Sunday, May 22, 2022

The Esoteric Atheism of Adam Smith's Impartial Spectator

 In July, 11-13, I will be in Bogota, Columbia, for a conference of the International Adam Smith Society.  I will present a paper on "The Three Waves of Adam Smith's Sociobiological Morality of Liberalism."

Adam Smith needed Charles Darwin, I will argue, because beginning with his book The Descent of Man in 1871, Darwin showed how evolutionary biology could support Smith's theory of moral sentiments.

Smith also needed Edward Westermarck.  Because beginning with his book The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas in 1906, Westermarck elaborated this Smithian and Darwinian account of the biology of the moral sentiments, particularly in explaining the evolutionary psychology of the moral universals such as the incest taboo.

Smith also needed Edward O. Wilson.  Because beginning with his book Sociobiology in 1975, Wilson showed how the growing biological science of social behavior could deepen the empirical science of morality supporting a Smithian theory of moral sentiments, which has become, over the past fifty years, a new intellectual movement for studying evolutionary morality.

These are the three waves of Adam Smith's sociobiological morality.

This is a liberal morality because it rests on the fundamental idea of liberalism that society is a largely self-regulating unintended order--a largely self-enforcing spontaneous order that emerges from the social interactions of individuals seeking to satisfy their individual desires.  Smith elaborates this liberal view of morality in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.  

This breaks away from the traditional Western idea that moral order must conform to a transcendental cosmic order--the moral law of a cosmic God, a cosmic Reason, or a cosmic Nature.  Instead of this transcendental moral cosmology, liberal morality is founded on an empirical moral anthropology, in which moral order arises from within human experience.  Darwinian science supports this liberal moral anthropology by showing how it arises from the coevolution of human nature, human culture, and human judgment.

One objection to my argument is that Smith's theory of moral sentiments does seem to depend on a transcendent divine law insofar as Smith often invokes God as the "Author of Nature" and the "Great Judge of the World," who will be the ultimate enforcer of the moral law by punishing the bad and rewarding the good in the afterlife.  

In answer to this objection, I have suggested in some previous posts (here and here) that there is plenty of evidence that Smith shared the atheism or skepticism of his friend David Hume, but Smith had to be more cautious than Hume in hiding this so that he could avoid persecution.

Here I will point to some of the evidence for this in what Smith says about the "impartial spectator" as the standard for moral judgment in two chapters of The Theory of Moral Sentiments-Part III, chapters 2 and 5.  I will cite the page numbers of the Liberty Fund edition of 1982, which is the sixth and final edition of Sentiments, originally published in 1790.  I will also cite the page numbers of the Liberty Fund edition of The Wealth of Nations.

If morality is rooted in our desire for a mutual sympathy of sentiments, and if we judge ourselves to be good when those around us approve of our conduct, then it would seem that morality depends on the judgment of our fellow human beings.  Sometimes, however, the social judgment of our conduct can be unfair or misinformed, and then we must appeal to a higher court--to the court of our own conscience, to our imagined impartial and well-informed spectator, who can see that our conduct is praiseworthy even when we are not actually praised by other people.

But when the imaginary praise of our conduct by the impartial spectator is contradicted by the real blame of our conduct by the actual spectators in our lives, it is hard not to be thrown into despair.  "In such cases," Smith observes, "the only effectual consolation of humbled and afflicted man lies in an appeal to a still higher tribunal, to that of the all-seeing Judge of the world, whose eye can never be deceived, and whose judgments can never be perverted" (TMS, 131).  Thus, our happiness in this life is often dependent on our belief in a life to come after death, when God will reward the good with eternal bliss and punish the bad with eternal suffering.

Immediately after speaking about this religious doctrine of eternal judgment, however, Smith observes "that the virtuous man who has the misfortune to doubt of it, cannot possibly avoid wishing most earnestly and anxiously to believe it" (TMS, 132).  The virtuous man doubts this doctrine because some of the most zealous believers in the doctrine have described a divine distribution of rewards and punishments "too frequently in direction opposition to all our moral sentiments."  For example, Christians have often asserted that all of the virtuous pagans--all of the heroes, the statesmen, the poets, the philosophers, and other benefactors of humanity in the ancient world--will be condemned to eternity in Hell.  This is contrary to our moral sentiments, to our natural sense of the praiseworthiness of such virtuous people (TMS, 133-34).

(I have written a series of posts on life after death hereherehere, here, and here.)

Elsewhere in Sentiments, Smith warns that "false notions of religion" can grossly pervert our moral sentiments (156, 170, 176).  And he observes that some thoughtful people might entertain the "suspicion of a fatherless world" (235).  In The Wealth of Nations, he laments that in the medieval Christian universities, both moral and natural philosophy were corrupted by being made subservient to Christian theology (771).  Comments like these have convinced some readers of Smith that he was not a sincere religious believer, but that he had to feign religious belief to avoid being persecuted or being offensive in a society where Christian orthodoxy was pervasive.

Smith has a chapter on "the influence and authority of the general Rules of Morality, and that they are justly regarded as the Laws of the Deity" (TMS, 161).  Notice that Smith does not say that the rules of morality truly are the laws of God, but that they are "justly regarded" as the laws of God.  He says that this "opinion" is "impressed by nature" on the minds of human beings.  He explains:

"Men are naturally led to ascribe to those mysterious beings, whatever they are, which happen, in any country, to be the objects of religious fear, all their own sentiments and passions.  They have no other, they can conceive no other to ascribe to them.  Those unknown intelligences which they imagine but see not, must necessarily be formed with some sort of resemblance to those intelligences of which they have experience. . . . They could not fail, therefore, to ascribe to those beings, for the excellence of whose nature they still conceived the highest admiration, those sentiments and qualities which are the great ornaments of humanity, and which seem to raise it to a resemblance of divine perfection, they love of virtue and beneficence, and the abhorrence of vice and injustice.  The man who was injured, called upon Jupiter to be witness of the wrong that was done to him. . . . These natural hopes and fears, and suspicions, were propagated by sympathy, and confirmed by education; and the gods were universally represented and believed to be the rewarders of humanity and mercy, and the avengers of perfidy and injustice.  And thus religion, even in its crudest form, gave a sanction to the rules of morality, long before the age of artificial reasoning and philosophy.  That the terrors of religion should thus enforce the natural sense of duty, was of too much importance to the happiness of mankind, for nature to leave it dependent upon the slowness and uncertainty of philosophical researches" (TMS, 163-64).

Here, like Hume in his Natural History of Religion, Smith explains religious belief as a natural psychological propensity for anthropomorphic projection of human mental experience onto the universe, so that human beings imagine that there are invisible spirits with minds like their own.  And since human beings have moral sentiments and passions, they imagine that these divine beings have the same moral sentiments and passions.  In this way, religion sanctions morality as divine law, and thus provides supernatural support for a natural sense of moral duty.  A philosopher like Smith might then conclude that moral rules are "justly regarded" as divine laws.  Even if he thinks this is only a noble lie, he thinks that it is good for us if most of us believe it to be true.

In some previous posts (here and here), I have shown how Darwin and modern evolutionary psychologists have confirmed this insight of Smith and Hume that  believing in God is a natural, almost inevitable, consequence of the innate propensities of the human mind as shaped by natural selection in evolutionary history. 

For Smith, religious belief is both supportive and subversive of our moral sentiments.  The religious belief that God shares our natural moral sentiments can strengthen our morality, but religious fanaticism can promote violence and intolerance that corrupt our morality.  What we need, then, Smith argues in the Wealth of Nations, is "that pure and rational religion, free from every mixture of absurdity, imposture, or fanaticism, such as wise men have in all ages of the world wished to see established" (793).  This could be achieved if government dealt equally and impartially with all religious sects, and everyone was free to choose his own religion.  There might then be a free marketplace of religions, with hundreds or thousands of different religious sects; and if no sect was allowed to use violent coercion against any others, the competition for believers would induce "philosophical good temper and moderation," such as one sees in Pennsylvania, where the Quakers have established religious liberty, and the law does not favor one sect over others.  Thus does Smith embrace John Locke's policy of religious toleration, but unlike Locke, Smith does not deny toleration for atheists.

Smith worries that the morals of some of the small religious sects might become "disagreeably rigorous and unsocial."  To avoid this, the government has two remedies.  It can secure the liberty of people to provide popular diversions through the arts--painting, poetry, music, dancing, and the theater--which had been restricted by the Calvinist churches.  The government can also promote the study of science and philosophy, at least among the middle and upper classes, because "science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition" (WN, 796).  Smith foresees that in a modern commercial society, natural science would replace religious superstition in explaining the natural world (WN, 767-68).


Anonymous said...

There are hundreds if not thousands of videos by people on YouTube discussing their near death experience of the afterlife. These people for the most part seem perfectly rational, and usually quite surprised, including many former atheists and scientists. You might want to give them a watch.

Larry Arnhart said...

I have refuted this in my post "The Case For (and Against) Life After Death: Near Death Experiences," April 20, 2014.

Anonymous said...

So is your view that the thousands of people who report NDEs are all fakers and those who radically change their entire lives in the wake of an NDE doing it to sell their lie?

Larry Arnhart said...

I have pointed you to my long post on "near-death experiences." As I indicated in that post, the best confirmation of the truth of NDEs would be "apparently nonphysical veridical NDE perception" (AVP). Of all the commonly cited cases of AVP that have been rigorously investigated, not a single one has been verified. Can you identify any case of AVP that has been verified by careful investigation? If you can, I would be interested.

Anonymous said...

Now take the next step to conclude that modern progressive liberalism is such a religious sect as described in this post and you will have become Moldbug.

Larry Arnhart said...

I don't understand your point.

Anonymous said...

I was referring to your recent posts on Moldbug. Specifically I am hoping you will write about his series of posts "How Dawkins Got Pwned."