Sunday, September 02, 2012

Adam Smith's Natural Teleology: Divine Design or a "Fatherless World"?

At the recent Republican National Convention, many of the speakers concluded by invoking God's blessings on the United States.  Some of the speakers (like Senator Marco Rubio) insisted that what makes America "exceptional" is the belief that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights--that rights are therefore God-given.  Moreover, it was said that God exercises providential care over the world in enforcing his moral law. 

By contrast, we can expect that we will not hear this kind of political theology at the Democratic National Convention.  Sometimes President Obama will say that the American creed rests on the belief that "all men are endowed with rights."  But he usually omits the phrase "by their Creator" as it appears in the text of the Declaration of Independence. 

This difference in rhetoric between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party points to a fundamental issue in moral and political philosophy.  Is a healthy moral and political order impossible without some belief in a cosmic teleology of divine design, as many Republicans believe?  Or is it possible for a healthy moral and political order to be rooted in a purely human order of human nature, human culture, and human judgment?

On the one hand, the Declaration of Independence invokes a cosmic teleology of divine providence.  On the other hand, the Constitution of the United States makes no clear reference to God or cosmic teleology, and the "no religious test" clause suggests that no religious belief is necessary for the constitutional order.

One of the most common objections to my argument for Darwinian natural right is that if Darwinism denies cosmic teleology, it must therefore collapse into nihilism.  That's the objection often made by the Straussians.  Of course, as I have indicated in some previous posts, the Straussian position on this is confusing, because it often seems that the Straussians do not actually believe that cosmic teleology is true, although it might be a noble lie.

Similarly, my religious critics argue that the only escape from nihilism is some religiously based cosmic teleology; and if Darwinism denies that human beings were created in God's image, and thus denies the cosmic teleology of Biblical religion, Darwinism leads to the sort of nihilism manifested in the Nazi movement.  That's what Richard Weikart identifies as the line of influence "from Darwin to Hitler."

This issue comes up in the interpretation of Adam Smith, who influenced the thinking of the American founders (Madison and Hamilton, for example) as well as Darwin.  In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith often invokes God as the "Author of Nature," who has designed the universe to serve his cosmic ends and ultimately to promote human happiness.  But in The Wealth of Nations, Smith says nothing about God, and he speaks about religion as a social institution, without any profession of his faith. 

Many readers have assumed that Smith was an atheist or skeptic, rather like his friend Hume, and that Smith's theological language is merely a concession to popular religious beliefs that he did not personally share.  But in recent years, some scholarly commentators on Smith have argued that he assumed a theology of natural teleology as foundational for all of his work. 

For example, James Alvey has argued this in a book--Adam Smith: Optimist or Pessimist? (2003)--and in an article that is available online -- "The Secret, Natural Theological Foundation of Adam Smith's Work," Journal of Markets and Morality 7 (Fall 2004): 335-61.  As Alvey indicates, he is reviving an argument made by Jacob Viner, The Role of Providence in the Social Order (1972).

Alvey was originally a student of Richard Staveley at the University of Queensland in the mid 1970s.  Under Staveley's influence, he eventually went to the University of Toronto to get a Ph.D. in political science, specializing in political theory, and writing a dissertation on Smith that became his book.  I mention this because I have often been impressed by Staveley's remarkable influence in directing many of his students to the study of political theory.  Some of these students have become students and friends of mine.

I agree with Alvey that Smith does assume a natural theology in The Theory of Moral Sentiments.  My objection, however, is that Alvey does not consider the possibility that what he identifies as Smith's "trimmed-down version of natural theology" (345) could be affirmed by both Hume and Darwin. 

In Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Philo criticized the traditional reasoning for God as the intelligent designer of the universe.  Philo also suggested that the emergence of complex order in the physical and living world could be explained as the result of a process of natural selection of accidental variations in the history of the world.  And thus he anticipated Darwin's theory of natural evolution.  Philo also indicated, however, that the ultimate first cause of everything remains a mystery, which leaves an opening for believing in a Creator as something like a Cosmic Mind.

Similarly, Darwin argued against the traditional theory that the forms of life arose by divine special creation of each species, and he argued for a theory of natural evolution that looks a lot like what Philo had suggested in Hume's Dialogues.  And yet Darwin also indicated that the ultimate first cause of life and the universe was a mystery that left open the possibility that something like a Divine Mind might be posited.

But even as Hume and Darwin left an opening for religious belief in a Creator, and even as they agreed that this religious belief could reinforce morality in some ways, they also agreed that morality could stand on its own natural ground even without religious belief.  Alvey doesn't take seriously the possibility that this was Smith's position as well.

Remarkably, Alvey says almost nothing about either Hume or Darwin, and thus he never considers Smith's fundamental agreement with Hume or Smith's anticipation of Darwin.  Without thinking through the line of thought linking Hume, Smith, and Darwin, it is impossible to understand the place of natural teleology in the modern world.  (One could also stretch this line of thought back to Lucretius and Cicero in the ancient world.)

Hume's blunt criticisms of Christian theology gave him an infamous reputation as an atheist or infidel.  Not being as blunt as Hume, Smith did not suffer from the same bad reputation.  But Smith's friendship with Hume and some of his writing led some of Smith's readers to suspect that he was as much of an infidel as Hume.  Smith had to be cautious to avoid persecution.  For example, he refused to help Hume get a professorship at the University of Glasgow, because he feared the unfavorable reaction of the public.  When Hume was dying, he asked Smith to secure the publication of the Dialogues after Hume's death.  Smith refused to do this, apparently because he did not want his reputation soiled by association with Hume's attacks on natural theology in that book.  And yet Smith arranged for the publication of his letter to William Strahan describing Hume's cheerful attitude in the face of death without any belief in an afterlife.  He concluded: "Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit."  This exposed Smith to denunciations from Christians.  After the publication of the Dialogues in 1779, Smith never indicated any disagreement with Hume's attack on traditional natural theology.

In explaining Smith's teleology, Alvey identifies five or six ends of human life: self-preservation, reproduction, the order of the human world, the perfection of human nature, the happiness of human nature, and perhaps liberty as an implicit end.  Collectively, Alvey suggests, we could see all of these ends as contributing to "human flourishing" understood as "ease and tranquillity" (339).

But notice that none of these ends is supernatural.  None of these ends require redemption of human beings in an afterlife.  All of these ends belong to a purely natural, this-worldly, secular life.  Consequently, this immanent teleology of human nature is fundamentally contrary to the Christian teaching that there can be no "ease and tranquillity" in this world, because what human beings really need to be happy is heavenly salvation.

Of course, the Christian teaching requires not only eternal salvation in Heaven for the redeemed but also eternal punishment in Hell for the damned.  Smith does say in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that the belief in an afterlife with eternal rewards and punishments is "deeply rooted in human nature."  But he also indicates that the "virtuous man" might well doubt those standards of eternal judgment that are contrary to our moral sentiments--for example, the eternal punishment of pagan philosophers because they were not Christians (TMS 132-34).  Here Smith seems to agree with Darwin that the eternal punishment of unbelievers is a "damnable doctrine."

Smith seems to say that the universal benevolence of the "wise and virtuous man" requires belief in the cosmic teleology of divine providence:
This universal benevolence, how noble and generous soever, can be the source of no solid happiness to any man who is not thoroughly convinced that all the inhabitants of the universe, the meanest as well as the greatest, are under the immediate care and protection of that great, benevolent, and all-wise Being, who directs all the movements of nature; and who is determined, by his own unalterable perfections, to maintain in it, at all times, the greatest possible quantity of happiness.  To this universal benevolence, on the contrary, the very suspicion of a fatherless world, must be the most melancholy of all reflections; from the thought that all the unknown regions of infinite and incomprehensible space may be filled with nothing but endless misery and wretchedness.  All the splendour of the highest prosperity can never enlighten the gloom with which so dreadful an idea must necessarily over-shadow the imagination; nor, in a wise and virtuous man, can all the sorrow of the most afflicting adversity ever dry up the joy which necessarily springs from the habitual and thorough conviction of the truth of the contrary system. (TMS, 235)
Here it seems that the "wise and virtuous man" would never embrace "the very suspicion of a fatherless world."  And yet, the only man Smith ever identified as approaching "the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man" was Hume, and Hume did apparently entertain the suspicion of a "fatherless world." 

Smith himself was a fatherless child, having been born a few months after the death of his father.  Could he have suspected that the whole world was fatherless?  If so, then he might have thought that the universe does not care about us or for us, but we care for ourselves, and through sympathy we extend our care to others.  This could have led Smith to believe that even if our moral sentiments cannot be grounded in a cosmic God or cosmic Reason, they can be grounded in human nature, human culture, and human judgment.  Would that have been enough for him?

If Adam Smith's work has a "natural theological foundation," as Alvey contends, then why is it that in The Wealth of Nations, Smith never mentions God, treats religious groups as purely secular institutions for popular education, and condemns the corrupting effect that theology has had upon moral and natural philosophy (WN, 764-74, 788-814)?  Is the world of The Wealth of Nations a "fatherless world"?

I wish that Alvey had probed some of these questions.

Some posts on related topics can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.


Sir Bert said...

Mr Arnhart,
I fear you fall for the all too common natural fallacy. That is what you observe in human behavior as morality may be natural in us, but you cannot determine the Good or Evil (intrinsic value) of these actions in the particular circumstance without appealing to a divine, eternal, standard...a "third party" that does not compete with creation nor is a part of it. That is, an agnostic/atheist must argue morality on usefullness, not good or bad. Atheists and agnostics can act moral, but they cannot argue WHY this act or that act is moral from a Darwinian point of view. I agree with the observation of Peter Hitchens (brother of atheist Christipher Hitchens) that the reason why Western atheists/agnostics (whether Hume, Darwin, Dawkins, or Harris) can call certain things moral or not is because they are referencing the tradition of Christian religion (piggy backing off of centuries of Christian sweat in moral theorizing). These are dishonest fellows who (unlike Neiztche) do not beleive that if they were to do away with religion that they could still operate a moral society. As the piggy backers increase and those who do the hard work decrease, we will see an interesting (un)development in Western society--perhaps its collapse not from economy or terror, but by moral decline.

Xenophon said...

See a good article on this issue by Gavin Kennedy, "The Hidden Adam Smith in his Alleged Theology", Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Sept 2011, which argues persuasively (to my mind) that Smith shared Hume's beliefs on these matters and was not a religious believer.