Metaphors, markets, and morality (part 2): some questions about Adam Smith’s impartial spectator

Before I proceed with my review of the remaining chapters of Robin Paul Malloy’s Law and the Invisible Hand (Chs. 4-12), I want to pose a few additional questions about Adam Smith’s impartial spectator, one of the most compelling and memorable metaphors in the history of ideas, along with Plato’s cave, Schrödinger’s cat, and Rawls’ veil of ignorance. Among other things, at the end of my previous post I identified a fundamental disagreement between Professor Malloy and myself regarding this metaphor. To the point: Malloy models Smith’s spectator after a common law judge, while I would liken him to a theater-goer, i.e. a member of the audience at a theatrical performance. Which of us is right? Either way, Smith’s impartial spectator metaphor also presents a peskier set of puzzles and conundrums, a deep and difficult set of questions that I once posed to Ryan Patrick Hanley (see here) and that I now pose to Professor Malloy:

  1. Who is this impartial spectator? 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.) [Note: All author and page references are to Volume 13, Issue 2 of Econ Journal Watch (May 2016), which contains a special symposium devoted to Adam Smith’s impartial spectator.]
  2. When and how does this spectator come into play? 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. Is the impartial spectator a moral relativist? 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. How does the impartial spectator overcome its biases? 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. How does the impartial spectator enforce its judgements? Lastly, isn’t Smith’s impartial spectator, assuming it really 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.

To his credit, Professor Malloy devotes several additional chapters of his book to Smith’s impartial spectator, so we will revisit the questions above in future blog posts. For now, it suffices to say that this imaginary device, which appears over five dozen times in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, is the centerpiece of Smith’s theory of morality (see, for example, the book cover pictured below) and thus deserves careful scrutiny. In the meantime, I will proceed to Chapters 4 and 5 of Law and the Invisible Hand in the next day or two …

Amazon - The Impartial Spectator: Adam Smith's Moral Philosophy: Raphael,  D. D.: 9780199568260: Books

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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