Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Adam Smith: The Plight of the Impartial Spectator in Times of Faction

Adam Smith's first great book, the Theory of Moral Sentiments, relies heavily in places on the idea of an "impartial spectator." Smith's notion is that our beliefs about morality are closely related to our notion of how a hypothetical "impartial spectator" would react to a given situation. (Here's a quick overview of Smith's argument.) But what happens to a person trying to think like an impartial spectator--that is, a person trying to preserve the integrity of their own personal judgment--in a time of faction?  Smith argues that anyone trying to act in this way is likely to be marginalized by all competing factions.

Here is Smith's comment from the 1759  Theory of Moral Sentiments (Book III, Ch. 1, paragraph 85). As is my wont, I quote here from the online version of the book at the Library of Economics and Liberty website. Smith wrote: 
"The animosity of hostile factions, whether civil or ecclesiastical, is often still more furious than that of hostile nations; and their conduct towards one another is often still more atrocious. ...  In a nation distracted by faction, there are, no doubt, always a few, though commonly but a very few, who preserve their judgment untainted by the general contagion. They seldom amount to more than, here and there, a solitary individual, without any influence, excluded, by his own candour, from the confidence of either party, and who, though he may be one of the wisest, is necessarily, upon that very account, one of the most insignificant men in the society. All such people are held in contempt and derision, frequently in detestation, by the furious zealots of both parties. A true party-man hates and despises candour; and, in reality, there is no vice which could so effectually disqualify him for the trade of a party-man as that single virtue. The real, revered, and impartial spectator, therefore, is, upon no occasion, at a greater distance than amidst the violence and rage of contending parties. To them, it may be said, that such a spectator scarce exists any where in the universe. Even to the great Judge of the universe, they impute all their own prejudices, and often view that Divine Being as animated by all their own vindictive and implacable passions. Of all the corrupters of moral sentiments, therefore, faction and fanaticism have always been by far the greatest."