Monday, January 12, 2009

Belief, Whether True or False, Can Have Beneficial Effects

Among the many interesting papers presented at the Balliol Commemoration conference last week was one by Professor Ryan Hanley (Marquette University), which was beautifully delivered and a model of how to present to a seminar.

I shall pick up on one small aspect of it because it also arises in my current reading of Moral Sentiments with a view to my deciding to what extent, if any, was Adam Smith religious?

Ryan quoted from Moral Sentiments and I use the following as representative of his selection:

For it well deserves to be taken notice of, that we are so far from imagining that injustice ought to be punished in this life, merely on account of the order of society, which cannot otherwise be maintained, that Nature teaches us to hope, and religion, we suppose, authorises us to expect, that it will be punished, even in a life to come. Our sense of its ill desert pursues it, if I may say so, even beyond the grave, though the example of its punishment there cannot serve to deter the rest of mankind, who see it not, who know it not, from being guilty of the like practices here. The justice of God, however, we think, still requires, that he should hereafter avenge the injuries of the widow and the fatherless, who are here so often insulted with impunity. In every religion, and in every superstition that the world has ever beheld, accordingly, there has been a Tartarus as well as an Elysium; a place provided for the punishment of the wicked, as well as one for the reward of the just.” [TMS II.ii.3.12: p 91]


But upon the tolerable observance of these duties, depends the very existence of human society, which would crumble into nothing if mankind were not generally impressed with a reverence for those important rules of conduct.
This reverence is still further enhanced by an opinion which is first impressed by nature, and afterwards confirmed by reasoning and philosophy, that those important rules of morality are the commands and laws of the Deity, who will finally reward the obedient, and punish the transgressors of their duty
.” [TMS III.5.2-3: p 163]

These are examples of Smith’s very careful use of language, which seems to me to be not saying what is normally attributed to him. Theologians draw upon such passages to assert that Adam Smith was religious and on a casual reading that may well be a view that has merit.

However, these, and many other statements on similar themes, are perfectly compatible with Smith not believing the intended message. He was writing while a professor at a protestant university in a decided atmosphere of compliance with revealed religion and for which there were severe consequences should he not do so. Even his tutor, Francis Hutcheson, ran into some trouble with the local zealots, who detected apostasy in his teachings while Smith was a young student and against which there were incidents of student ‘disturbance’ over the ridiculous charges (the Church court found Hutcheson innocent].

The wording of: “Nature teaches us to hope, and religion, we suppose, authorises us to expect, that it will be punished, even in a life to come”, is not definitive; ‘hope’, ‘to expect’, ‘even in a life to come’, are not wringing endorsements at all.

Nor is: “In every religion, and in every superstition that the world has ever beheld”. Linking ‘every religion’ with ‘every superstition’ is instructive; in his History of Astronomy, Smith refers to ‘pusillanimous superstition’, and by equating such language with ‘every religion’, Smith slips in a subtle signal.

Christianity, of course, adopted the Greek pagan religious, after-life places of “Tartarus as well as an Elysium” (Hell and Heaven), as well as their becoming the lucrative (for the clergy) doctrine of purgatory.

In the second quotation we note “further enhanced by an opinion” (not a fact”) “if mankind were not generally impressed with a reverence” to which deficiency they are “first impressed by nature, and afterwards confirmed by reasoning and philosophy”, that they “are the commands and laws of the Deity” to be finally confirmed, not on Earth, but in the ‘after life’, for which religion is the sole source for evidence that it exists (it fails the Humean experience test).

The point should be made that the belief in the after-life, in so far as it encourages suitable behaviour in this life, may well be of great benefit to society (on preventing it ‘crumbling to atoms’), but it is the belief that it is so, not necessarily that it is true that it is so. The one can be quite separate from the other; punishment in an ‘after lie’ does not need to be true for its beneficial effects from such a belief to be realized in this life.

I believe that Adam Smith was saying just that and his many other statements on these matters in Moral Sentiments suggest that my belief has credibility.



Blogger Justus Hommes said...

Gavin, love your blog, but your inquiry into the religiosity of Adam Smith seems to me to be an effort you undertake with a preferred outcome already in mind based on your own personal beliefs, or lack thereof. A reader of these same passages could see Smith writing in general Deist language in order to present his ideas to as wide an audience as possible, and subordinating with humility his own personal beliefs in order to focus on the point at hand.

The "Public God" can be used not only by Deists, but believers off all faiths that are humble and open to seeing the positive commonalities that exist in many faiths, myths, and philosophies. And yes, to support your view, it could be used by those who see a possible benefit to the "placebo effect" of the unwashed masses acting in belief of the supernatural while those of superior intellect know it to be false.

But to me, this last option, although the most currently in vogue (see the recent NY Times editorial by an atheist wanting Christianity in Africa, and other similar recent articles admitting the psychological and social differences in favor of believers) is ultimately intellectually dishonest. It comes across as a prescription by elitists who "know better" than to believe in the supernatural because of science and facts, but would still use the "opiate of the people" as a prescription to extract from it its benefits. I do not understand the moral and intellectual dissonance one would have to be deafen to in order to ask others to play along in a self-delusion of belief while being convinced them self of the "fact" that the supernatural does not exist.

I do not choose to see Mr. Smith, as you say, as separating "belief" from "truth", but see him instead speaking of the universal truth of belief while humbly omitting his own views as to what his personal faith declares as truth.

5:28 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Justus Hommes
I take your point. I have received it from others who believe that Adam Smith was 'at least a Deist'.

And this is a problem in tackling this sort of question. We can simply examine the texts and ignore context. But in this case the texts are not enough on their own.

My hypothesis requires a look at context as well as the texts. After much preliminary thinking arising from reading the texts, I believe I have noted something significant in his qualified statements.

Even on their own as texts they do not quite say what most people believe them to have said - they are written about in awe of Smith's Deism (I am pretty sure they do not stretch to be read as Christian texts).

Hence, I began re-reading TMS sometime ago and have found that preliminary analyses of TMS supports, though does not 'prove', my hypothesis and justifies further study (which I am now undertaking).

I have no references to the NYT and do not think it would be of sufficient thoroughness to assist my research.

Only by examining the texts in their context of religious practice in 18th-century Scotland is it possible to judge how well founded is the hypothesis.

If I begin in the direction that you recomend, plus with the assumptions that you make, based as they may be on the very genuine convictions that you appear to hold, no progress would be made.

You would understand my dilemma if you suggested another method by which I could test the hypothesis (that Adam Smith wrote in a manner to suggest to casual readers that he was not challenging the central tenets of his time, summed in revealed Christianity, Judaism or Islam to hide his Deism or even atheism).

If the other method is to believe the opposite, it would surely fall foul of a similar objection that could be made by those who do not share your beliefs.

I do not in any way disrespect your beliefs. I do not in anyway deny your right to argue for your beliefs. Whether I or you believe this or that, makes no difference to the effect of such beliefs or their absence on the course of events.

I am not an ideologue nor a fanatic for or against any set of beliefs. In my case I have set out to follow where the research takes me, with no expectations that it will change anything about the future course of the universe.

I shall post extracts from my research and shall leave readers to make their own minds up. If there is no supporting evidence, I shall say so.

10:30 pm  
Blogger Justus Hommes said...


Thank you for the response. Upon reading your post again, combined with your e-mail, I can see more clearly your point and intent.

I apologize if I came across as rude.

You are a scholar, and I am not, so I concede that your depth of research and understanding on the subject far exceeds mine.

In reading your posts over the last few months, you seemed to prefer interpreting Adam Smith through an agnostic or atheist lens, and I now understand that you have formed a hypothesis and are committed to intense research on this subject.

My intent was certainly not to argue for my beliefs, for you are entitled to your own beliefs as well. In any event, whatever beliefs I hold would not be threatened by any revelation on the beliefs of Adam Smith.

In my attempt to play devil's advocate, I may have looked rather foolish. Honestly, my comments had more to do with the other "enlighted" writers I alluded to who see religiosity as a suitable prescription for improving others while at the same time diagnosing themselves free from the need of faith. I read that into your comments, and it may not at all be fair. I am truly sorry.

That said, your research is certainly a matter of academic interest, and I look forward to reading of your findings.

Thank you again for your blog, you have written much to enhance my understanding of and respect for Adam Smith.

2:36 am  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Justus Hommes
Thank you for your clarifications.

To be clear, my current research has come about from a fairly long gestation of doubt from regular re-reading of Moral Sentiments. My doubts grew about most interpretations of Smith's alleged Deism; the more I read his statements the more I noted his careful use of language, which, combined with his steady re-editing of each new edition, particularly the 6th, just before he died, fed my doubts as to what exactly he was saying.

Smith was an 'observer' of everything, not an activist. His historical studies provided many examples of ideas impelling people who believed them to do quite extraordinary things, independent of whether the idea was true or false.

Some believed in the 'divine rights of Kings', others, like Smith, did not (he was an Hanoverian, and supported King William, not the deposed King James).

Other aspects of his life suggest to me that he was a very 'loose' affiliate of Christianity or Deism. I am now putting this to the test exigetically, so to speak.

We shall se where this takes me.

10:44 am  
Blogger Caro said...

Belief in heaven and hell, (reward and punishment), is not necessary for guiding moral behavior. That is a right-wing trope that is geared toward making people into automatons.

A mature human being tries his or her best to do the right thing because that is the way to live a fulfilled life, not because of the promise some potential reward, or the threat of potential punishment.

Carolyn Kay

10:49 am  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...


Thanks for your observation.

I am not aware that Karl Marx, among others, who saw religion as an 'opiate' for the masses, was the author of a 'right wing trope' to the same affect.

However, I think I see what you may mean.

My point is fairly simple: beliefs can instill in people a capacity for action, independent of the truth or falsity of the belief.

The belief that evil people are punished for all eternity in an 'Hell', and the innocent are rewarded for all eternity in an 'Heaven' (the existence of which cannot be experienced by the living), is a powerful balm, to put it no stronger for the victims of evil from others.

Adam Smith makes this point several times in Moral Sentiments, which soothed the zealots of the Church of Scotland in their suspicions, but which if they had read him carefully they might have been more concerned that he was not stating his belief (as required by current standards); he was stating the role of the belief, not its truth.

If he did not beleive the above belief, he was not Christian, and perhaps not a Deist.

It is this, and many other readings of his ideas, that I am bringing out in my research.

I am not writing leftwing- or rightwing- 'tropes' (whatever that may mean or for whomever).

I have long quoted to my children and to students:

'Good is good to do, not by promises of Heaven nor by threats of Hell fire'.


11:50 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"And yes, to support your view, it could be used by those who see a possible benefit to the "placebo effect" of the unwashed masses acting in belief of the supernatural while those of superior intellect know it to be false.
But to me, this last option, although the most currently in vogue (see the recent NY Times editorial by an atheist wanting Christianity in Africa, and other similar recent articles admitting the psychological and social differences in favor of believers) is ultimately intellectually dishonest."

I think the point of the post was that the "placebo effect" can indeed be a beneficial effect. If I am ill and a placebo has a beneficial effect on my illness, is that not a good thing? Many physicians believe it to be.

Remember that an opiate has a beneficial effect when you are in pain.

9:07 pm  

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