Metaphors, markets, and morality: review of Chapter 3 of Law and the Invisible Hand

Robin Paul Malloy makes two key moves in Chapter 3 of his new book Law and the Invisible Hand. First, he describes three of the most memorable, compelling, and complex metaphors in the writings of Adam Smith: the invisible hand, the man in the mirror (a phrase, however, that Smith himself did not use), and the impartial spectator. Next, he attempts to “connect” these three metaphors, i.e. identify what the common thread among them, if there is one, is. I will explore the connections among these metaphors in a future post; for now I will just say a few words about each metaphor:

  1. Invisible hands. Adam Smith’s most famous metaphor has to be “the invisible hand,” a metaphor that appears in three of Smith’s works: in his essay on “The History of Astronomy”; in his treatise on moral philosophy (The Theory of Moral Sentiments); and in “Book I” of his work on The Wealth of Nations. Here, however, Professor Malloy commits a major mistake. Specifically, he fails to mentions that Smith uses his “invisible hand” metaphor in different ways in each one of these three works; as a result, we can’t say that Smith’s “invisible hand” metaphor has a single, stable meaning. (I could go into the nitty-gritty details here (see slide below), but I want to keep this blog post short, so just take my word for it for now.)
  2. Adam and the looking-glass. Although Smith never used the phrase “man in the mirror” (this phrase is Malloy’s own invention), he did write about looking-glasses and mirrors in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Among other things, Smith writes: “Were it possible that a human creature could grow up to manhood in some solitary place, without any communication with his own species, he could no more think … of the propriety or demerit of his own sentiments and conduct … than of the beauty or deformity of his own face…. Bring him into society, and he is immediately provided with the mirror which he [lacked] before…. [I]t is here that he first views the propriety and impropriety of his own passions, the beauty and deformity of his own mind.” [Quoted in Malloy 2022, pp. 27-28.] In other words, for Smith man is a social animal because we care what other people think about us.
  3. Impartial spectators. The last of Smith’s three major metaphors is “the impartial spectator,” a term of art that appears over 60 separate times in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. (By contrast, as I mentioned above, Smith used the phrase “the invisible hand” only three times in his entire lifetime.) That Smith employed this theatrical metaphor so frequently in his first magnum opus tells us that the impartial spectator is a crucial part of Smith’s moral philosophy, but who is this impartial spectator, and what is his role in our lives? Alas, Malloy and I have a fundamental disagreement about Smith’s spectator. Malloy, for example, compares the impartial spectator to a common law judge, but in reality the metaphor of a spectator originates from the world of the theater, not law. Also, because the impartial spectator is such a crucial aspect of Smith’s thought, I will say a few more words about this metaphor in my next post.
Credit: Charlotte Rice

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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2 Responses to Metaphors, markets, and morality: review of Chapter 3 of Law and the Invisible Hand

  1. Pingback: Metaphors, markets, and morality (part 2): some questions about Adam Smith’s impartial spectator | prior probability

  2. Pingback: “Smith’s theory of justice”: conjectures and refutations | prior probability

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