In a wonderful book, “The Moral Molecule”, the author, Paul J. Zak, writes on “trust”.
“In its “physics envy,” mainstream economics had embraced mathematics to the neglect of any real interest in human nature. This, despite the fact that economics actually came into being as an offshoot of moral philosophy. And the central question of moral philosophy-whether human beings are fundamentally good or evil-has to be the longest-running debate since debates began.
Not too long after Moses picked up the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, the Psalms described humanity as being “a little lower than the angels.” Arguing for the other side, the Roman play wright Plautus declared that “man is wolf to man.” Philosophers, preachers, and politicians have been going at it ever since, offering theories to pin down our moral core that range from the medieval idea of original sin, to the seventeenth-century idea that our natural state is “the war of all against all,” to the Romantic idea that we are born a blank slate upon which all manner of goodness might be written if only we have the right environment in early childhood.
And this is not merely some academic dispute. This is a debate with consequences because each contending theory competes for influence in our laws, our cultural norms, and our social policies.
Two hundred and fifty years ago, an obscure professor at the obscure University of Glasgow published a book called The Theory of Moral Sentiments, arguing that benign and generous behavior arises from our feelings of attachment to others. He said that seeing others in distress creates a bond that he called “mutual sympathy.”
In hindsight, this seems almost self-evident. We know that seeing others in distress can have such an immediate force that it makes soldiers throw themselves onto a grenade to shield their buddies from the blast. Sometimes it compels ordinary people to jump down onto the subway tracks to save a complete stranger from being crushed by an oncoming train.
Yet The Theory of Moral Sentiments created such a stir that students from all over Europe suddenly flocked to Glasgow to study with its author. Overnight the obscure professor became one of the intellectual rock stars of the eighteenth century; even though, with bulging eyes and neurotic twitches, he hardly fit the part. He lived with his mother, and he was so absentminded that he often got lost in the woods, talking to himself, dressed only in his under-wear. Still, the concept of mutual sympathy was such a bolt from the blue, and his book such a hit, that he was able to travel grandly and lecture and hobnob with the likes of Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin for the rest of his days.
So what was all the fuss about? Well, for centuries, most moral thinking was like my mother's, bound up in original sin and the fall of Adam. But here was a theory to explain moral behavior that was not all about reining in our “natural” depravity. This theory did not assume, like the seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, that our natural state was “the war of all against all”; nor did it rely on a higher authority, or on a mystical sixth sense, or on rational calculation and restraint to help us overcome our dog-eat-dog proclivities. Instead, The Theory of Moral Sentiments suggested that conscience and good behavior are inherent parts of our psychological makeup, and that they are elicited quite naturally from our social relationships. Discerning right from wrong is, in other words, an innate human ability, and a bottom-up response from deep within.
Most secular philosophers had maintained something very much akin to the church's dismal view of our natural inclinations as well as a similarly top-down approach to getting us to shape up. The only difference was that instead of the God of Wrath threatening us into submission, the top-down force that philosophers saw struggling to impose control was human reason. Plato described the mind as a charioteer trying to rein in the body's wild, animal impulses, which he characterized as spirited horses. A couple of thousand years later, Pure Reason picked up an even more zealous advocate in the person of German philosopher Immanuel Kant.
In Kant's view, the only thing that makes us human and free is to act in accordance with the rules we give ourselves, devised through reason. The most fundamental of these rules, what he called the Categorical Imperative, says that to arrive at the good, you must always act as you would if your action were to become a universal law. But where the purity of Kant's Pure Reason may have jumped the rails was in saying that for any action to be truly moral, it must be done entirely for the sake of the moral law. If we act morally because it feels good to be virtuous-that doesn't count. And no exceptions, regardless of outcome. If lying violates the universal law, then you absolutely must never lie, even if a psycho killer is after your friend and telling the truth about his whereabouts will lead to his death.
If this line of pure reasoning seems a bit cold and impractical, that's only one of the many problems with top-down approaches in general The ones that, like my mother's, rely on religious teachings bump into the obvious fact that there are somewhere around four thousand different religions in the world, each adding its own special rules to the basic guidelines for pro-social behavior. Throughout history, nothing has led to more bloodshed and ruthless brutality than conflicts among these differing approaches to God. Which is precisely why the secular philosophers tried to rise above all that discord and find universal answers through reason. But in that effort, the philosophers carried over the same contempt for our biology that often characterizes religion. The effort to leave “mere flesh” behind depends on the notion that the mind-and the will, and the soul, and the indomitable human spirit-somehow stands apart from the body. Which is a view that modern science has proved-sorry, Mr. Kant-to be just plain wrong.
We are biological creatures, so everything we are emerges from a biological process. Biology, through natural selection, rewards and encourages behaviors that are adaptive, meaning that they contribute to health and survival in a way that produces the greatest number of descendants going forward. Oddly enough, by following that survival-of-the-fittest directive, nature arrives at many of the same moral conclusions offered by religion, namely, that it is often best to behave in a way that is cooperative and, for want of a better word, moral. Nature simply gets to the same place by following a different, and perhaps more universal, path.
The notion of mutual sympathy was much more human-centric than anything that had come before, just the kind of moral philosophy that the budding Romantic Movement, poised to give the world the Noble Savage and The Rights of Man, could get behind in a big way. If much of human history appeared driven by the ruthlessness that obsessed thinkers like Hobbes, perhaps it was because of specific influences on the system. Alter the nature and extent of those influences, and you might alter the moral response.
The eighteenth century was still a very long time before science could contribute much to a discussion of behavior, so our nerdy professor from Glasgow was understandably a little vague about how this system of mutual sympathy operated. Still, we see something very much like it-we call it empathy-driving moral conduct in thousands of little kindnesses every day. Every day, all over the world, it compels billions of people to share what they have with others whom they care about.
And yet, after the initial surge of enthusiasm, mutual sympathy lost the battle of the big ideas in moral philosophy. In part, it was overshadowed by Kant's ideas about Pure Reason, offered at about the same time. But there was another intellectual hammer coming on the scene with even greater impact.
Romanticism may have captured the arts and, to some extent, the politics of the late eighteenth century, but in the workaday world, the real spirit of the age was a new idea called Capitalism. Enterprise was on the rise, and tradition was in decline. Men of wealth and power were forming trading companies and building factories, meanwhile dispensing with medieval ideas like the fair price and noblesse oblige. Once their big machines were ready to roll, they closed the open grazing land so that tenant farmers would have no choice but to go to work in the mills.
The man that Capitalism turned to for hardheaded, unsentimental moral guidance to this new age of enterprise was Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations. The irony is that Adam Smith is also the same head-in-the-clouds professor whose first book had put human feeling at the center of moral discourse. It was, in fact, the leisure he earned by way of Moral Sentiments' success that enabled him to write The Wealth of Nations, which had an impact that, by comparison, makes Moral Sentiments look like a dud.
Many factors account for its electric effect, but one sentence, quoted time and time again over the past two centuries, conveys the basic wallop:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.
At a time when the West was moving beyond ideas of sin and the limits those ideas imposed, here was a real game changer. In the medieval world, pursuing personal gain fell under the rubric of pride or envy or greed. But now, according to the already rock-star-famous Adam Smith, personal gain could be filed under a new linguistic category called one's “interest,” and it was not a vice at all but a virtue! Getting ahead was no longer seen as a result of unruly passions. Now in the Age of Reason, getting ahead was simply the reasonable thing to do. And best of all, the rational and reasonable pursuit of personal gain made the wheels go around that put more food on the table for everyone.
Ever since those fateful words of Smith's first appeared, what's been lost in the general enthusiasm for the self-interested butcher and baker is how that line of text fits within the context of Smith's larger intellectual enterprise, which had far more to do with the virtue of individual initiative than any endorsement of self-serving behavior. All the same, Smith was embraced and venerated as the founder of a new science called economics. At the same time, his status as a moral thinker fell into decline.
For economists, Smith's line about “their own interest” represented not only a shift in values, but the possibility of a new and comprehensive way of explaining behavior. And that's how Economic Man (also known as Homo economicus) was born, the highly rational, self-serving human who lives in economics textbooks and in economic models, and who-at least for theoretical purposes-is driven by anything but mutual sympathy.
As an economist who went on to study moral behavior, I've always had a soft spot for Smith, the misunderstood moralist who went on to found economics. Like him, I've always preferred to study actual Homo sapiens rather than theoretical Homo economicus. I was always drawn to the real-world underpinnings of economic issues-things like rates of childbirth, generational demographics, and the amount of resources parents invest in each child. Don't all parents love their children? Then why don't all parents express that love by trying to give their kids the best possible preparation for life? Usually it's because they don't have the time and resources, and that's usually because they have more kids than they can handle. It turns out that fertility and parental investment-biological issues-profoundly affect economic outcomes.
It was this kind of work on fertility and demographics that prompted me to investigate other interpersonal factors affecting prosperity, the most compelling of which was trust. I spent more than a year developing my model demonstrating that the level of trust in a society is the single most powerful determinant of whether that society prospers or remains mired in poverty. Being able to enforce contracts, being able to rely on others to deliver what they promise and not cheat or steal, is a more powerful factor in a country's economic development than education, access to resources-anything.”