Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Adam Smith on Origins of Moral Senses

There is quite a buzz going round the boundaries between economics and psychology these past few years. Much neuro-research is showing interesting patters in brain activity when humans are presented with certain subjects. Tim Worstall is a major Blogger influence in Europe (he is an Englishman based in Portugal) and blogs all over the place. I am in agreement with him on most things.

Tim modestly describes himself as not an economist but displays more economics nous than many professional economists and almost all mainstream newspaper columnists, especially and typically just this week when berating serious politicians for confusing job creation with value added contributions to national incomes: employment is a cost of activity quite separate from whether it adds to welfare.
In this piece he lights upon a report about research showing that certain areas of the brain light up when children are shown selected pictures of people in pain.

Tim Worstall in Vivre la Difference Blog (23 July) HERE:

“Empathy is Hard Wired- And Adam Smith Was Right

“Interesting research here suggesting that empathy is hard wired into the human mind.
Using functional MRI scans on normal kids aged 7 to 12, researchers found the parts of the children’s brains that were activated when shown pictures of people in pain, according to findings published in the current issue of Neuropsychologia.
Study author Jean Decety, a professor in the departments of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Chicago, reported that empathy appears to be “hard-wired” into the brains of

“Consistent with previous functional MRI studies of pain empathy with adults, the perception of other people in pain in children was associated with increased hemodymamic activity in the neural circuits involved in the processing of firsthand experience of pain…,” Decety wrote.

… However, what sparks my interest here is that there’s really not all that much new under the sun. The father of economics as he’s often called, was Adam Smith. He’s associated these days with a rather dry form of free market loonery but that’s really not at all where he really comes from (I should add that I’m a Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute so I know whereof I speak.): he was a moral philosopher first and foremost.

For example:

To his credit, and ours, Smith thinks the species empathetic, morally disciplined, and reciprocal.
That’s not quite what we normally get from the modern economics textbooks, is it?

Look at what he has to say about sympathy:

But whatever may be the cause of sympathy, or however it may be excited, nothing pleases us more than to observe in other men a fellow-feeling with all the emotions of our own breast; nor are we ever so much shocked as by the appearance of the contrary.’

Wait a minute, this isn’t sympathy at all. It’s empathy. Smith argues, extensively, that the fundamental driving force behind moral actions is the drive to understand the people around us and walk in their shoes. Why doesn’t he use the word empathy? Well, it didn’t exist as a word in the English language until 1904, according to the OED.

So what’s the big takeaway from all this? Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations set generations of businesspeople down a path based on self-interest and an extreme disinterest in other people. But he himself believed quite strongly that our moral sensibilities, what we believe to be the better parts of ourselves, are derived from interest in other people.

Empathy is not an emblem of weakness or sensitivity, in Smith’s view. It’s a way to practice self-interest on the lives of other people. And since self-interest leads to prosperity, understanding the self-interests of the people around you leads to the creation of wealth more broadly. Empathy is the most important business strategy of all. Well said, Adam.

Empathy is both hard wired into the human brain and is also the most important business strategy of all?”

I find problematic the notion that sympathy/empathy is ‘hard-wired in the brain’. That is not quite how Adam Smith put it, though his mentor, Professor Frances Hutcheson, did believe that people are born with a moral sense, like the other senses, sight, hearing, and touch.

Smith saw the development of a moral sense from social contact in society, starting with childhood (adults) then at the ‘great school of self command’ (other children, especially at school), and onwards to adulthood. Society was a ‘mirror’ for comments, good and critical, of our behaviour.

To follow this story, you should consult Smith’sTheory of Moral Sentiments’, a book he wrote in 1759, before The Wealth Of Nations, 1776, but the contents of both books he taught together at Glasgow University between 1751 and 1764.

It certainly become implanted in the brain, but is not hard-wired like the other senses. I am sure Tim Worstall knows this but just in case readers get the wrong idea, I have offered my two pence (I am also a Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute…).


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