Neuroscience Confirms Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments

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Adam Smith begins his The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) by observing:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortuneof others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous and humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.

As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation.

Now neuroscience is confirming Smith's insights into the neural bases of human morality. One of the more fascinating discoveries is mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are brain cells that react when a monkey grasps an object and also react the same way when the monkey sees someone else grasp the object. It appears that humans have an even more advanced version of the mirror neuron system which enables us learn by imitation and also enables us to feel empathy. LiveScience reported:

"Mirror neurons suggest that we pretend to be in another person's mental shoes," says Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine. "In fact, with mirror neurons we do not have to pretend, we practically are in another person's mind."

However, in evolutionary time, human morality developed as a way to guide our ancestors' interactions among a relatively small group of people. Thus our moral sentiments are strongly activated when we see the plight of people in front of us. Smith captured this insight when he observed that upon hearing of the destruction of millions of Chinese via an earthquake, a European of his time would

….express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment…And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened…. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.

What accounts for this difference in moral response? The Washington Post recently ran an interesting article which reported some neuroscience research that might help explain the difference in how we respond to our neighbors and to people living far away.

Neuroscience research, [Harvard researcher Joshua] Greene said, is finally explaining a problem that has long troubled philosophers and moral teachers: Why is it that people who are willing to help someone in front of them will ignore abstract pleas for help from those who are distant, such as a request for a charitable contribution that could save the life of a child overseas?

"We evolved in a world where people in trouble right in front of you existed, so our emotions were tuned to them, whereas we didn't face the other kind of situation," Greene said. "It is comforting to think your moral intuitions are reliable and you can trust them. But if my analysis is right, your intuitions are not trustworthy. Once you realize why you have the intuitions you have, it puts a burden on you" to think about morality differently.

As Greene points out, as we better understand the limitations of our evolved neuro-morality mechanisms, we can change how we "naturally" react to the plight of human beings we don't personally know. We can use reason to include them in our circle of empathy. In addition, modern media helps expand our circle of empathy by bringing into our homes scenes from wars, tidal waves, earthquakes, and hurricanes that prompt us to see distant people more like neighbors who are worthy of our help.

NEXT: Poor John Is Daid

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  1. Ronald Bailey,

    As Greene points out, as we better understand the limitations of our evolved neuro-morality mechanisms, we can change how we “naturally” react to the plight of human beings we don’t personally know. We can use reason to include them in our circle of empathy.

    Or alternatively this evidence can be viewed as confirmation of our lack of free will, or limitations on such at least.

  2. Grotius: But even fruit flies have free will. 🙂

  3. I think the saying is “Out of sight, out of mind.”

  4. Ron Bailey,

    From the article:

    Brembs did not think flies had free will, per se. He also stressed their results did not suggest free will existed in humans or elsewhere. “We only showed that brains might possess a faculty which free will could potentially be based on,” Brembs said.

  5. I think it is clear that Bailey is a flak for Big 18th Century Moral Philosophy.

  6. Bailey,

    Do you own stock in publishers of classic texts? 😉

  7. Oh good! A chance to write “Time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana.”

    Bailey really is a flak for Big Neuron. He’s part of the axion of evil. (I keed, I keed!)

  8. I thought that “fruit fly free will” headline was misleading the first time I saw the article. As Grotius points out, the research wasn’t purported to show anything of the kind.

    The whole issue of Free Will is essentially a paradox — If human actions are determined by a combination of human experiences and inate characteristics, than some would argue that there is no free will. On the other hand, if human actions are random, then that’s not really an example of free will either. I don’t see where combining the two elements makes a difference.

    Personally I think that free will, like probablity, is essentially a question of perception. It’s the fact that we can’t perceive, with perfect accuracy and completeness, all the variables that contribute to our decision making, that gives us the impression of Free Will.

  9. I don’t see much to be puzzled about. Responding to sense-impressions = thoiughts/emotions/actions traveling an older and therefore more deeply rooted circuit than responding to abstracted, more remote ideas. All other factors being equal, the suffering (or joy) I view physically is therefore easily more real to me than what I only hear or read about. Goethe’s Mephisto: “All theory, dear friend, is grey, but the golden tree of life springs ever green.”

    (Shilling for Big Gold here.)

  10. So, does this mean we should be seeing less torture, or do those folks not count?

  11. I considered writing a paper on this issue: discovering in modern psychology/neuroscience that have confirmed the insights of Smith. This particular neuroscientific discovery is huge since it gives some legitimacy to the impartial spectator, the basis of Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments”. But, among other observations, psychology has empirically proved Smith’s claim that we tend to sympathize more with individuals who share our dislikes than our likes.

  12. “As Greene points out, as we better understand the limitations of our evolved neuro-morality mechanisms, we can change how we “naturally” react to the plight of human beings we don’t personally know. We can use reason to include them in our circle of empathy.”

    But, isn’t our desire for a wider reaching empathy also just a product of our neuro-biology? Is this necessarily a good thing? If I felt true, gripping empathy for every human being on the planet who was in distress, I would surely be so overwhelmed that I would be suicidal.

  13. It’s almost a given that we tend to be more attuned to the plights of members of our own group than to those of other groups. It’s also evident that reason can help ameliorate that difference. But it doesn’t make sense to talk about once facet of our tendency to favor our own group without talking about the even less pleasant tendency to view other groups as the enemy. Two universally true statements: Humans tend to form herds; once humans form herds, they tend to attack other herds of humans.

    Those tendencies explain everything from war to soccer riots to children’s behavior on the playground.

    Grotius- The fact that we can become aware of the mechanism and adjust our behavior (if not our impulses) suggests to me that there is some room left for free will.

  14. Kebko-Good point. Universal empathy would probably be a kind of torture. However, I think the sort of empathy that one arrives at through reason would lake the painful emotional immediacy of more neurologically based empathy.

  15. Lack, not lake.

  16. Of course my finger will upset me more than a statistical report on deaths in a far country.

    In a world inhabited by billions of human beings, tens of thousands of people are dying at any particular moment in time. It makes little sense to personally grieve for each of them, and I would submit that anyone who claims to do so is either lying or defines and experiences grief differently than I do.

  17. So, does this mean we should be seeing less torture, or do those folks not count?

    No, it just means that we contract those jobs out to the 1% or so of the population that doesn’t seem to have this inborn sense of empathy, aka our psychopaths, and hide the gory details from everyone else. Kind of like what we’re doing now.

  18. Parfit got at some of the same issues in his book “Reasons and Persons,” which I’ve been wanting to mention because I just recently realized that the Amazon review that spurred me to buy the book (well, among other things) was written by none other than Julian Sanchez.

  19. The reliability of reports is also a factor. If you see harm being done in front of you, you know it’s true. If you hear about it from far away, the report could be false. It makes sense that we evolved a system that puts more emphasis on first hand experience.

  20. I’m disappointed that the libertarian movement hasn’t been quicker to study the political implications of neuroscience as articulated by someone like Steven Pinker. With the exception of some utopians like the anarcho-capitalists, libertarians will usually find their policy agenda vindicated by the best thinking in the field.

  21. Back when I was a smoker, and especially when I was trying to quit, I would find myself inhaling deeply whenever someone in a movie took a drag off a cigarette. Anyone else ever experience this phenomenon?

  22. It makes sense that we evolved a system that puts more emphasis on first hand experience.

    Especially since there was nothing but first hand experience during almost the entirety of our evolution.

  23. Sorry to spoil your argument in reference to the man, his finger and millions dying in an earthquake in China.
    Smith did not say that the man would in the end prefer his finger to millions dead. If you continue reading the paragraph, and a couple more, you will find that Smith turns the scenario at the beginning round completely and makes clear that the man will sacrifice his finger to save the victims.
    I do not have my Liberty Fund edition of Moral Sentiments with me at this moment (where it is on page 136 from memory). I do have an old 1872 edition here and you will find the full reference in Part II, Chapter III: ‘Of the Influence and Authority of Conscience’ page 119-20.

    Smith writes of the triumph of conscience over perverted self-love and humanity. Many readers make the ‘mistake’ you have made.

  24. Brian Sorgatz: You mean like Reason’s interview with Pinker back in 2002? 🙂

  25. Gavin –

    I would submit that the person who sacrifices his finger to save the millions is making a rational calcuation to attempt to reach a just outcome, and is not inspired by sentiments.

    My proof of this is that as we are typing this back and forth to one another, hundreds of people have died. Have you wept for them? If you have not, your sentiments are not inspiring you to very much of anything.

  26. Jeff Hawkins also comments on the mirror/echo effect (which includes planning and dreaming) in his theory of cortical function, expressed for general audiences in the 2005 book, “On Intelligence.” Hawkins’ basic tenet is that cortex functions as a predictor of the external world, by which the organism can harmonize its activities with external reality in the satifaction of its needs. The organism only knows the world through its senses and the patterns derived from them; interaction with the world is a way of continuously testing and refining the mental model, by comparing predictions of incoming patterns against the actual sensory patterns perceived.

    The website below discusses the book, and also provides a link to Hawkins’ company, Numenta, which is making progress in implementing artificial cortex in software to test the theory. I found it to be interesting stuff. Maybe you will too.

    http://www.onintelligence.org/

  27. Out of sight, out of mind. That’s why Bush can sleep at night, as long as he doesn’t see all the death and destruction he’s caused.

  28. Brian Sorgatz: You mean like Reason’s interview with Pinker back in 2002? 🙂

    Yes, Mr. Bailey, that’s another example to prove my point. Unfortunately, I see many libertarians refusing to get hip. Cathy Young overvalues “intact” families, because she refuses to acknowledge Judith Rich Harris‘ point about the folly of the Nurture Assumption, which proceeds from the same school of thought as Pinker’s work.

  29. “However, in evolutionary time, human morality developed as a way to guide our ancestors’ interactions among a relatively small group of people.”

    “People” is an interesting word here.

    If we see a biological basis for morality among the animals, then that development must have happened long before Cro-Magnon, right?

    What if we had to go back before Homo Erectus to find the state of nature?

    …Why, Bailey, are you ready to respect the rights of other Primates?!

  30. Here is Theory of Moral Sentiments online:

    http://oll.libertyfund.org/ToC/0141-01.php

    And an article with a focus on Smith’s impartial spectator:

    http://www.thecompletelawyer.com/volume3/issue3/article.php?ppaid=2076

  31. Number 6,

    The fact that we can become aware of the mechanism and adjust our behavior (if not our impulses) suggests to me that there is some room left for free will.

    Well those adjustments could have little to no real “freedom” to them.

  32. We have no choice but to believe in free will.

  33. Now I’m just waiting for the headline in The Onion:

    Reasearchers Prove Humans Naturally Sympathetic to Others’ Pain by Shoving Probes Into Monkeys’ Brains

    Just bemusedly appreciating the irony here. Sure is a complicated universe.

  34. We have no choice but to believe in free will.

    That’s pretty much the conclusion I’ve reached.

    I figure that even if the determinists are right, but I still have trouble abandoning the concept of free will, then it’s just not meant to be.

  35. Adam Smith may also have covered this point: the intensity of our feelings may vary with our (perceived) ability to do something about it. If a kid falls down and skins his knee right in front of me, I can pick him up and put antiseptic on the scrape (at the risk of Mom running out and calling me a pervert); a Pol Pot style government genocide is probably beyond my ability to influence in any way. We have to be able to accept the things we really can’t control or give up sleeping.

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