Saturday, January 13, 2007

Congratulations Brad Delong and V. S. Ramachandran

For those who don’t yet read Brad Delong’s Blog each day, or at all (including because they haven’t heard of it), may I suggest that they visit today’s postings. Yes, I know that Brad Delong sometimes overdoes his disregard for President Bush, White House Staffers and Washington Press Correspondents, but that is his privilege; he votes in the USA and I don’t, so I shall shut up about what I do not understand, and read his Blog selectively, as you can.

And what a selection we have today on a purely scientific matter of relevance to Adam Smith’s legacy! The post I refer to is called: “Neurological microfoundations for Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments” and refers to an article, ‘The Neurology of Self-Awareness’ by V. S. Ramachandran, who is Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and professor with the Psychology Department and the Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego, and Adjunct Professor of Biology at the Salk Institute.

Brad Delong reproduces a report of Professor Ramachandran’s article under the heading linking it to Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments without comment, but for anybody familiar with Smith’s theory of the impartial spectator as the moderator of human behaviour, it has high relevance. How much relevance it will take me some additional reading to assess, but I am excited sufficiently this morning to alert a wider circle of possible readers to the possibilities. I was working late last night on summarising the importance of Adam Smith’s thinking for the moral philosophy, within which he located his political economy, and reading Brad Delong’s Blog this morning, which I scan every day it’s published, I was struck by its possibilities.

If Professor Ramachandran is correct, the neurology of self-awareness relates closely to the recognition within the brain of the intentions of observed others, and this faculty played an important part in the evolution of human consciousness, unique in its highly developed form to the human primate, but also found in primitive forms in earlier (in evolutionary terms) primates. Smith argued in Moral Sentiments that humans are not born with an innate moral sense (as claimed by Hutcheson and others), but develop their moral sense from the mores and norms prevalent among others in their social contexts. He gives the example of a person living all his life outside the company of other humans and suggests he would not have any sense of beauty or appropriate behaviour because he would not have the ‘mirror’ of society by which he could judge his own self behaviour.

But suppose each of us was born with a brain-based capacity to make crude judgements about self, mediated by what others around us found acceptable, or otherwise, and in our contact with others (parents, other children; later other adults, and so on) we practised anticipating and reacting to what we had observed, or we thought about how others would see whatever we were about to do (the impartial spectator, ‘the ‘man within the breast’, etc.,), and that we sought praise (preferably ‘praise worthiness’) by behaving acceptably to others, then there would be scope for developing our moral sentiments.

At this point, I suggest you visit Brad’s Blog at
and after that visit another article by Professor Ramachandran at

If you have not read Smith’s Moral Sentiments yet, you can read the early chapters on Sympathy and read it for yourself. You may also, or alternatively (though you will miss out on Smith’s wonderful literary style), read my short summary of Smith’s moral philosophy, including the impartial spectator in 'Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy', Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, pp 39-69.

If anybody has comments on Professor Ramachandran’s articles and their implications for Smith’s ‘impartial spectator’ I would be delighted to hear from you.
Meanwhile, congratulations to Brad Delong for his public service in making Professor Ramachandran’s interesting work available to economists.


Blogger brad said...


4:58 pm  

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