What are the optimal amounts of wisdom and virtue?

Alternative title: Are Smith’s “impartial spectator” and his “wise and virtuous man” the same person?

In my previous post, I summarized Ryan Patrick Hanley’s portrait of Smith’s wise and virtuous man, and I also criticized Hanley’s portrait as implausible and unattractive: the wise and virtuous man does not aspire to absolute perfection (an impossible goal, in any case); nor is he an officious intermeddler. But as we say in the academy, it takes a theory to beat a theory, so here I want to offer a new interpretation of Smith’s wise/virtuous man.

As we have seen, Smith’s theory of virtue is personified by an archetype, “the wise and virtuous man,” but what does it mean for a person to be wise or virtuous or to act in a wise and virtuous manner? Let’s start with wisdom. Hanley defines wisdom in terms of “the appreciation of perfection” (p. 109), but this view is implausible at best. Smith is not Rousseau; Smith does not believe in the perfectability of man. As I read Smith, a person is wise in the Socratic sense of intellectual humility; he is aware of how little he knows. Also, this Socratic interpretation of wisdom has the additional bonus of being consistent with Smith’s praise of humility. What about virtue? As Hanley himself shows, Smith views virtue in several senses: magnanimity, self-command, charity, and Christian love. Simply put, Smith’s ideal man is intellectually humble; he is magnanimous; he has a high degree of self-command; and he is charitable to boot, full of Christian love.

Smith’s concept of virtue, however, poses a potential problem: what happens when the values of the wise and virtuous man (i.e. magnanimity, self-command, charity, and Christian love) collide or come into conflict. By way of example, how would Smith’s wise and virtuous man respond to the trolley problem? I would love to hear how Hanley and other Smith scholars would respond to this question, but in the meantime, I want to sketch out a different interpretation of Smith’s wise and virtuous man. When Smith is writing about this remarkable man–painting his portrait in words, so to speak–is it possible that he is referring to the imaginary spectator and not to any flesh-and-blood person in particular? Or in the words of Hanley (p. 110): “A wise and virtuous man strives to become an impartial spectator of himself ….” Would it be more correct to say that the impartial spectator–“the man within the breast” we are supposed to consult in cases of doubt–that this imaginary man himself should also strive to be wise and virtuous?

After all, as I read Smith, the wise and virtuous man is a fictional figure, every bit as imaginary as Smith’s “impartial spectator.” [*] We ourselves should aspire to become wise and virtuous in the various senses described above (intellectual humility, magnanimity, self-command, etc.), but how could we ever hope to pull off such an impressive, if not impossible, feat unless our respective “impartial spectators” themselves were wise and virtuous. Furthermore, this interpretation of Smith has the additional benefit that it resolves the many questions I posed to Hanley in a previous post.

  1. What is the ontological status of the impartial spectator? Even if this imaginary being is not a human creation, even if he is somehow “hardwired” by natural or sexual selection into every human brain, Smith is inviting us to model our respective impartial spectators along the lines of the wise and virtuous man.
  2. Timing and logistics: when does the impartial spectator come into play? Which of our decisions does he review? If my interpretation of Smith is correct, he comes into play whenever we make a decision that is not consistent with intellectual humility or not consistent with the virtues of magnanimity, self-command, charity, and Christian love.
  3. What is the normative status and reliability of the impartial spectator’s moral judgements? Again, if my interpretation of Smith is correct, then the impartial spectator’s moral judgements are normatively valid and epistemically reliable only to the extent they are consistent with what Smith’s wise and virtuous man would decide.
  4. Is the impartial spectator a superfluous entity? The answer to this question depends on the wisdom and virtue of the impartial spectator. Simply put, Smith’s imaginary spectator is not superfluous, but only to the extent his verdicts emulate or embody the values of the wise and virtuous man.

I will conclude my review of Hanley with some final though tentative thoughts about his book (the cover of which is pictured below) on Monday.

Image result for our great purpose

[*] I would make the following point in support of this proposition: Adam Smith himself is only able to identify but one flesh-and-blood person “as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will admit” (quoted in Hanley, p. 125). I will not give away the identity of this remarkable human being. Read Hanley’s book and find out for yourself!

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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