A more “Smithian” theory of justice: refocusing the gaze of Adam Smith’s impartial spectator

Alternative title: Review of Chapters 6-8 of Law and the Invisible Hand

Chapters 6, 7, and 8, the three most important chapters of Law and the Invisible Hand, should be read as a whole. Briefly, although these chapters, especially Ch. 6, are somewhat technical and full of digressions, covering contemporary theories of linguistics and aesthetics as well as Adam Smith’s own theory on the origins of language, Robin Paul Malloy–perhaps unwittingly–makes another creative move, an Adam Smith-inspired conjecture that, in my view, provides a more solid foundation for building a truly “Smithian” theory of justice.

To the point, Professor Malloy further refines and extends Adam Smith’s original “impartial spectator” metaphor by positing the existence of an “outer spectator” or outward-looking observer. Although this modified metaphor had appeared in previous chapters, it is in these three chapters, 6 through 8, where Malloy explains how this outward-looking observer is able to make judgements about beauty, politics, and culture. Among other things, for example, Malloy explains how Smith’s spectator not only has the ability to make internal moral judgements about one’s own conduct; it is also able to make external aesthetic judgements, i.e. judgements about beauty, the common good, and justice (see, e.g., pp. 71-72 & pp. 85-86). To see why this simple but ingenious move is so brilliant, I have to say a few words about the original spectator metaphor in Smith’s work.

In summary, Smith’s “impartial spectator” was by definition an introspective and inward-looking inner being, an imaginary third party who enables each individual to objectively judge the morality of his actions. Although Smith’s original device of the impartial spectator was designed to be a purely introspective or inward-looking tool, why can’t this inner spectator expand his or her or its gaze toward the wider world around us? That is, in addition to judging the ethical status of one’s actions, what is preventing our “inner” spectators from becoming “external” ones, from judging the normative status of social norms, formal rules (laws), and other worldly things? In short, what Malloy does in these chapters that is so brilliant — an ingenious move that is at once plausible and promising — is to turn the direction of this spectator’s gaze outward, toward the external world itself!

Would Adam Smith have endorsed this extension of the impartial spectator’s jurisdiction? If so, why didn’t he make this move himself? Either way, who cares, for Malloy’s outward-looking spectator move is a creative one and deserves further scrutiny. Specifically, how would this external spectator actually work in a morally-and culturally-pluralistic society as ours? I will revisit these key questions when I review the last part of Malloy’s book (Chapters 9-12) in my next few posts.

Credit: Robin Paul Malloy (6/18/22)

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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