As shown in previous studies, the researchers found significant activity in the brain's vmPFC and insular cortex.
But to get at a more detailed understanding of neurological activity during these behaviors, they also examined whether activations in these areas were associated with two additional measures of egalitarian preferences elicited outside of the fMRI. … subjects were asked their level of agreement or disagreement to six questions, which included: "Our society should do whatever is necessary to make sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed" and "This country would be better off if we worried less about how equal people are." … The choices individuals make in this task are a measure of egalitarian behavior.
The researchers found that these two measures of egalitarian preferences were significantly associated with activations in the insular cortex, but not with the vmPFC.

This particular result is a potentially profound one as the insular cortex is also the part of the brain that processes the relationship of the individual with respect to her or his environment. In other words, egalitarian behavior may not exist in isolation, neurologically speaking, but, rather, be part of a larger process that stems from altruism and a sense of the larger social good.

Adam Smith, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, expressed this perspective in his 18th-century essay.
"Adam Smith contended that moral sentiments like egalitarianism derived from a 'fellow-feeling' that would increase with our level of sympathy for others, predicting not merely aversion to inequity, but also our propensity to engage in egalitarian behaviors," the researchers wrote. "The evidence here supports such an interpretation—our results suggest that it is the brain mechanisms involved in experiencing the emotional and social states of self and others that appear to be driving egalitarian behaviors. This conclusion is consistent with a broader view of the insular cortex as a neural substrate that processes the relationship of the individual with respect to his or her environment.

I am not so sure that Adam Smith made clear statements favouring general egalitarianism. He certainly argued that labourers should be paid more so that they could enjoy more of what they, as the collective labour force that created what the rest society consumed. In this respect, he considered the Combination Acts were unfair, because they prohibited collective strike action by labourers, though not collective wage-cutting by employers. But of outright egalitarianism there is nothing. He gives the impression that the existing “distinction of ranks” was immutable, or at least not on the foreseeable agenda.

For now, I think we should be more cautious about the neuro- researchers’ concluding assertions about egalitarianism, though I am, as always, open to persuasion by evidence. He made several statements along egalitarian lines, but whether this was a part of is Theory of Moral Sentiments is not so clear.


Blogger Paul Walker said...

See also


9:00 am  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...


Thanks very much for the reference, which I have just read. Compelling stuff.

Still does not draw egalitarianism from Smith, which I suspect is stretching the evidence too far.


2:49 pm  

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