Ronald Bailey at Reason Magazine quotes a passage from Adam Smith’s 1759 text, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and finds remarkable similarities with what modern neuroscience has to say about altruism.
It’s nice to see the Enlightenment making itself known in the press, but he goes a bit far when he says:
Now neuroscience is confirming Smith’s insights into the neural bases of human morality.
No. There is a difference between 18th century moral psychology and neuroethics.
Smith had no insights into the neural or biological bases of human morality. He was interested in the human experience of sympathy, its frailties as a product of our imagination, its causes and effects, and the way we judge the propriety of passions felt by other people. Like most armchair treatments of human nature, his overlaid a conceptual analysis upon a mix of introspective and behavioural observations.
The philosophically interesting stuff happens when Smith makes a connection between innate moral feelings and moral rules. In addition to suggesting our natural sentiments bias our judgements, he argues that moral sentiments create generalizable moral rules.
It is thus that the general rules of morality are formed. They are ultimately founded upon experience of what, in particular instances, our moral faculties, our natural sense of merit and propriety, approve, or disapprove of.
What is agreeable to our moral faculties, is fit, and right, and proper to be done; the contrary wrong, unfit, and improper. The sentiments which they approve of, are graceful and becoming: the contrary, ungraceful and unbecoming. The very words, right, wrong, fit, improper, graceful, unbecoming, mean only what pleases or displeases those faculties.
This view conjoins moral naturalism with moral realism, but it relies on moral sentiments being infallible products of divine origin.
A more thorough treatment of moral psychology, one which which posited a specific ‘moral sense’, can be found in Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature (1740) and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751).