February 21, 2015


Nit-Picking "Saint" Adam Smith (Stephen Masty, 2/18/15, Imaginative Conservative)

The new author contends that Smith's "'great insight...' was that 'our behaviour is driven by an imaginary interaction with an impartial spectator'. We do not judge ourselves by our principles but by what this finger-wagging companion would think of our actions. Deviations from our moral code are noted, which keeps (sic) us more or less in line... There are limits, of course. Smith knew the average 'man of humanity in Europe ... would not sleep to-night' if his little finger were cut off; but if hundreds of millions of Chinese people were to die, 'provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security.'"

The "finger-wagging companion" is never identified, by Smith or his modern defender, as being a Guardian Angel or a conscience provided by God. Meanwhile, "'Smith wrote as eloquently as anyone ever has on the futility of pursuing money with the hope of finding happiness,' claiming that such 'seductions will never satisfy.' What matters instead is 'the consciousness of being beloved,' the meaning of which has weathered through the ages..." As Australians say, "fair dinkum," or rightly so.

The question unasked by the reviewer, by the modern author or Smith, is why. Smithophilic libertarians tell me that morality is innate and universal; evolved over eons and encoded in the human genome. More than two centuries ago, long before Darwin, this was chewed over aplenty.

In 1756, Edmund Burke satirised the recently published letters of the late Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, a politician who was brilliant, ambitious, and unreliable in equal measure. A radical republican much-loved in the American Colonies, Bolingbroke and his letters, said Burke, saw "every Mode of Religion attacked in a lively Manner, and the Foundation of every Virtue, and of all Government, sapped with great Art and much Ingenuity."

Burke's satire, pretending to support what it mocked, started on the human mind, which "every Day invents some new artificial Rule to guide that Nature which if left to itself were the best and surest Guide." Bolingbroke seemed to anticipate Rousseau's belief that the primitive or natural was corrupted by civilisation, attracting Burke's magnificent outrage a generation later. But here he applied Bolingbroke's antireligious animus in a Bolingbrokian assault on government, deploying the same arguments. The result, were it sincere, was madness and treason.

So many readers missed the joke that Burke explained it in a preface. Still some readers were no wiser, or had no wish to be. At the end of the eighteenth-century, the British radical William Godwin still thought it the first and best defence of anarchy, as the anarcho-capitalist economist Murray Rothbard did recently. Mr. Rothbard even argued that Burke's added preface was a much later and politically convenient recantation; presumably unaware that the preface came only a year after the first edition, and many years before Burke entered politics.

The atheist philosopher David Hume had another go, with his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, finished in the year of his death and only first published, anonymously, three years later in 1779. There three philosophers, with Greek names, champion various defences for God's existence, which are found wanting. If there is a charitable conclusion, God is beyond Reason.

...precisely because we accept that the Observer is God, on faith. Our Bright betters, while recognizing that to deny objective morality means embracing evil, find themselves unable to use their Reason to identify any Observer and so do, in fact, rush into said arms. And this is all that Modernity consists of : Faith vs Reason.  Happily, the Anglosphere was uniquely skeptical about the latter.

Posted by at February 21, 2015 7:33 AM

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