Saturday, January 14, 2012

Smithian Themes in The Better Angels

I am subscribed to Reason Foundation's "Reason Alert," from which I sometimes find articles of interest. For instance, yesterday I followed a link to an interview with neuroscientist - really linguist - Steven Pinker. The interview concerns his recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Certainly the topic is interesting to me, though I don't expect to have the time to read the book. The text interview ends with the following:

reason: The book is called The Better Angels of Our Nature. What are the better angels of our nature?

Pinker: I identify four of them. One of them is self-control: the ability to anticipate the consequences of your behavior and to inhibit it as a result. That is, someone insults you, you count to 10 and you walk away instead of knifing them. Empathy: the ability to feel others’ pain, so that you no longer have fun when you watch someone disemboweled, but you’re actually sickened by the thought of it. Morality: admittedly, that’s a very multiple-personality angel, because a lot of morality actually leads to violence rather than preventing it. But at least a morality concentrating on fairness and universal rules is one of our better angels. And reason, the ability to deploy our cognitive faculties to figure out the best way of living our lives. 

This brought to my mind a passage from Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments:

In the command of those appetites of the body consists that virtue which is properly called temperance. To restrain them within those bounds, which regard to health and fortune prescribes, is the part of prudence. But to confine them within those limits, which grace, which propriety, which delicacy, and modesty, require, is the office of temperance.

Let us relate this to Pinker's words. To restrain and confine within these bounds and limits, as well as to identity these bounds and limits, is to employ self-control. Those limits of grace, propriety, and delicacy regarded by temperance are based on empathy - more generally, in Smith's treatment, on sympathy. To determine those bounds prescribed by regard to health and fortune, among other things, is to employ reason. Arguably, Smith's book can be said to show how "a morality concentrating on fairness and universal rules" can emerge from our natural sentiments. It may be an interesting project to see how much of the work of Pinker and others was anticipated by Smith.

I hope to discuss further matters related to the Pinker interview in future posts. 

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