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Sunday, December 23, 2018

Adam Smith, Interchangeable Perspectives, and The Origin of Moral Problems

By: Ryan Boissonneault
Escaping Plato's Cave


When considering the foundations of morality, the place to start, which is often overlooked, is in answering the following question: why do moral problems present themselves to us in the first place? Other animals don’t seem to ponder the moral implications of their actions, but humans do. Why is this?

To answer this question, a useful place to start is with theory of mind, which is the ability to mentally switch perspectives and to imagine the beliefs, needs, feelings, and desires of others. Children develop this capacity around the age of 4, and you can test for it by using the false-belief task.

Here’s an example of how the test might go:

1. First, show a child a box of Bandaids and have them guess what’s inside. They’ll likely reply, “bandaids.”

2. Then, have them open the box to discover a different object, like a toy.

3. Finally, taking a figurine boy, and bringing it over to the Bandaid box, ask the child what the figurine would think is in the box.

If the child says the figurine thinks there’s a toy inside, the child lacks theory of mind, as they assume other people have the same knowledge they have. If the child says the figurine thinks there are Bandaids inside, then the child has the capacity to switch perspectives and consider how knowledge and point of view might differ in others.

While the research is controversial, most (if not all) animals lack theory of mind, and without this capacity, moral problems simply don’t exist. Life for most animals is the pursuit of self-interest, and even behavior that appears on the surface to be altruistic is driven entirely by instinct. Moral problems can only occur to an animal that is able to consider how actions can affect others, and how those actions might make others feel.

If I can’t imagine what it’s like to be you, I can’t imagine why my actions can harm you. If I can imagine what it’s like to be you, I can imagine how my actions can harm you, and it’s only when I can consider things from your perspective that moral problems arise.

Morality can only make sense, and is only coherent, in terms of how our actions impact others. Therefore, any moral proposition that does not take into account the consideration of others is not only wrong, but incoherent. The idea that one should act only in their own interest is not morality at all—it’s a regression to the amoral world of lower animals.

To think about it another way, I can’t propose solutions to moral problems that do not consider the reason why the moral problems occurred to me in the first place, and they occurred to me in the first place only in consideration of the needs of others.

Adam Smith, who is better known as the father of modern economics and author of The Wealth of Nations, recognized this, and proposed, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, that “sympathy” (what we would today call “empathy”) is the foundation of morality. We experience the pains and pleasures of others by imagining what it is like to be them.

As Adam Smith wrote:

“However selfish man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though they derive nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”

Our evolution as cooperative, social animals not only allows us to switch perspectives with others, but it also provides us with vicarious positive feelings when others experience pleasure and happiness, along with negative feelings when others experience pain or hardship.

Read more at Escaping Plato's Cave.

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