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Adam Smith and the Modern Science of Ethics

Third-party decision-makers, or spectators, have emerged as a useful empirical tool in modern social science research on moral motivation. Spectators of a sort also serve a central role in Adam Smith's moral theory. This paper compares these two
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   COMMENTS WELCOME July 2011 Adam Smith and the Modern Science of Ethics  By   J AMES K  ONOW * D EPARTMENT OF E CONOMICS  L OYOLA M ARYMOUNT U  NIVERSITY  O  NE LMU   D RIVE ,   S UITE 4200 L OS A  NGELES ,   CA   90045-2659 Abstract Third party decision-makers, or spectators , have emerged as a useful empirical tool in modern social science research on moral motivation. Spectators of a sort also serve a central role in Adam Smith’s moral theory. This paper compares these two types of spectatorship with respect to their goals, methodologies, visions of human nature, and emphasis on moral rules. I find important similarities and differences and conclude that this comparison suggests important opportunities for philosophical ethics to inform empirical research and vice versa. *This paper is one product of the 2009 conference celebrating the 250 th  anniversary of the publication of The   Theory of Moral Sentiments  at the Centre for the Study of Mind in  Nature  in Oslo. I wish to thank two referees and the Editor of this journal, Christian List, for very helpful and constructive comments. I also wish to acknowledge very useful feedback on earlier versions from Martin Binder, Matthew Braham, Maria Carrasco, Thomas Cushman, Sam Fleischacker, Christel Fricke, John O’Neill, Mozaffar Qizilbash, Jonathan Riley, Christian Schubert, Bob Sugden and Viktor Vanberg. Any shortcomings remain, of course, the sole property of the author.   1 The general maxims of morality are formed, like all other general maxims, from experience and induction. We observe in a great variety of particular cases what pleases or displeases our moral faculties, what these approve or disapprove of, and, by induction from this experience, we establish those general rules … In treating of the rules of morality, in this manner, consists the science which is properly called Ethics. – Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments , VII.iii.2.6, VII.iv.6. One of the most dramatic developments in economics over the past few decades has been the rapidly increasing willingness of economists to extend their models of human motivation  beyond the traditional assumption of narrow self-interest and to incorporate moral and other social preferences. This has been prompted mostly by results from experiments, srcinally conducted to test predictions of the canonical model but subsequently also designed to inform new or modified theories. Most of this empirical work has involved stakeholders , or parties whose personal stakes are (potentially) affected by their decisions. A fairly recent addition to the toolkit of these researchers, however, is the use of spectators , or third parties who make decisions concerning others but not themselves. Spectators of a kind were also at the center of the moral theory Adam Smith explicated more than 250 years ago in his The Theory of Moral Sentiments , or TMS   (1759). Smith’s characterization of ethics as a science and his placement of spectators at the center of that science differs radically from most mainstream moral philosophy,  both in his time and ours. Nevertheless, despite centuries of relative neglect, his moral theory has recently experienced a renaissance with a flurry of high quality scholarship across many disciplines. 1  This paper undertakes a comparative analysis of these two concepts of spectatorship stimulated by possibilities for enriching both economic and philosophical research into ethics. Although the two approaches will be fleshed out in greater detail in the paper, brief and simple descriptions at this point should help motivate and clarify the purpose here. Smith’s so-called impartial spectator   is not a literal third party, indeed not a real person at all, but rather what real  people, or agents , imagine to be the moral judgments of an impartial and well-informed third  party. According to Smith, the repeated social interactions of agents, including as real spectators,  produce this internalized moral guide. The empirical spectator studies on which I will focus, on the other hand, involve real 1  Among the many recent works that include treatments of Smith’s moral theory, see, for example, Ashraf, Camerer, and Loewenstein (2005), Brown (1994, 2009), Cockfield, Firth and Laurent (2007), Fricke and Schütt (2005), Göçmen (2007), Griswold (1999), Haakonsson (2006), Hanley (2008), Parrish (2007), Raphael (2007), Rasmussen (2006), Sen (2009), Verburg (2000), and Witzum (1997).   2  people, specifically, ones who reveal the moral judgments of their own presumed impartial spectators concerning matters affecting others. I call these quasi-spectators , since their  judgments typically only approximate those of the ideal impartial spectator. Their views might  be elicited in a variety of ways, but the clearest examples involve treatments in which third  parties make decisions affecting the material allocations of other subjects but not of themselves, e.g., Charness and Rabin (2002), Coffman (forthcoming), Engelmann and Strobel (2004) and Konow (2000). These differ from most economics experiments on morals, which have been  based on stakeholders whose decisions potentially affect their own earnings. Of interest here are also experiments in which third parties incur a fixed cost to influence the earnings of others, e.g., Charness, Cobo-Reyes and Jiménez (2008), Fehr and Fischbacher (2004b) and Kahneman, Knetsch and Thaler (1986). These are hybrids of quasi-spectator and stakeholder studies, since the decision-makers are third parties, but they incur a personal cost to affect others. Finally, there are studies that encourage participants to reveal their moral views about real or hypothetical situations, but their views do not materially impact themselves or others. These include many survey studies in the social sciences, especially moral psychology, empirical social choice, and in the emerging field of experimental philosophy. These do not, however, include results from the majority of survey studies (e.g., most public opinion research), which do not explicitly address moral questions or consciously promote impartial reasoning. One concern with surveys is that respondents might be insufficiently incentivized to provide thoughtful judgments given the lack of material consequences. Thus, the discussion here of such studies focuses on some recent investigations that are among those that purposely target spectator views and provide evidence strongly suggesting their participants were appropriately motivated. To be clear, the intent of this study is not to demonstrate an equivalency between Adam Smith’s moral theory and a research program in behavioral economics. Nor is the title of this  paper meant to imply an exhaustive treatment of both. Rather, this is an examination of issues at their intersection that might prove useful for addressing open questions in both research agendas. Attention to the commonalities should not be taken as a lack of appreciation of their dissimilarities. Rather, even many differences, I argue, suggest ways in which the two might complement one another. Ultimately, insights from Smith’s impartial spectator can inspire and help improve empirical spectator studies and, consequently, economic theory 2   2  Indeed, some recent empirical spectator studies discussed later in the paper make explicit reference to Smith, e.g., and, in turn,   3 empirical spectator findings might also inform philosophical ethics. But the immediate goal is to demonstrate the potential value of such a program through a comparative analysis. To be sure, Smith’s impartial spectator differs in important ways from quasi-spectator studies and is so rich a concept that a thorough treatment of it is beyond the scope of this paper. Thus, the analysis remains close to common boundaries of the two spectator concepts while limiting the treatment of differences that are often important but further afield. The discussion is organized around what I claim is a remarkable but tractable area of overlap in the two approaches in terms of their respective goals, methodologies, assumptions about human nature, spectator attributes, and emphasis on moral rules. Specifically, I argue that  both Smith’s analysis and modern quasi-spectator investigations explore moral knowledge and its contents, adopt a kind of scientific method, point toward a conflict between self and others in which self-deception is often implicated, conceive of impartiality in terms of three properties (absence of stakes, information and a common moral sense), and conclude that the moral sense can often be characterized by rules. The paper proceeds in this same order from parallel discussions of TMS   and quasi-spectator research beginning with their respective goals and methodologies before proceeding to a more detailed treatment of their assumptions, particular models and conclusions. 1. GOALS AND METHODOLOGIES IN SPECTATOR ANALYSES 1.1 Goals Smith lays out two questions for ethical inquiry: “First, wherein does virtue consist? Or what is the tone of temper, and tenour of conduct, which constitutes the excellent and praise-worthy character…? And, secondly, by what power or faculty in the mind is it, that this character, whatever it be, is recommended to us?” ( TMS   VII.i.2). That is, the second question inquires into the nature of moral judgment, i.e., it is the epistemic exercise , which asks how we recognize what is right. The first question examines the results of that inquiry, i.e., it concerns the contents of moral knowledge , including its general properties. The quote at the start of this paper gives direction as to Smith’s answers to both questions. We discern virtue using our “moral faculties” or moral sense. This grows out of the tradition of moral sense theory that includes Smith’s mentor, Francis Hutcheson, and his friend, Aguiar, Becker and Miller (2010), Chavanne, McCabe and Paganelli (2010a), Croson and Konow (2009) and Konow (2009a,b).   4 David Hume, an approach that proceeds from our sense of approval and disapproval of our actions or those of others. According to Smith, this moral sense develops through a process of repeated interactions with others that are initially motivated by our natural desire for their approval. This subject occupies a prominent place in TMS   (see, especially, TMS   III. 2 and VI.1), as it does in much of the secondary literature (e.g., Broadie 2006, Weinstein 2007, Young 1992), and it will resurface later in this paper. Nevertheless, the main topic here is the realized impartial spectator, rather than its genesis, for variety of reasons, including for the sake of brevity and in light of the lack of empirical quasi-spectator studies on the formation of moral judgment. Raphael (2007: 9-10) argues that TMS   focuses mostly on the epistemic exercise and dedicates considerably less attention to the content of morality. Others, including Fleischacker (1999), provide extensive commentaries on and analysis of Smith’s views on morality itself. The most significant fact about Smith’s treatment of the content of morality for the current discussion, though, is his claims about moral rules. That moral judgment can be characterized by rules is both his assumption going into the epistemic exercise as well as his conclusion coming out of it. More specifically, as the opening quote to this paper conveys, we can infer the general rules of morality when our moral sense encounters a variety of different circumstances, and, although this might not be the deliberate exercise of the agent, it is, in Smith’s view, the office of the ethicist. Modern spectator studies 3   3  When it is clear from the context that I am referring to empirical spectator research, I will usually shorten “quasi-spectator” to “spectator.” have similarly addressed these two questions, although the greater emphasis has clearly been on investigating the content of moral preferences, including altruism (Harbaugh, Mayr and Burghart, 2007), distributive justice (e.g., Chavanne, McCabe and Paganelli, 2010a, Dickinson and Tiefenthaler, 2002), fair rewards from risk-taking (Cappelen, Konow, Sørensen and Tungodden, 2011, Huesch and Brady, 2010), fair distribution of losses from risk-taking (Cappelen, Luttens, Sørensen and Tungodden, 2011), reciprocity (Charness, Cobo-Reyes and Jiménez, 2008, Croson and Konow, 2009), and the effects of moral bias (e.g., Chavanne, McCabe and Paganelli, 2010b, Croson and Konow, 2009, Traub, Seidl, Schmidt and Levati, 2005). As with the larger empirical literature on social preferences that includes stakeholder studies, this research has usually been approached with the expectation that general forces are at work and with the goal of contributing to models of those forces (e.g., Charness and
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