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The Donald, the Impartial Spectator, and the Command of the Passions

I spend the better part of my professional life teaching “Great Books.” This semester’s lineup so far has included Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Second Discourse (1775), Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), John Milton’s Areopagitica (1644), John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), and Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532). I’m committed to the proposition that these old books continue to speak to us, if only we have ears to hear.

My students don’t always agree, but they really perked up when I speculated about how Adam Smith would approach the phenomenon—the yuuge phenomenon—of Donald Trump.

In Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith offers a modified version of the rational, self-interested individualism articulated by the classical liberals Thomas Hobbes and John Locke (whose works my students read in the first semester of our sophomore core curriculum sequence). We understand ourselves, Smith argues, as both agents and spectators, agents acting in the full awareness that we have an audience and spectators constantly observing, evaluating, and sympathizing with (or not) the actions of others. Among the things each of us self-interestedly wants—indeed, one of the most important—is the sympathetic approval of others.

This has the potential, Smith believes, of transforming our self-interest in a good way:

Upon these two different efforts, upon that of the spectator to enter into the sentiments of the person principally concerned, and upon that of the person principally concerned, to bring down his emotions to what the spectator can go along with, are founded two different sets of virtues. The soft, the gentle, the amiable virtues, the virtues of candid condescension and indulgent humanity, are founded upon the one; the great, the awful and respectable, the virtues of self-denial, of self-government, of that command of the passions which subjects all the movements of our nature to what our own dignity and honour, and the propriety of our own conduct require, take their origin from the other.

A substantial portion of human excellence, in other words, flows from this interest in what others think of us.

But there’s a problem, identified most perspicuously by Smith’s contemporary, Rousseau. While Smith seems to regard this phenomenon as largely benign, Rousseau treats it as the beginning of the end of human happiness and goodness. When we lead our lives in the light of what others think of us, the French philosopher argues, we not only trade our “authentic” feelings for some factitious group sentiment, but we become competitive for attention in ways that are destructive not only of our own happiness but that of the entire community.

With those two ideas in mind, here’s a way of conceiving the issue: On the ground, in real life, our concern with others’ opinions, with gaining their sympathy, leads us to adjust our sentiments—not, as Smith suggests, to accord with some rigorously moral and highly principled observer who would want us to restrain ourselves, but to satisfy an audience of people like ourselves, an “in group” or an “us” that is opposed to “them.”

This is where Trump comes in. Numberless times he has said or done things that I regarded as outrageous, as crossing some line of good taste or political prudence, whether it was denying that John McCain is a hero, or misogynistically insulting Fox News host Megyn Kelly, or saying that his supporters would continue to be behind him even if he shot someone. All seem to be missteps—indeed, in some cases campaign-ending missteps—in ordinary political life. But not for Trump. His audience loved it; those of us on the outside were left scratching our heads.

Stated another way, Trump is playing what one observer has called a “hollow, Euro-style identity politics,” articulating the views and seeking the approval of a group that defines the world “politically” (as German political theorist Carl Schmitt would have it) in terms of “us” and “them.”

When I say this, my students voice their approval. They for the most part—unsurprisingly—don’t seem to like Trump.

They tend to resist, however, what I say next: that Trump is not the only one playing identity politics. This has been the bread and butter of thinking about the so-called “new social movements” of those who culturally construct their identities, ever since the abject collapse of orthodox Marxist theory. What Trump does for his people, the Black Lives Matter movement does for a certain portion of the African American community, the LGBT groups do for their adherents, and Hillary Rodham Clinton does in an effort to mobilize her supporters.

By the time I make this point, my students are squirming. I suppose it would be possible for them to embrace some version or other of this agonistic vision of politics, under which we acquiesce in our human tendency to divide the world into in-groups and out-groups, that no one is really morally superior to anyone else, that we all have our socially constructed identities, as do our adversaries, and that, in the end, perhaps Hobbes was right, and it’s ultimately a war of all against all.

But they resist that, and I’m quite glad they do. They want a ground for saying that someone is right and someone else is wrong; they care about justice. And here is where Smith can be brought back in. His conception of “the impartial spectator” is a mental construct far removed from the actual people around us, “the coarse clay of which the bulk of mankind are formed.” Smith believes that this imagined “conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct” will work to correct our partial, selfish, idiosyncratic passions and positions.

The problem is getting there from here, from the warm and passionate approval of “us,” as opposed to “them,” to the construction of the spectator within who doesn’t play favorites, who tells us that “when we prefer ourselves so shamefully and so blindly to others, we become the proper objects of resentment, abhorrence, and execration.”

Smith’s rough equation of the impartial spectator to conscience offers, I think, a clue. While he doesn’t fully embrace traditional religion, let alone traditional Christianity, the “sacred canopy” it provides offers a cultural milieu in which this sort of impartiality can be cultivated.

But what was relatively unproblematical in 18th century Great Britain—where one could safely presume the cultural hegemony of Christianity even as one sought to refine or redefine its import—is much more difficult here and now, in a “post-Christian” America. Do we have moral and cultural resources common enough, inspiring enough, and powerful enough to resist the comforts of confining ourselves to our special identity groups?

It doesn’t seem that the bloodless cosmopolitanism of our intellectual and commercial elites will serve, especially since in many cases it simply seeks to accommodate some of the loudest of our many identity groups. In that sense, the anything-but-bloodless Donald Trump, by purporting to stand up for America, may be right. He has tapped into Americans’ disgust at political correctness.

But in the end the America he should stand up for is a country founded on universal principles which everyone can understand and to which everyone can subscribe. Ours is not a nationalism of blood and soil, but rather of self-evident truths and propositions to which we as a people can be dedicated.

Trump is not the poet or the philosopher that we need, but the power of his appeal indicates the urgency of that need.

Reader Discussion

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on February 02, 2016 at 11:56:32 am

[T]hese old books continue to speak to us, if only we have ears to hear.

My students don’t always agree….

Oh, is there a young heart so coldly cynical as to feel no thrill in Machiavelli’s The Prince? Maybe it’s the thrill of insight; maybe it’s the thrill of revulsion; but it’s a thrilling read, regardless.

Plus, it’s short! That’s gotta be a big selling point to anyone stuck in a Great Books program.

I suppose it would be possible for them to embrace some version or other of this agonistic vision of politics, under which we acquiesce in our human tendency to divide the world into in-groups and out-groups, that no one is really morally superior to anyone else, that we all have our socially constructed identities, as do our adversaries, and that, in the end, perhaps Hobbes was right, and it’s ultimately a war of all against all.

I don’t think this fairly characterizes the perspective being described. Instead of saying “no one is really morally superior to anyone else,” I think it might make more sense to say, “my group has the appropriate perspective from which to judge itself and all others.” The moment you adopt the perspective of the outside observer to characterize this view, you’ve distorted it.

And whatever we may desire for politics, I find it hard to imagine that students of politics could come away with any other perspective. In election after election, Democrats divide between the “beer candidate” (Biden, Clinton, etc.) and the “wine candidate” (Obama, Sanders, etc.). Their policy positions may be identical, but the groups with which they identify differ. The same occurs on the Republican side, with divides between the “outsider (beer) candidates and the “establishment (wine)” candidates.

They want a ground for saying that someone is right and someone else is wrong; they care about justice.

Great -- but justice as conceived by whom? By themselves? Then we’re just back in the world of “my group has the appropriate perspective from which to judge itself and all others.” And the very fact that students cannot perceive their place in this perspective tells you how thoroughly these are embedded in it. Bring me an example of a people who have adopted a standard of justice by which they conclude that some rival nation is morally superior, and I’ll concede that it’s possible to subject your own culture to some kind of objective scrutiny.
And, in fact, this does occur – to some extent. Some minority of people – especially young people – are prone to idealize outsider individuals/societies as a means of critiquing their own. Think of the theme of “the noble savage” or the “wise mandarin.” But the people propounding these social criticisms, like Isaiah and Thoreau, tend to become marginalized by the rest of society.

To go to a favorite example, consider the Ultimatum Game: I offer you $10, no strings attached, with the following story: Someone else was given $100 on the condition that he split the money with you. He has offered you $10. If you accept, you keep the $10 and he keeps $90; if you reject, you both get nothing. What do you do?

This game has been played in a variety of cultures, with a variety of sums. In Western/market cultures, people tend to reject offers that dip much below 45%; that is, they’ve come to expect equitable treatment from strangers, and they value punishing people who decline to conform to such norms. In more traditional societies, we find people making and accepting much less equitable offers. The primary virtue in these societies tends to be loyalty to the group. Individuals may behave quite selfless where their group is concerned – but to sacrifice the welfare of your group to promote the welfare of a stranger would be the basest form of behavior.

So imagine an individual from a traditional society playing the Ultimatum Game, given the opportunity to split a windfall with a stranger. Imagine that she sees herself being scrutinized by “the impartial spectator.” Will this impartial spectator judge her harshly for behaving stingily toward the stranger, or for being magnanimous?

Imagine the white former slave-owner in the antebellum South. Oppressive Northern troops have killed his son, ruined his fortunes, and caused the formerly promising marriage prospects for his daughters to evaporate (both because of his relative poverty and because many upwardly-mobile young men are now dead). His neighbors are organizing to restore some sense of normalcy and social order by forming a chapter of the KKK and promoting Jim Crow laws. He now has huge amounts of work to do, and no slaves to help; he truly do not need another commitment. But what would “the impartial spectator” tell him to do?

Imagine the young Indian woman whose beloved husband has died. The husband’s body will be burned on a pyre, and she will be expected to throw herself onto the pyre to demonstrate her devotion to him. What would “the impartial spectator” tell her to do?

Imagine the young African girl who will pass a right of womanhood and claim sisterhood with all the other women in her community, provided she submit to female genital mutilation. What would “the impartial spectator” tell her to do?

What does “the impartial spectator” tell a gay Catholic to do? I could imagine this conversation going in many different directions – none of them “impartial.”

I humbly submit that people who embrace the idea that they can generate an “impartial spectator” from their own imaginations -- and have that spectator truly reflect a perspective that is not utterly culture-bound – are deluding themselves.

Yet I do precisely this. What alternative do I have?

I like the Churchill quote about democracy being the worst form of government – except for all the others. I hope we all subject our views to the scrutiny of multiple observers, including the scrutiny of our own consciences. But I also hope we acknowledge the limits of our own consciences. It’s likely that your conscience’s voice sounds a lot like your mom’s. Some of your students may take comfort in that fact; some won’t. But few will take comfort in this fact once they start having kids and realize that their own voices will be echoing around in their kid’s heads. It’s scary to realize how little my kids listen to me – but it’s scarier to realize how much they do listen.

It’s nice to imagine that there’s a Great and Powerful Oz who can answer your questions – at least, until someone pulls back the curtain. Or recall the cartoon where Dilbert is being shown a pit wherein the oracle lies. “Here you may come to seek answers to any question you have, any day but Thursday.”

“Why not Thursday?”

“Thursday is your turn to sit in the pit.”

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nobody.really
on February 02, 2016 at 13:10:35 pm

Nobody:

Quite good and sound!

I was going to post a comment on the "silent spectator" in which I likened it not to an internal *presence* or awareness but rather as you appear to suggest (at least in some cases) to a Common Mind, i.e., a culture, a tradition.

1) "impartial spectator"
2) a country founded on universal principles which everyone can understand and to which everyone can subscribe.
3)Ours is not a nationalism of blood and soil, but rather of self-evident truths and propositions
4)to which we as a people can be dedicated.

Nos 1 thru 3 may be said to speak to the tradition that, at least at one time, animated both discussion and "self" perception and may be said to have exerted a far greater influence upon the populace than the populace may be willing to admit, given that part of the self-evident truths and propositions is of a rather pronounced individualism. It is also true that this is not a nation of "blood and soil", although the adherence to the "self-evident truths..." may be said to impose similar constraints and in-group self perceptions.
Clearly, we operate not in a vacuum, and our perceptions of self and others is not created out of nothing but rather within the (formerly) warm embrace of a Common Mind, a shared perspective, even a shared, if at times somewhat dissimilar, epistemology.

Yet #4 is the current issue and may explain why the good Professor's (and other educators) students act as they do, (heck, it is true for you and I as well).

"to which we as a people can be dedicated."
While it is certainly possible that we CAN be "dedicated," it is highly doubtful that we are - or even desire to be.
Perhaps, the propositions are changing (clearly, some are) or are being reinterpreted (also, yes), or being reinvigorated (quite possibly, yes).
Yet, what is the effect of this. Can it be said that we are still comforted with a Common Mind? No, this is a not an attempt to glorify the past traditions, some of which were quite stupid, pointless and unfair. Rather, I think, it is a way of pointing out that there once was a motivating impulse than could be roughly said to focus / concentrate perceptions (self and group) into a somewhat coherent whole. I think this is true of the examples that you also cite.
Question at issue:

Can this coherency be better sustained via "rapid" / top-down change (such as some would argue for USA today) or by the somewhat less perceptible, yet steady, incrementalism that so characterizes traditional change and flexibility.

I would argue that the more rapid the change, the more it is viewed as an imposition, where one group, as you illustrate may deem it proper to assert (and believe) that only m,y group may properly and correctly perceive / apprehend / or understand, say, justice, the more likely it is that the society's coherent self perception will be fragmented into the many individual sub-group consciousness(es). We then go on to assume that our small sub-group and its self perception is all that matters or is essential for proper and coherent civic functioning.

I used to say: "What have we lost our minds"?
It is fairer to say: 'Indeed, we have discarded our Common Mind."

Into the vacuum, who or what will "swoosh in." relativism, nihilism and multiculturalism have already tried - what the heck is next?

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gabe
on February 02, 2016 at 13:24:09 pm

Ooops, forgot this!

1) This in-group *righteousness* of both self and *other* perceptions has lead to a disdain, perhaps for the study of great books and traditional philosophy with the consequent result that the Common Mind has become all too common.

2) I do not wish to assert that the Common Mind is an all pervasive, unchanging presence with no room for individual conscience; rather, it is the admixture of both individual and traditional *conscience* (perceptions) that allows for a steady, but still discernible change to the practices, traditions and perceptions of the Common Mind.

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gabe
on February 02, 2016 at 16:12:16 pm

Nice essay, professor. It is a wonderful example of why I periodically read Law and Liberty. You have an inspiring grasp of the subject matter, and you apply it to current issues of liberty. Thank you for taking the time to write.

I just want to add a couple of notes, for my own purposes, if nothing else. (I find that writing on a topic helps me understand it better.)

The theme here is the contrast between conscience and popularity. This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately. In particular involving government. The Framers attempted, but failed, to create a government in which conscience and wisdom provided a check on government. They attempted to thwart the impulse of populism by designing a form of government that removed the appointment of the editors of proposed government actions, the senators and the president, from the domain of popular appointment. The Senators were to be appointed by the state legislatures. The president by an electoral college. Separated from popular appointment, they would be able to exercise conscience over popular opinion.

It didn't work out.

The senate was eventually drawn completely into the populist fray. The presidency was always a popular office, being a democracy by proxy. We fell from the original ideal of conscientious government to the contrary reality of populist government almost immediately after the Constitution went into operation.

The problem of protecting liberty is the problem of having the right amount of the right form of government. Conscience and knowledge and a firm understanding of governmental principles in the editorial chambers are absolutely necessary for denying the impulses of popular requests from the House and to address excesses in the presidency.

Madison framed the problem simply.

"If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions."

Conscience, being the closest thing we have to the divinity of angels, was one of those auxiliary precautions.

Without the voice of conscience in the senate, unwise and undesirable, but popular and well-intentioned, requests for government actions coming from the populist House will slowly bring the nation to ruin--probably devolving America into a fascio-socialist state much like Britain is now.

Until we can work out how to bring conscience into government, especially in the senate, we will be stuck with this sisyphean struggle for dominance. Yesterday favored Obama on the left. Today favors Trump on the right. Tomorrow, some other megalomaniac on the left. Like the scorpion in the famous Mexican tale, popular government can do nothing else.

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Scott Amorian

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