Daniel Klein: Adam and God

The turning of the New Year is a time for cheer and refreshed hope. Happy 2023!

It is also a time for reflection, however, and we cannot escape the fact that our times are troubled. Our troubles may lead us back to the man who helped to define liberal politics, Adam Smith. It is now 300 years since Smith’s birth in 1723. Happy birthday, Mr. Smith!

This year, you are apt to hear much of Smith, because of the tercentenary. People recall that Smith’s book The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, was the first to give a comprehensive assessment of government policy suitable to a stable nation like Great Britain. He advocated a presumption of “allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty and justice.”

One enormous feature of our world today is largely absent in Wealth of Nations, however, and that is redistribution. In Smith’s day there was a poor-relief system called the poor law, and, although Smith addressed the “necessary” expenses of the sovereign, the poor law was not enumerated. Smith’s first maxim of taxation was proportionality, akin to a flat-tax.

Smith is usually framed as a free-market thinker. Smith scholars, however, sustain a conversation over whether Smith was more aligned with the political left than supposed. Smith knew that a shilling meant more to a poor person than to a rich person, and that, ethically, everyone counted equally.

But that is not the only disagreement. Another is about God. I do not mean whether Smith believed in God. That, too, is debated. The issue is, rather, over whether Smith’s ethics involve a being like God, if not God.

Let us say that God is God-like, as Michael Jordan is Michael Jordan-like. So “God-like” refers to either God, or a being like God, in important superhuman respects. The God-like being is universally benevolent toward humankind and super-knowledgeable about each person’s situation and conduct.

Does a God-like being play a central role in Smith’s ethics? For this disagreement, it is Smith’s other work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, that draws us in.

I say, yes, a God-like being plays a central role in Smith’s ethics. That view is by no means idiosyncratic. Smith scholars who would agree include Larry Arnhart, Vivienne Brown, Douglas Den Uyl, Ross Emmett, Ryan Hanley, Charles Griswold, Knud Haakonssen, Brendan Long, Erik Matson, Deirdre McCloskey, Paul Mueller, Jerry Muller, Paul Oslington, Russell Roberts, Ian Simpson Ross, and Jeffrey Young. 

But others have indicated otherwise. The disagreement revolves around the expression “impartial spectator.” Among the scholars who have treated “impartial spectator” in a way that seems to stop short, either explicitly or by implication, of any notion of a God-like being are T.D. Campbell, Samuel Fleischacker, James Otteson, Maria Pia Paganelli, D.D. Raphael, Craig Smith, and Jack Weinstein. I contend that Smith’s ethics are patterned after benevolent monotheism, if not theistic, and that to not give an explicit place to a God-like being in Smith’s ethics is a terrible mistake. 

Societies cohere by virtue of religions or quasi-religions. The place of God in our civilization is a vital topic today. We can approach it by exploring the place of God in Adam Smith. The tercentenary affords a special occasion to do that. 

There is mystery—wonderful mystery, in my view—in Smith’s use of “impartial spectator.” Smith usually placed the definite article “the” in front of it. But often, he seems to do so out of the blue. The reader might be left scratching her head: who is the impartial spectator?

I am among those who argue that Smith used “impartial spectator” in multiple ways, including: (1) just any ordinary person who happens to be spectating and who, so far as we know, is not partial to any of the parties involved in the spectacle; (2) a human exemplar, admired by the speaker for high-level impartiality; (3) one’s conscience, which Smith sometimes calls “the man within the breast;” (4), highest of all, a God-like being, the universal, benevolent beholder.

The Smith scholars who reject the God-like being stop their interpretations of “impartial spectator” at the conscience or man within the breast. They say that each of us has our own conscience. They say that the conscience is each person’s impartial spectator, and that it develops over time. But they shrink from the idea that each person’s conscience is but an imperfect attempt to align with a universal, benevolent beholder. They shrink from speaking of “the impartial spectator” in any God-like sense.

But, in one passage, Smith distinguishes between “man within the breast” and a higher “impartial spectator.” Moreover, Smith speaks of the relationship between those two beings. He says that, in acting prudently, the prudent man “is always both supported and rewarded by the entire approbation of the impartial spectator, and of the representative of the impartial spectator, the man within the breast.” Here, Smith distinguishes “the impartial spectator” and “the man within the breast.” The relationship between them is made explicit: the man within the breast is a representative of the impartial spectator.

Moreover, in the same paragraph, the being called “the impartial spectator” is described as having super-human knowledge and super-human benevolence of “those whose conduct he surveys.” This being is interpersonal. Indeed, it makes sense to think that “those whose conduct he surveys” includes everyone. On that reading, this being is universal, and every conscience on the planet is a representative of that single universal being. Those representatives are, of course, highly imperfect, and each in its own way.

Now, you may be wondering: OK, so, what do the Smith scholars who give no place to a God-like being in Smith’s ethics say about the passage just referred to? Unfortunately, very little. They never explain how to square it with their flat interpretation of “impartial spectator.” They basically elide the passage.

And they underplay other passages that point the same way, for example, where Smith suggests that the laws of morality “are justly regarded as the Laws of the Deity,” or that the man within the breast is a “demigod” of “divine extraction,” or that humans were made in God’s image, or (up to the final edition of Moral Sentiments) that “Man is accountable to God” and that he learns his divine accountability by first learning his accountability to other human beings.

The disagreements within Smith scholarship are relevant to all of us: What is the place of God in our ethics? What is our nature? What is our civilization? Which way is up? The Smith tercentenary is a special opportunity to come together in Adam Smith.

Daniel Klein is professor of economics and JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, where he leads a program in Adam Smith, and author of Smithian Morals. He is also associate fellow at the Ratio Institute (Stockholm), research fellow at the Independent Institute, and chief editor of Econ Journal Watch.

This text was first published by American Institute for Economic Research.