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The Origins of Moral Sentiments

In today’s New York Times, David Brooks nicely summarizes recent research that suggests that moral rules “emerged from a long history of relationships.”  A chief conclusion, as he describes it, is vital: “To learn about morality, you don’t rely upon revelation or metaphysics; you observe people as they live.”

It’s worth noting that Adam Smith arrived at the same conclusion 251 years ago.  In The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), this brilliant scholar – who, in 1776, published an even more influential book – wrote that “Our continual observations upon the conduct of others insensibly lead us to form to ourselves certain general rules concerning what is fit and proper either to be done or to be avoided.”

Just as workable economic arrangements are not, and cannot be, designed and imposed by a higher power, so too, Smith explained, workable morality itself is the product not of any grand design but of the everyday actions, reactions, observations, and practical assessments of ordinary people going about their daily business.

Check out also Matt Ridley’s 1997 book The Origins of Virtue.