Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Adam Smith and Religion

A reader, ‘RCAR’ comments on a post by Jennifer Rubin, ‘False Choices, Indeed’ on Commentary HERE:

Great point, but we already tried that. Even Alan Greenspan himself has now admitted that we need to nationalize the banks and that free markets are not self regulating. It took him a while to figure that out. Also, remember that Rand was the hardest of hard core atheists, not a position consistent with the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith”.

I shall not bother correcting the myth of Adam Smith and the invisible hand – there are plenty of posts to that effect on Lost Legacy.

My comments are directed at the alleged religiosity of Smith’s use of The Metaphor. There are many differences between Ayn Rand and Adam Smith (she was an ideologue; Smith wasn’t). That she was an atheist but that he allegedly was not is more problematical.

We are not comparing the fierce independence of mind of Ayn Rand, born in Russia, but moved to the USA, a country denominated on the right of free speech, and therefore able to enjoy the brave luxury of saying exactly what she liked (and did so), whereas Adam Smith lived in Scotland, a country dominated by religious bigots and zealots, who threw their considerable weight around at whoever expressed any views deviating an iota from the authoritarian creeds of the Protestant Church, or, down in the small details, against those who appeared to live lives of less than total (sexual) virtue (if female) or, both sexes, who didn’t attend Church services on Sundays.

How Ayn Rand, a ‘free-spirit’ would have gotten on in the company of these gentlemen – the Taliban of the age – does not bear thinking about. To teach in a university, the faculty had to sign the Westminster Confession of Faith, lead prayers at the start of a class, and lecture in Latin. Under no circumstances could they offer dissent from religion. These onerous conditions would not have bothered Ayn Rand, should she have been alive then – being female she would not have gone to university, let along taught in one.

Adam Smith signed the Calvinist Confession of Faith, asked permission to abandon the saying of prayers (was refused by Glasgow University), and otherwise he ‘got along by going along’.

The first edition of his book in 1759, ‘Moral Sentiments’ was written so as to pass the religious test (Hume teased him that three Bishops had visited his publisher to buy copies and wondered what ‘true philosophers’ would think of its author being read by ‘these retainers to superstition’, Letter, 12 April 1759).

Yet, Smith published six edition in his lifetime, the last showing quite significant changes which diluted the religious language he felt obliged to use in the 1st edition. Smith died a few weeks after the 6th edition was published. It was clearly a symbolic statement of his rejection of revealed religion; he knew he was dying and if he had believed in an ‘after life’ it was not the best time for him to cause offence to god.

My current research into the alleged religiosity of Adam Smith has revealed a far different perspective on him. He certainly was not a Christian and nor, in my view, was it likely that he was even a Deist by the time he died. I am preparing a paper on these issues at present and will post it on Lost Legacy, as well, I hope, present it to a conference of Historians of Economic Thought later this year.



Blogger Todd Kuipers said...

Thanks for the post Gavin. Even with the general moral stance that Smith took with respect to dealings with others, I never took it as evidence of Deism at all. It still seems to me that Smith provides an excellent example of moral guidance without the big stick of religion.

6:01 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

I think this was caused by his philosophical stance on the origns of moral sentiments, not as an innate faculty or sense, as presented by Frances Hutcheson, but from growing up in society, that 'mirror' on self, which indicates acceptable and unacceptable behaviours.

If moral sentiments are derived from others, and not from God, then religion slips out of view.

6:27 pm  
Blogger Todd Kuipers said...

And now I'm probably digging and driving a supposition... But would Smith have then given any weight to the idea that morals are derived from a society that is based on Deist philosophy (as is argued by many today). Or would it be fully that empathy general constructs moral concepts naturally.

I guess this completely supposes that he wrote in detail on this - and I haven't read enough of Moral Sentiments to know. If I had to bet, I'd put money on the latter, but that might just be projection on my part.

9:30 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

It's people in societies, rather tan societies themselves. Infants know immediate adults, not 'society', and as they grow older they meet more, including other children (the 'great school of self-command').

It is the behaviour of the other people that becomes their 'mirror', to use Smith's metaphor.

Now behaviour is not generally driven by an ideology (deism, etc.,). Smith make this point very clear; religion comes later.

Also, depending on the individuals that constitute the immediate contacts of the child, this can produce a wide range of different behaviour sets, from piety to reckless selfishness.

In so far as some form of deism, from pagan 'pussilanemous superstition' to more modern 'revealed' religion, quite common across all cultures (modern religions blend paganism with belief in the afterlife), there is bound to be some carry over into explanations of behaviours approvals, but I am not sure we can say a society is based on Deist philosophy; the projection is not linear from Deism to behaviour, or beliefs.

He did write on these themes in detail; and very rich the detail is too.

10:09 pm  
Blogger Todd Kuipers said...

Thanks much Gavin. I'll do some more reading!

3:29 am  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

A paragrpah from TMS that highlights sources of a child learning virues:

"A very young child has no self-command; but, whatever are its emotions, whether fear, or grief, or anger, it endeavours always, by the violence of its outcries, to alarm, as much as it can, the attention of its nurse, or of its parents. While it remains under the custody of such partial protectors, its anger is the first and, perhaps, the only passion which it is taught to moderate…
[NB: By its nurse or parents. Not God!].
…By noise and threatening they are, for their own ease, often obliged to frighten it into good temper; and the passion which incites it to attack, is restrained by that which teaches it to attend to its own safety. When it is old enough to go to school, or to mix with its equals, it soon finds that they have no such indulgent partiality. It naturally wishes to gain their favour, and to avoid their hatred or contempt. Regard even to its own safety teaches it to do so; and it soon finds that it can do so in no other way than by moderating, not only its anger, but all its other passions, to the degree which its play-fellows and companions are likely to be pleased with. It thus enters into the great school of self-command, it studies to be more and more master of itself, and begins to exercise over its own feelings a discipline which the practice of the longest life is very seldom sufficient to bring to complete perfection."
TMS III.3.20: p 145

12:01 pm  

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