Wednesday, January 26, 2011

"Hard Wired" and "Innate"?

Yale University economist, Robert Shiller is quoted by Larry Willmore on Thought du Jour Blog (HERE)

Robert Shiller on Adam Smith”

“Shiller sees that sometimes people are completely selfish, and that’s the problem for any economic theory – how to make a society work when people are completely, unremittingly selfish.

But he also notes something else: he doesn’t use the word ‘empathy’, because ‘empathy’ hadn’t been defined yet. But it’s a very important observation about human behaviour, which is that we are wired to feel each other’s emotions and to have a theory of other people’s minds (not that he would have used the words ‘wired’ or ‘theory of mind’ either)….

… Smith also talks about a selfish passion, which is a desire for praise. He argues that people instinctively desire praise, but that, as they mature, this feeling develops into a desire for praiseworthiness. …. He uses that to show that what people really want is to be deservedly praised. And that turn of mind, which develops as people mature, is what makes us into people with integrity. ….

My problem with this fairly typical modern presentation Smith on moral behaviour is its use of the “hard wired” metaphor, which alters Adam Smith’s meaning and implies that Smith was closer to Frances Hutcheson’s theory of “innate” moral qualities, which is quite different from Smith’s theoretical contributions in Moral Sentiments.

Shiller seems to suggest that the problem is: “how to make a society work when people are completely, unremittingly selfish”. But they are not so and Shiller seems to agree when he writes: “sometimes people are completely selfish”.

If selfishness is “sometimes” expressed as a behaviour, but not always, how does it stop “society” working? And what happened to moral behaviour being “hardwired”, which metaphor implies it is “built-in” and not “loaded” separately?

Very young children might have a habit of being selfish as every parent (and grandparent) knows. If this is not corrected to some degree (or at all), what Smith called the “great school of self-command” (an idea with stoic roots) ‘kicks-in (to use an appropriate metaphor, so to speak), especially in the school playground.

Indeed, Smith elaborates later in Moral Sentiments asserting that society acts as a “mirror” (another metaphor)of which behaviours are acceptable, including in the family, relatives, closer friends, and others more distant. Those few kept away from society by events, are unaware of unsocial behaviour and have to learn it from scratch.

So what has Smith’s Moral Sentiments got to do with ‘sentiments’ being “hard-wired” (Shiller) or “innate” (Hutcheson)?



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