Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Monday, March 27, 2006

After more than 200 years, science admits it: Adam Smith was right

by Aussiegirl

At last, science is discovering that our moral code, our sense of fair play, is built into us. But what about those of us who lack such a built-in moral sense, like the sociopath? From the article: So we need a compromise — a skeleton of formal regulation to stop the sociopaths taking advantage, fleshed out with plenty of self-regulation. Thus, we have a neat scientific explanation of why moderately regulated economies are the most creative and thus the wealthiest. So a little government added to our inherent moral sense turns out to be the best way to structure society.
Anjana Ahuja Science Notebook Times Online

IF YOU want to get a feel for cutting-edge science, may I recommend Adam Smith? Yes, the same Adam Smith who wrote Wealth of Nations. He also penned, in 1759, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a melodic work in which he describes the powerful, instinctive nature of “sympathy”:
“Man, say they, conscious of his own weakness, and of the need which he has for the assistance of others, rejoices whenever he observes that they adopt his own passions . . . and grieves whenever he observes the contrary . . . But both the pleasure and the pain are always felt so instantaneously, and often upon such frivolous occasions, that it seems evident that neither of them can be derived from any such self-interested consideration.”

Smith saw sympathy (compassion and commiseration for another person, even if you don’t share his troubles), or empathy (if you do), as an innate characteristic of man. It served, Smith suggested, as man’s moral compass, was difficult to overcome, and from it flourished an unwritten code of ethics that held society together.

During the past ten years scientists have confirmed Smith’s insights. People who trade money with strangers in a laboratory setting have an instinctive sense of fair play and reciprocity; chimps and capuchin monkeys also possess this instinct. These non-human primates display, just as we do, a sense of trust in response to generosity, and resentment in the face of selfishness. Such brooding resentment, in fact, that volunteers (and chimps) will often forgo reward in order to punish selfish participants.

[...] For example, one neuroeconomist thinks that our moral code is so ingrained that substituting it with formal regulation can lead to worse behaviour. Professor Paul Zak, from Claremont Graduate University in California, cites a fascinating study in which two daycare centres adopted different approaches with late parents. One centre merely reminded parents that turning up late inconvenienced the teacher, who had to stay behind. The other centre imposed a $3 fine. After several weeks, the “ penalty” centre was reporting more latecomers.

The theory is that the fine somehow replaced the social undesirability of inconveniencing the teacher. Zak suggests that penalties and regulations “may crowd out the good behaviour that most people, most of the time, follow”. That doesn’t mean that we can dispense with regulations completely — approximately 2 per cent of the population are sociopaths, and are quite happy to predate if conditions allow.


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