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.