The Theory of Moral Sentiments: Happy 250th birthday

Herewith my column in today’s SMH, replacing Ross Gittins as you eat your Weeties. Thanks as ever to James Farrell for reading an earlier draft and making suggestions – something he does and I fail to acknolwedge on many columns.  

Cut-throat behaviour makes empathy flow

Ages ago I watched a film by Salvador Dali in which an eye is deliberately slashed open with a cutthroat razor. Swooning as the jelly oozed, I looked away. It was if my own eyes had been slashed. You might call it vitreous reality. I remembered this, and various other high points of theatrical and cinematic ghastliness, elation and arousal as I wrote this column. Oh, and don’t worry. Writing in the space where you usually wake up to read Ross Gittins over your Weeties, this column does have some connection to economics – or at least to its founder.

You see, this month a quarter of a millennium ago, Adam Smith published his great bestseller. No, not The Wealth Of Nations butThe Theory Of Moral Sentiments, which was published 25 years earlier and sold much better during Smith’s lifetime.

Like his compatriots in the Scottish Enlightenment, Smith felt that self-interest was too powerful a force to be demonised in moral philosophy, as he felt Christian teaching had done. As he observed: “The appetites of hunger and thirst, the sensations of pleasure and pain, of heat and cold, etc may be considered as lessons delivered by the voice of nature herself Their principal object is to teach 1 how to keep out of harm’s way.”

Smith’s great theme was that self-interest was healthy if balanced by similarly powerful forces tending towards the public good. In economic life in freely competitive markets, competition and self-seeking behaviour would – miraculously – serve both private and public interests. So long as a bargain was free and informed – for instance free of a merchant’s monopoly power or of fraud – it would improve the lot of all concerned.

And Smith’s Theory Of Moral Sentiments argued that people seeking their own interests in a society were united by their sympathy or fellow feeling for others. If that sounds a bit lame to you – a monopolist’s sympathy for his customers rarely stops him exploiting them – Smith wasn’t arguing that people always do the right thing. His point was subtler and more powerful. Smith observed the way we internalise others’ values and live enmeshed in social meanings and expectations.

In thrall to Newton’s explanation of the movement of planets via a single, uniform principle – that of gravity – he looked for a similar foundation for human behaviour in society. In modern parlance Smith argued that we were hard-wired for sympathy or fellow feeling with others, not in the sense that we always take their side, but in the deeper sense that our understanding and ultimate judgment of them depends on an imaginative sympathy, on the process of being able to place ourselves in their position, to see the world through their eyes.

We feel others’ pain and elation (though not usually as strongly as them) but we do so through some act of imaginative sympathy. Horror, fear, pain and elation are all “infectious” in this way, sometimes viscerally so. Smith was lucky enough to avoid seeing any Salvador Dali movies but he would have sympathised with my reaction. “I see a stroke aimed, and just ready to fall upon the leg, or arm, of another person, I naturally shrink and draw back my own leg, or my own arm: and when it does fall, I feel it in some measure, and am hurt by it as well as the sufferer.”

The whole of human sociality is built on these foundations. Imaginative sympathy gives us the tools to understand what others are thinking, and we care deeply what they think. (Who didn’t want to be among the cool kids at school?) Indeed, armed with his theory, Smith argued that those who strive for riches do it not principally because of the utility it buys but because they crave the esteem of others. Smith despaired that we were so impressed by the wealthy.

Just as Shakespeare observed that all the world was a stage, Adam Smith introduced a similar idea to social science (or moral philosophy, as he called it). Reflecting on our own observation of others, we realise that others observe us and form opinions about us just as we do about them. This thought makes us all actors and spectators, not just of others’ actions, but ultimately of our own. We keep an eye on our own conduct contemplating what others might think of us.

The more we mature (and Smith knew that some mature more than others), this internal questioning takes on its own moral force. We crave the approbation of others but we know it’s risky and ultimately unsatisfying to simply act falsely for the sake of social appearances. A mature person craves not just approbation, but deserved approbation.

Despite the enthusiasm with which it was met in Smith’s time,The Theory Of Moral Sentiments gradually slid into relative obscurity. His foundational moral philosophy of society generated no school of followers, let alone a discipline as The Wealth Of Nations did. Yet, ironically, remarkably, as the division of intellectual labour splintered the study of man still further, modern neuroscience is confirming Smith’s theory. Just as modern genetics provided the missing biological underpinnings for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, so modern neurology is discovering that animals with brains like ours – monkeys and primates – are hard-wired for sympathy.

In the 1990s Italian neurophysiologists placed electrodes in monkeys’ brains to study how they co-ordinated their hands and mouths to eat. Having located the small region that fired when an animal lifted food to its mouth, they found that the same region fired – only less strongly – when one monkey simply watched another lift food to its mouth. An extensive network of so-called “mirror neurons” was discovered, which fire and enable monkeys to recreate within their own brains what’s going on in the brains of their fellows. Critically, mirror neurons don’t respond in a mechanical way to given physical movements but only when the observer interprets such movements as having been made with a given intention – for instance, eating.

Just as Smith’s Theory Of Moral Sentiments had argued that we all share vicariously in the gamut of each others’ emotions, from elation, through to horror and disgust, so recent experiments show that brain regions which activate when we experience pain, disgust, happiness and other emotions also activate when we observe others having similar experiences. Strange to think that watching an eye slashed open with a cutthroat razor might show us how, for all the self-seeking and bustle of the world, we are nevertheless inextricably bound together by bonds of sympathy. 

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Tony Harris
15 years ago

Very appropriate and thought provoking for the time of year Nicholas!

The importance of the moral framework of society has been under-rated and under stated for a number of reasons. One is that for a long time a generally Judeo-Christian moral framework could be assumed and this is oriented to good works, responsibility for the poor and weak etc at least in principle. The power of that orientation was recruited by Marxism.

That framework has been undermined by the adversary culture that got a leg up in the French revolution, driven by the idea that everything conventional is rotten and corrupt and needs to torn down.

At the same time the idea of moralism and morality got a bad name in progressive circles by association with authoritarian religion and a narrow focus on sexual morality.

Smith got very close to the full suite of the classical liberal agenda – limited govt, rule of law, property rights, competitive markets and the moral framework. That is the way of the future. The point about competetive markets is that they generate win/win outcomes!

Tony Harris
15 years ago

Yes, you are looking at the Government spending in the order of 1% or 2% of GDP. Though as productivity increased more would have been spent on all those good things by private means anyway.

For example the great majority of people could afford to pay for basic education before public education was provided “free of charge”.

Ingolf Eide
15 years ago

Lovely piece, Nicholas. Thanks.


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