Adam Smith, Charles Darwin and the moral sense

Laurent, John and Cockfield, Geoff (2007) Adam Smith, Charles Darwin and the moral sense. In: New perspectives on Adam Smith's The theory of moral sentiments. Edward Elgar Publishing Limited, Cheltenham, UK, and Northampton, MA, pp. 141-162. ISBN 978 1 84542 480 0


Adam Smith has been portrayed as a proto-Darwinist (Hayek, 1967 and Flew, 1985 cited in Hill, 2001, pp. 17-19; Alvey, this volume), largely based on his account of human development as a form of linear progression and the ubiquity
of spontaneous order within nature. In this chapter, these and other possible connections between Smith and some strands of evolutionary thought are developed and considered. The focus is on Smith's assumptions about nature in general and human nature in particular in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and possible connections between these and the biology of evolution. The initial connection is that Smith's ideas on sympathy and beneficence were
approvingly noted by Darwin, who in turn proposed some explanations for the evolutionary origins of sympathy. There were subsequent attempts to explain the possible evolutionary origins of beneficence in the related fields of sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, game theory and economic psychology, with at least one contemporary work from the latter field explicitly bringing the ideas of Darwin and Smith back together (Gintis et al., 2005). Yet as will be argued in this chapter, neither this joint contribution to a contemporary field of intellectual endeavour nor a shared interest in innate moral sense necessarily makes Smith a proto-Darwinist. There is insufficient evidence of direct connections between Smith and evolutionary thought or of critical fundamental
agreements between Smith and the evolutionists, including Darwin, to make such a claim. In particular, Smith's theory of moral sentiments relies on ends whereas theories of natural and sexual selection, at the core of evolutionary theories, are only descriptions of mechanisms of change, or means. The ends are always uncertain.
In Smith, the sentiment of sympathy, reinforced by habits of affection, reciprocity and social approval, can lead to beneficent actions (Smith, [1790] 1984, p. 78). It is possible to trace an interest in sympathy from Smith to
Darwin, and from Darwin to contemporary evolutionary theorists and economic behaviourists. From the latter field, and following both Smith and Darwin, Paul Ormerod (1994, p. 13) has argued that there are 'propensities in human nature which incline us toward society, such as fellow feeling and the desire to obtain the approval of others and to be worthy of that approval'. Sympathy, reinforced by social approval and reason, can lead us to moderate our wants in order to take account of the welfare of others. According to Ormerod, for Smith, life would be intolerable 'if everyone pursued a career of fraud, pillage and murder' - self-control was a 'natural, integral part of human nature' (ibid.). Ormerod further argues that economics has been out of step with developments in our understanding of human nature and motivation, especially stemming from advances in the life sciences. Against the 'individualistic behavioural model' of orthodox economics, Ormerod (ibid., p. 35) proposes the cooperative model of, for example, Robert Axelrod, whose The Evolution of Cooperation (1984) showed that in Prisoner's Dilemma and other games, participants frequently employed cooperative strategies rather than aiming at favourable zero-sum outcomes. More recently, Duncan Foley (cited in Colander, 2(04) has similarly noted Axelrod's finding that 'cooperation survives as a strategy in competitive tournaments with a high probability' (p. 203), and Kenneth Binmore (cited in Colander p. 71) has likewise drawn attention to Axelrod's 'evolutionary simulations'.
Another contributor to the debate, Herbert Gintis, subsequently co-authored with Samuel Bowles, Robert Boyd and Ernst Fehr 'Moral Sentiments and Material Interests: The Foundations of Cooperation in Economic Life' (Gintis
et al.,) and 'The Theory of Moral Sentiments'(hereafter TMS) is discussed at length in the book's Introduction.
For Gintis et al. Smith is: often portrayed as a proponent of Homo economicus - that selfish, materialistic creature that has traditionally inhabited the economics textbooks. This view overlooks Smith's second - and equally important -contribution, 'The Theory of Moral Sentiments', in which Smith promotes a far more complex picture of the
human character. His book is a thorough scrutiny of human behavior with the goal of establishing 'sympathy' as a central emotion motivating our behaviour towards others. (Gintis et al., 2005, p. 3)
Gintis et al. (2005, p. 3) claim their own work is: 'part of a continuous line of intellectual inheritance from Adam Smith and his friend and mentor David Hume1, through Thomas Malthus, Charles Darwin and Emile Durkheim, and
more recently the biologists William Hamilton and Robert Trivers'. The notion of a related set of attempts to explain cooperative and beneficent or altruistic
behaviour running from Smith to Darwin and on to Hamilton and Trivers will be considered below.

Statistics for USQ ePrint 3829
Statistics for this ePrint Item
Item Type: Book Chapter (Commonwealth Reporting Category B)
Refereed: Yes
Item Status: Live Archive
Additional Information: Permanent restricted access to chapter due to publisher's copyright restrictions.
Faculty/School / Institute/Centre: Historic - Faculty of Business - School of Accounting, Economics and Finance (1 Apr 2007 - 31 Dec 2010)
Faculty/School / Institute/Centre: Historic - Faculty of Business - School of Accounting, Economics and Finance (1 Apr 2007 - 31 Dec 2010)
Date Deposited: 08 Feb 2008 02:31
Last Modified: 19 Sep 2016 01:51
Uncontrolled Keywords: Adam Smith; Charles Darwin; moral sense
Fields of Research (2008): 14 Economics > 1402 Applied Economics > 140203 Economic History
14 Economics > 1401 Economic Theory > 140101 History of Economic Thought
22 Philosophy and Religious Studies > 2203 Philosophy > 220311 Philosophical Psychology (incl. Moral Psychology and Philosophy of Action)
Fields of Research (2020): 38 ECONOMICS > 3801 Applied economics > 380103 Economic history
38 ECONOMICS > 3803 Economic theory > 380301 History of economic thought
50 PHILOSOPHY AND RELIGIOUS STUDIES > 5003 Philosophy > 500311 Philosophical psychology (incl. moral psychology and philosophy of action)
Socio-Economic Objectives (2008): C Society > 94 Law, Politics and Community Services > 9499 Other Law, Politics and Community Services > 949999 Law, Politics and Community Services not elsewhere classified

Actions (login required)

View Item Archive Repository Staff Only