The Authority of Adam Smith’s Impartial Spectator

Thursday Lecture Series

  • Audience open exclusively to Columbia faculty, students, and invited guests
  • All others interested in attending, please email SOF/Heyman at [email protected].

It has been claimed that Adam Smith, like David Hume, has a “reflective endorsement” account of morality. On such a view, our moral faculties and notions are justified insofar as they pass reflective scrutiny. But Smith’s moral philosophy, unlike Hume’s, is also peppered with references to God, to divine law, and to our being “set up” in a specific way so as to best attain what is good and useful for us. This language suggests that there is another strategy available for accounting for the normativity of morality, one that would align Smith with more traditional teleological accounts of human nature and theological accounts of morality: The authority of Smith’s “impartial spectator” would, on such an account, be derivative—it would be derived from the supreme authority of God. But if this is Smith’s view, then we would need to drastically revise much of our understanding of Smith’s moral philosophy. This paper examines the role of the explicitly religious language found in a key section of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, and argues that it is neither mere window-dressing for an empiricist, sentimentalist moral philosophy, nor is it providing a theological justification of morality. It is an illustration of the psychological influence of religious beliefs, especially the beliefs in an all-seeing judge and in an afterlife where all human actions will be accounted for and appropriately rewarded or punished.