The Vicegerent of God? Adam Smith on the Authority of the Impartial Spectator

Journal of Scottish Philosophy 17 (1):61-78 (2019)

Authors
Lauren Kopajtic
Fordham University
Abstract
It has been claimed that Adam Smith, like David Hume, has a ‘reflective endorsement’ account of the authority 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 authority of morality, one that would align Smith with 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. Such a view poses a serious challenge for contemporary interpreters of Smith who seek to read him as an empiricist, naturalist, and sentimentalist moral philosopher. This paper examines the textual evidence for this view, focusing on the role of the explicitly religious language found in a key section of Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments. I argue that this language should neither be interpreted as merely ornamental, nor as providing a theological justification of morality. Rather, it is part of Smith's illustration of the psychological influence of religious beliefs, especially the beliefs in an all-seeing judge and in a just afterlife where all human actions will be accounted for and appropriately rewarded or punished.
Keywords Adam Smith  Impartial Spectator
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DOI 10.3366/jsp.2019.0224
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References found in this work BETA

The Problem of Natural Religion in Smith’s Moral Thought.Colin Heydt - 2017 - Journal of the History of Ideas 78 (1):73-94.
How to Be an Ethical Antirealist.Simon Blackburn - 1988 - Midwest Studies in Philosophy 12 (1):361-375.
Hume and Smith on Sympathy, Approbation, and Moral Judgment.Geoffrey Sayre-McCord - 2013 - Social Philosophy and Policy 30 (1-2):208-236.

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