A New Book Argues That Adam Smith Is the Moral Philosopher for Our Age

June 19 2020

While the 18th-century Scottish thinker Adam Smith is best known for his economic writings, he also wrote a major work of ethical philosophy titled The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In a recent book, Ryan Patrick Hanley argues that, just as Smith did much to describe the prosperity that trade and market competition can bring about, he can also help us as individuals erect standards of ethical comportment. Tal Fortgang writes:

Crucially, Smith argues, we should create an “impartial spectator” in our own minds, a figment who personifies justice and judges our every action unsparingly. The impartial spectator is meant to remind us of our own smallness and to help us see ourselves as others might see us; or, as Hanley puts it, it spurs us “to achieve unity with others.” This godlike construct impels us to humility, reminding us that we are “but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it,” in Smith’s words. But it also helps us recognize that in participating in society we are part of something great and heroic, and we should act generously to facilitate the flourishing of our fellow man.

Religion may also enter the picture as each individual builds his impartial spectator in the image of a perfectly wise and virtuous judge. It would be a violation of Smith’s virtues to presume we could simply divide ourselves into a fallible half in need of judgment and a perfectly objective half capable of judging. We can, however, choose useful moral benchmarks, approximations of perfect justice or paragons of virtue: Christians compelled to act like Christ, Jews according to the demands of the Torah, Muslims in imitation of Muhammad, and so on.

Yet Hanley’s understanding of Smith still leaves room for a secular standard against which we can measure our behavior. Hanley leaves his reader to fill in the substance of the impartial spectator’s character, even while hinting that Smith may be a bit more religious than Smith scholars often conclude.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at Commentary

More about: Adam Smith, Capitalism, Morality, Religion

How the Death of Mahsa Amini Changed Iran—and Its Western Apologists

Sept. 28 2022

On September 16, a twenty-two-year-old named Mahsa Amini was arrested by the Iranian morality police for improperly wearing a hijab. Her death in custody three days later, evidently after being severely beaten, sparked waves of intense protests throughout the country. Since then, the Iranian authorities have killed dozens more in trying to quell the unrest. Nervana Mahmoud comments on how Amini’s death has been felt inside and outside of the Islamic Republic:

[I]n Western countries, the glamorizing of the hijab has been going on for decades. Even Playboy magazine published an article about the first “hijabi” news anchor in American TV history. Meanwhile, questioning the hijab’s authenticity and enforcement has been framed as “Islamophobia.” . . . But the death of Mahsa Amini has changed everything.

Commentators who downplayed the impact of enforced hijab have changed their tune. [Last week], CNN’s Christiane Amanpour declined an interview with the Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi, and the Biden administration imposed sanctions on Iran’s notorious morality police and senior officials for the violence carried out against protesters and for the death of Mahsa Amini.

The visual impact of the scenes in Iran has extended to the Arab world too. Arabic media outlets have felt the winds of change. The death of Mahsa Amini and the resulting protests in Iran are now top headlines, with Arab audiences watching daily as Iranian women from all age groups remove their hijabs and challenge the regime policy.

Iranian women are making history. They are teaching the world—including the Muslim world—about the glaring difference between opting to wear the hijab and being forced to wear it, whether by law or due to social pressure and mental bullying. Finally, non-hijabi women are not afraid to defy, proudly, their Islamist oppressors.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at Nervana

More about: Arab World, Iran, Women in Islam