Do grasshoppers dream of impartial spectators?

(With apologies to Philip K. Dick.) In a previous post I explored the role played by the “impartial spectator” in Adam Smith’s moral philosophy, but is Smith’s memorable metaphor deserving of our study and attention in our day and age, or is this imaginary being just another piece of antiquated philosophical B.S. with no operational relevance to our daily lives? (For my part, I am in the former camp.) Either way, however, above and beyond these eight questions posed by my colleague and friend Dan Klein, I would also like to pose to Ryan Patrick Hanley–author of Our Great Purpose and Smith scholar extraordinaire–the following five pesky questions about Smith’s impartial spectator (note: all author and page references are to the May 2016 issue of Econ Journal Watch, or EJW, 13(2), which contains a special symposium devoted to the impartial spectator):

  1. First and foremost, what is the ontological status or metaphysical origins of this imaginary being? Specifically, is he (she?) (them?) (it?) an artificial human creation–i.e. something we conjure up out of whole cloth–or is this imaginary being somehow “hardwired” by natural or sexual selection into every human brain–an innate faculty we are born with? (Cf. McHugh 2016.) Either way (human invention or innate faculty), does this abstract entity have an ethnicity, a gender, or a sexual preference? (Cf. Weinstein 2016, p. 356.)
  2. Secondly, and from a purely logistical or practical perspective, when does the impartial spectator, if he (her/them/it) really exists, actually come into play? To the point: if it’s true, for example, that the average person makes up to 2000 decisions every hour (see here), which of these myriad decisions are subject to review by one’s impartial spectator–i.e. actually go up “on appeal”, so to speak. Put another way, if Smith’s impartial spectator operates like a Court of Appeal, what criteria does he (the impartial spectator) use in deciding which of our decisions will be taken on appeal?
  3. Next, what is the moral or normative status of the moral judgements generated by this heuristic, i.e. the decisions or verdicts rendered by the impartial spectator? (Note: I prefer the British spelling of the word “judgement.”) Are these verdicts/judgements fallible or infallible? Final or tentative? Put differently (cf. Mueller 2016), do the judgements and identity of this imaginary entity vary from person to person, or is Smith’s impartial spectator capable of generating universal and timeless moral judgements?
  4. Also, how helpful or reliable is Smith’s imaginary spectator, really? Specifically, can he or she or them transcend or correct our “entrenched cultural biases” (Fleischacker, 2016, p. 278)? By way of example, Walt Disney’s Jiminy Cricket famously admonished Pinocchio to ”let your conscience be your guide.” This is helpful advice if your impartial spectator is able to reliably discern right from wrong, but how reliable is your conscience? Circling back to Smith, since the impartial spectator is not a real person–it is an imaginary being–it is only as reliable as the person conjuring him/her/them up. After all, the impartial spectator, being an imaginary entity, has no store of knowledge beyond that of the person who is conjuring it up.
  5. Lastly, and relatedly, isn’t Smith’s impartial spectator, assuming it exists, a superfluous entity? If not, what work does this imaginary being really do? (Cf. Craig Smith 2016.) To the point: if a virtuous person is someone who is guided by the judgements of the impartial spectator, then by definition a non-virtuous person is someone who neglects or ignores these judgements. In that case, the impartial spectator falls into a circular trap; it is the mysterious quality of “virtue” (not the judgements of the impartial spectator) that is doing the heavy moral lifting.

The reference to “virtue” in the preceding paragraph takes us to the last major feature of Adam Smith’s moral philosophy, a feature that Professor Hanley himself heaps considerable–but perhaps unjustified–praise on. I will discuss Hanley and Smith’s treatment of moral virtue in my next post …

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About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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