Was Smith A Moral Subjectivist?

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This paper may appear quixotic in the extreme. Adam Smith’s Theory of The Moral Sentiments has generally been seen as a species of the genus of moral sentimentalism. Moral sentimentalists agree in grounding our moral distinctions in our sentiments, as opposed to the world. They are in this respect the progenitors of various stripes of subjectivism in meta-ethics. I want to argue that Smith does not fit this picture. I think he can be easily read to do so, and that he was sometimes confused about what he was doing, but that we ought to, at a minimum, recognize an alternative, objectivist ( and  therefore, I think, correct)  strain in Smith, in tension with his apparent subjectivism.

Posted for comments on 11 Sep 2017, 2:03 pm.
Published in Economic Thought 8.1

Comments (5)

  • Michel Zouboulakis says:

    As far as I can judge, this is a concise but very elaborated paper on Smith’s Moral Philosophy. It debates a real issue raised recently by Griswold (1999) and Parfit (2011) about the subjective character of moral rules in the Theory of Moral Sentiments. Quinn, quite honestly, presents a number of arguments of Smith’s modern readers and tries to answer them giving some thoughtful and convincing answers. He maintains that Smith was a Moral Objectivist meaning that the morality of human actions are not be judged according to a subjectively perceived rule by the actor himself, but according to an objectively established morality as an “impartial spectator” –that is someone placed above mankind- would see it. Quinn rightly insists on the “theological cast” of Smith’s ideas (p.8) as they are clearly indicated in the Chapter 2 of the TMS. In his comparison between Hume and Smith, I believe that Quinn is again right: Smith does not share Hume’s proto-utilitarian idea of usefulness as a criterion of morality (p.12). As he concludes (p.13), Smith believes that “propriety is not transparently utilitarian” and also that “an exclusively utilitarian account of objective value is wrong”.

    I do not have a thorough knowledge of Moral Philosophy, but the paper is well written and publishable. It lacks a comprehensive general conclusion and certainly a strong secondary literature – it has only 6 references and Smith.

  • David Andrews says:

    I welcome this paper as an attempt to flesh out Adam Smith’s moral theory, a project well worth undertaking, but I have several reservations. This paper argues that Adam Smith was a moral objectivist rather than a moral subjectivist. Asking the question “does an impartial spectator approve of this because it is good, or is it good because an impartial spectator approves of it?” the paper argues that Smith “takes the former, objectivist, answer.”

    First, there are a number of unsupported assertions, some of which I would be inclined to contest, not all of which may be necessary to the argument. For example:

    1. Adam Smith’s Theory of The Moral Sentiments has generally been seen as a species of the genus of moral sentimentalism. p. 1

    2. In Part 3, Chapter 2, “Of the Love of Praise, and of that of Praise-worthiness; and of the Dread of Blame, and of that of Blame-worthiness,” we see how the impartial spectator is the vehicle that takes us from the first to the second of each of these pairs. Examining our own conduct, morality involves imagining what a spectator would be warranted in approving, not what he would in fact approve. Doing what is praise-worthy, what a spectator would be warranted in praising, is doing one’s duty. p. 5-6

    3. What the sequel supports, rather, is the idea that it is essential to goodness that the sentiments of good people (people able to deploy the correct criteria of goodness) would approve of it. The “characters” have an immediate reference, that is, not to the sentiments, but to the warranted sentiments of others, or so it will turn out. p. 6-7

    4. Your conviction that you are acting in praise-worthy ways may be and likely will be biased in your favor, and the absence of any actual praise, coupled with the presence of clamorous actual blame may lead you to re-evaluate yourself, coming closer to the truth. In addition, a big theme, arguably the biggest, in TMS is the pilgrim’s progress, by dint of his essential sociality, from the natural to the normative. By taking account of what other people think of us, we may learn better who we really are and become better people p.7.

    5. In fact, as many have noted, God in TMS is synonymous with Nature, where the latter is advisedly capitalized, because it is not the physicist’s facts shorn of any value, but the Stoic’s thoroughly normativized Nature, from which we can read off our duty. p. 8

    In my view, these should either be supported with evidence or omitted.

    Second, I think that the approach is not at all compelling. Neither the underlying project nor the manner in which it is carried out are adequately justified. It is never explained why anyone would want to try to force Adam Smith to answer yes or no to a recent question that he did not address explicitly and perhaps avoided intentionally.

    Moreover, the paper purports to arrive a strong conclusion, that in his moral philosophy Smith was an objectivist, based on just a few brief passages (five, if I’ve counted correctly before the case is completed at the top of p. 9). Is the claim that these are the only passages in TMS that are relevant to the question at hand? If not, why these particular five? This appears to be a highly biased choice of evidence.

    Third, the passages that are cited are not discussed with sufficient thoroughness. Here are two examples of passages the discussion of which seems doubtful and in need of further argument at least. First on p. 5:

    Whatever judgement we can form {concerning our own sentiments and motives} must always bear some secret reference, either to what are, or to what, upon a certain condition would be, or to what, we imagine, ought to be the judgement of others. We endeavor to examine our own conduct as we imagine any other fair and impartial spectator would examine it. (Smith, 1976: 110; emphasis added).

    The paper points to the emphasized phrase “ought to be” to show that Smith was an objectivist, but ignores the implications of the words immediately preceding it, “what we imagine” which might be taken to suggest he is a subjectivist.

    Second, on pp. 7-8:

    Smith . . . tells us that our concern for the actual sentiments of others has been implanted in us by “the all-wise Author of Nature:” “He has made man, if I may say so, the immediate judge of mankind; . . . But . . . only in the first instance; . . . an appeal lies from his sentence to a higher tribunal, to the tribunal of their own consciences, to that of the supposed impartial and well-informed spectator, to that of the man within the breast, the great judge and arbiter of their conduct” (1976 129-30).

    The paper continues with a discussion of the nature of law and what is lawful, a matter that appears to be unrelated to passage in question, inserting subjectivism and the question of what is warranted, ideas that have no obvious role in the passage from Smith.:

    Following Smith’s metaphor, a subjectivist would make the decisions of the lower courts- the actual sentiments of mankind- constitutive of the law. For Smith, that is only true of the Supreme Court. We can ask whether a lower court’s decision is lawful. It makes no sense ask whether the Supreme Court’s decision is lawful. It makes sense to ask of any actual or hypothetical moral sentiments whether they are warranted. It makes no sense to ask the same question of our warranted sentiments.

    Judges are present in both cases but in Smith guilt is being judge; in the paper laws are being made. Perhaps there is some further connection, but this should be explained. I am not necessarily disputing the claims made in these two cases, but more clarification and explanation is needed. The implications of these passages are not as obvious as the paper seems to assume.

    Fourth, there is a logical problem. The argument presented here relies on the law of the excluded middle, arguing that Smith must be an objectivist because his passages cannot be reconciled with subjectivism: “Any subjectivist reading of this passage is brought up short – very short! . . . And this would spoil the subjectivism. . . . There is nothing in the least subjectivist about this. A subjectivist would be unable to mark this distinction, it would be a mistake to give the last sentence a subjectivist import . . .”

    But the law of the excluded middle does not apply here. The passages presented are used to show that Smith “does not fit this picture” of a subjectivist, but this does not necessarily mean that he fits the picture of an objectivist. It is logically possible that Smith rejected both subjectivism and objectivism in certain ways and that he accepted both in limited ways. The paper arbitrarily rules out nuance and subtlety on Smith’s part. In particular the paper does not address the complexity added to the standard binary subjective/objective distinction by Smith’s impartial observer, which might be and has been viewed as an attempt to move beyond the simple binary case. I would have said this was what both Griswold and Larmore were pointing to. In any case, the claim that Smith was an objectivist in the paper’s simplistic unqualified sense is not established in any convincing way.

  • Kevin Quinn says:

    I thank David Andrews for his astute comments.

    I will start by agreeing that I have not shown Smith to be an objectivist. Perhaps it will be granted, though, that I have made out a case that what is prima facie a subjectivist meta-ethic, grounded as it is on approbation, isn’t necessarily so. I take for granted the prima facie case for subjectivism that supports the view of Griswold, Larmore and many others that this is the camp in which Smith belongs, and so play devil’s advocate, trying to complicate the dominant picture. Whether Smith knew and intended his work to be ambiguous in this respect, subject to both subjectivist and anti-subjectivist readings, I can’t say — although it doesn’t keep me from speculating that his deference to Hume may account for the new subjectivist-seeming bottling of older anti-subjectivist wine. I do not agree however that, as between subjectivism and anti-subjectivism, the law of excluded middle need not apply.
    I also plead guilty to asking Smith a question he doesn’t directly address, although the question is as old as Plato’s Euthyphro. I should say that one goal of the paper is to point out resources for modern anti-subjectivism in a thinker who is at first sight not a very likely source. I know it is out of fashion to use the history of thought in this way- treating thinkers from the past as if they were co-participants in dialogue with contemporary thinkers concerning common, as it were perennial, concerns and questions. Instead we are to contextualize, contextualize (that is Moses and all the prophets!) – so that the default position is that we share no questions in common with the inhabitants of that other country, the past. I think there is room for both approaches, the one which makes the apparently familiar strange, and the other, which makes the apparently strange familiar. It is true that the approach employed here makes the history of thought, in a sense, instrumental to (but also, I think, crucial to the advancement of) first-order ethical and meta-ethical thought.

    Below I respond to the numbered points in the comment:
    1. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, e.g, The fist thinkers cited in the article “Moral Sentimentalism” are Smith and Hume
    2. In the chapter in question, p.126 of the Liberty Fund TMS, “Praise and blame express what actually are; praise-worthiness and blame-worthiness, what naturally ought to be the sentiments of other people with respect to our character and conduct.” The latter phrase “what ought to be the sentiments of other people” is in substance, the view of the impartial spectator.
    3. The first sentence is quoted is just my gloss on the second sentence, which I argue for passim.
    4. This is based on Part 3, Chapter 2, passages such as “the agreement or disagreement both of the sentiments and judgements of other people with our own is…of more or less importance to us, exactly in proportion as we ourselves are more or less uncertain about the propriety of our own sentiments, about the accuracy of our own judgement.”
    5. Here I was thinking particularly of Vivienne Brown’s argument for the under-rated importance of Stoicism in Smith’s thought in her Adam Smith’s Discourse (Routledge, 1996)) but I agree I should have left it out.

    There are then three more passages from the paper quoted which are un-numbered. I comment in order.

    1. I hope my comments above, with respect to the default subjectivist case, apply here.
    2. I disagree that issues of subjectivism and what is warranted are unrelated to this passage from Smith. Here Smith explicitly connects the Impartial Spectator with the conscience. Since the latter is the locus of moral judgement, this supports my view that the Impartial Spectator approves what is good rather than constituting the good by his or her approval.
    3. This is not very good, I agree, and doesn’t contribute much to the argument of the paper.

  • Thomas Scheiding says:

    Kevin Quinn’s “Was Smith a Moral Subjectivist” manuscript engages in a uniquely detailed analysis of Adam Smith to determine whether he was a subjectivist or objectivist. Let me state from the outset that this is an under-researched area and yet is an area of research that is needed to better understand the foundational underpinnings of modern economics. With that said, Quinn’s research only starts the conversation in this specific area and contributes in but a small way to the larger needed discussion about the impact of Smith’s Impartial Spectator metaphor in Theory of Moral Sentiments and the intellectual relationship between David Hume and Adam Smith. And this conversation is needed because the overriding assumption is that Smith was a disciple of Hume and that both were subjectivists.

    Quinn engages in a detailed analysis of how Smith is not a subjectivist and cites the Impartial Spectator as approving things as good because the impartial spectator correctly approves things. The Impartial Spectator, for Quinn, becomes the vehicle that Smith pursues objectivism. As Quinn notes:

    “Examing our own conduct, morality involves imagining what a spectator would be warranted in approving, not what he would in fact approve. Doing what is praise-worthy, what a spectator would be warranted in praising, is doing one’s duty….There is nothing in the least subjectivist about this.”

    However, while Quinn’s analysis of Smith is detailed, I did not leave the discussion fully convinced that Smith was an objectivist. And I say that because Jack Weinstein’s manuscript “My Understanding of Adam Smith’s Impartial Spectator,” reminds us that:

    “Ultimately, the imaginary nature of the impartial spectator ends up limiting its detachment. Despite its name, it does not achieve complete neutrality. Because it is imagined by an imperfect person, it is only as objective as imagined.”

    I somewhat suspect that Quinn also believes that the Impartial Spectator cannot alone establish that Smith was an objectivist. Quinn states:

    “This completes my case that Smith is a Moral Objectivist, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. But those appearances haunt me. There is no doubt that Smith’s project breathes a subjectivist air, as it were. And he always seems on the verge of subjectivism, with some normative qualification — ‘warranted,” “proper” – pulling him back from the brink, while making him sound puzzlingly circular.”

    Upon reading the manuscript and this quote specifically, I think Quinn’s manuscript would actually be stronger by citing the uncertainty and the ‘appearences’ of subjectivism rather than stating that the ‘case’ is ‘closed.’ Quinn’s case of Smith being an objectivist seemed to be more that Smith was not a subjectivist. But Smith’s own Impartial Spectator metaphor makes the debate and conversation about the objectivist vs. moral subjectivist philosophies less important.

    What Quinn presents is a good starting point for the analysis of Smith (and Quinn admits as much). But there obviously needs to be more references, such as to Weinstein’s My Understanding of Adam Smith’s Impartial Spectator or Dennis Rasmussen’s The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought, and deeper connections be drawn to the relationship between Hume and Smith. Although we may think that Smith was an independent thinker, the personal letters between Smith and Hume would suggest otherwise.

  • Kevin Quinn says:

    I thank Tom Scheiding for his comments ( and belatedly, for which I apologize, I thank Michel Zouboulakis as well).

    As I noted in my response to David Andrews, I am content if the paper is seen as questioning whether the dominant view of Smith as subjectivist is completely convincing — giving a different, non-subjectivist, reading of what have been taken to be obviously subjectivist themes, without “closing the case” for his objectivism. The paper title is in this spirit -“Was Smith a Moral Subjectivist?” as opposed to, say “Smith’s Moral Objectivism.” I am happy if the paper has established that the case for subjectivism is not closed.

    I have not seen the Weinstein manuscript. I am familiar with Rasmussen’s Pragmatic Enlightenment as well as his book on Smith and Rousseau. I have a paper (unpublished) on Smith and the Enlightenment where, inter alia, I quarrel to some extent with the idea that Smith fits unequivocally in the group he calls the Pragmatic Enlightenment. I will certainly get hold of The Infidel and the Professor, though.

    I also wanted to note that my reading of The Impartial Spectator is not the sole ground of my challenge to the Subjectivist reading. Although I don’t devote a lot of space to the point, I note that the sections of TMS on “the corruption of our moral sentiments” are prima facie at variance with subjectivism.

    Thanks again to all three readers.