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Adam Smith on Instincts, Affection, and Informal Learning: Proximate Mechanisms in Multilevel Selection


  • Jonathan Wight


Why do people give away knowledge in tutoring other people's children or when mentoring junior employees? Neoclassical economists explain informal learning as rational behavior that arises out of enlightened self-interest. They can also justify it as acts that satisfy the agent's preferences for the utility of others. By contrast, this paper shows that Smith's moral sentiments model anticipates a biological approach that explains additional and deeper motives for such exchanges. Instincts and emotions serve consequentialist ends because the ultimate causes of behavior are grounded in adaptations useful for survival and procreation. But man is largely innocent of this knowledge. The proximate causes of behavior—that is, the adaptive mechanisms actually at work in human society—are psychologically obscure—not left to the conscious mind. Social and moral capital develop through instincts and affection, and mentoring and collaboration are examples of social exchanges that arise from them.

Suggested Citation

  • Jonathan Wight, 2009. "Adam Smith on Instincts, Affection, and Informal Learning: Proximate Mechanisms in Multilevel Selection," Review of Social Economy, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 67(1), pages 95-113.
  • Handle: RePEc:taf:rsocec:v:67:y:2009:i:1:p:95-113
    DOI: 10.1080/00346760802483679

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    Citations are extracted by the CitEc Project, subscribe to its RSS feed for this item.

    Cited by:

    1. Schliesser, Eric, 2011. "Reading Adam Smith after Darwin: On the evolution of propensities, institutions, and sentiments," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 77(1), pages 14-22, January.
    2. Brosnan, Sarah F., 2011. "An evolutionary perspective on morality," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 77(1), pages 23-30, January.
    3. Jonathan B. Wight, 2011. "Ethics and Critical Thinking," Chapters,in: International Handbook on Teaching and Learning Economics, chapter 18 Edward Elgar Publishing.
    4. Eric Schliesser, 2010. "Reading Adam Smith after Darwin: On the Evolution of Propensities, Institutions, and Sentiments," Post-Print hal-00921187, HAL.


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