What Would the Impartial Spectator Do?

Every spring, I have the great good fortune of reading and discussing Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments with a captive (i.e., general education) audience of sophomores. This year’s class sessions coincided with the fifteen minutes of hate directed at the young men from Covington Catholic High School. That spectacle gave me an angle from which to consider Smith’s work and to demonstrate to my students that a work published 260 years ago has something to say to them. What follows does not purport to be an exhaustive treatment of a very rich text, from which I learn new things every time I teach it, but merely a sketch of one way Smith speaks to us today.

At the core of the Theory of Moral Sentiments is the argument that we human beings care deeply about what others think of us. While for Rousseau (the first author we read in the course) this interest in and dependence on the opinions of others is responsible for all of our unhappiness, Smith builds a very impressive moral edifice on this foundation. We are, he says, both agents and spectators. In the former role, we cannot help but care for what others think of us; we want them sympathetically to share our feelings. In the latter role, we observe and, inevitably, judge. Both roles have virtues associated with them:

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 dignity and honour, and the propriety of our own conduct require, take their origin from the other.

At this point, I remind my students that we spend a substantial portion of our waking hours as spectators, observing the manifold spectacles that play out on our ubiquitous screens. To be sure, we have always been spectators, but our screens remove us more than ever from the immediacy of the “natural” spectator/agent relationship. In the “natural” relationship, watching and interacting are quite likely closely connected, so that agent and spectator can, as it were, adjust to one another, cultivating and exercising the aforementioned virtues. When the “relationship” is mediated by a screen, I as an agent don’t know who’s watching, and I as a spectator can judge without any feedback from the agent or from other spectators.

I readily concede that this isn’t always a bad thing. Bodycams can deter bad behavior on the part of police officers as well as the public with which they interact, and the TV ads tell me that a video camera connected with my doorbell can lead burglars to think twice before kicking in my door.

But the Covington Catholic contretemps offers an example of how badly wrong we spectators can be, and how badly we can behave as a consequence. Smith himself was aware of this, as his extended discussion of courtly behavior—the celebrity culture of his time—indicates. As he argues, we spectators pay too much attention to the “lifestyles of the rich and famous,” which in turn leads all of us as agents to emulate what no one—or at most very few—should emulate. I tell my students that we’re inordinately interested in the behavior and fashion choices of our movie stars, rock stars, and sports greats, and all too frequently take our cues from them. In his Wealth of Nations, Smith remarks, the well-off can afford a “loose” system of morals, in which “luxury, wanton and even disorderly mirth, the pursuit of pleasure to some degree of intemperance, the breach of chastity . . . are generally treated with a good deal of indulgence.” If the rest of us were to follow in the footsteps of our celebrities, we’d run a real risk of ending up in the gutter. In a word, real public opinion, by itself, may well be corrupt. If we seek to please or impress actual spectators, we could be sorely misled.

That’s why Smith introduces the notion of the “impartial spectator,” who praises and blames the right things, not those things actually praised or blamed by real spectators, whether we’re talking about those looking at the screens or those comprising, say, a peer culture rife with resentment or immodest and immoderate sexuality. For Smith, the impartial spectator checks our tribalism and our tendency to be misled by our most powerful affections and passions. The impartial spectator would approve of the suite of virtues I mentioned near the beginning of this essay.

The question is, how do we construct this impartial spectator, because it is indeed a construct—“reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct”? In Smith’s account, philosophy constructs this impartial spectator out of the cultural and religious materials that are inevitably at hand. The “natural sense of duty” is enforced by “the terrors of religion,” which are eventually purified by “philosophical researches” that confirm “those original anticipations of nature.” We move from WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) to WWISD (What Would the Impartial Spectator Do), surely an improvement over WWLGD (What Would Lady Gaga Do) or, with apologies to Patriots fans, WWTBD (What Would Tom Brady Do).

At this point, we can take the conversation in a number of different directions. In the first place, we might ask whether it’s possible to construct and sustain the concept of the impartial spectator if the religious materials out of which it has been fashioned decay or lose their cultural force. While the impartial spectator might be plausible to readers in a largely religious time, would the same be true in a largely secular or post-religious world? People comfortable with the notion of a Judge superior to merely human judges might more readily embrace Smith’s construct. Without that, might we not fall back into relying on the corrupt and/or perverse authority of actual public opinion?

In the second place, and connected with this, is the argument that Smith’s attempt anthropologically and rationally to reconstruct religion contributes to its actual decay. An impartial spectator that purports to replace a judging God with a (mere) construct, and yet relies on the original cultural force of the deity for its plausibility, ultimately undermines itself. It is surely reasonable to ask whether “the idea of God” (to use the language of Immanuel Kant, a near contemporary of Smith) is not thin gruel and ultimately unbelievable if it purports to take the place of the real God.

Finally, we can ask whether our experience has vindicated Smith’s apparent confidence that philosophy can actually purify in a rational and cosmopolitan direction the particular religious and cultural materials it finds at hand. The most powerful intellectual movements of our time tend to reduce thought to its material (e.g., biological, racial, economic, or ethnic) conditions, so that we come to understand ourselves as expressing particular personal or idiosyncratic points of view. I am not simply a human being, but a white European male who cannot help but embody and express the interests and limitations of my circumstances. According to this line of argument, philosophy is more appropriately called ideology, as philosophers are at best ideologists for one or another tribe. Every spectator is thus a tribal or partial spectator. We could all be said to belong to particular tribes or to find ourselves at the so-called intersection of tribes. We may all be doomed, over and over again, to give or receive fifteen minutes of hate.

What gives me some comfort is another observation Smith makes. Late in the Theory of Moral Sentiments, he devotes a chapter to “the Order in which Individuals are recommended by nature to our care and attention.” There he says that our “care and attention” are most intense for those closest to us—after ourselves, family and friends, and then community, nation, and so on. It’s tempting to argue that in Smith’s view we are (within limits) “tribal.” But the connections to which he points are bonds of affection and responsibility. Who I am—my identity, so to speak—is not a person marked by some reductionist material condition, or someone who constructs an abstract and artificial identity, but rather a person who is drawn outside myself by relationships with others. My identity is not an abstraction built upon race, ethnicity, or class, but a result of the roles I play in real relationships. I am a son, brother, husband, and father, engaged in real relationships with real people. In these relationships, I am, to be sure, both a spectator and an agent, but the most powerful and intense bonds begin with love. That surely conditions and limits the manner in which I engage in other spectator/agent relationships. Perhaps if the loving family can be the point of departure for all of our spectating, it might be easier to establish or recover the “impartiality” in which Smith places his hopes.

Of course, that requires a healthy family, which would be the subject for an entirely different set of reflections. If I start with and from familial love and responsibility, I become attached to communities, institutions, and governments that help my family flourish.  My allegiance to these larger groups is weaker and conditional. But I am capable of loving my country because I first love my family. A love of country that wasn’t based in or that purported to replace my love of family would be a monstrosity.