Liberty Matters

Liberalism and Judgment

On February 5, 2020 in a speech announcing his decision to vote in favor of Trump's impeachment, Mitt Romney said: "My promise before God to apply impartial justice required that I put my personal feelings and political biases aside. Were I to ignore the evidence that has been presented and disregard what I believe my oath and the Constitution demands of me for the sake of a partisan end, it would, I fear, expose my character to history's rebuke and the censure of my own conscience." Romney's decision flew in the face of party loyalty, but he claimed to be exercising moral judgment along the lines of something like Adam Smith's impartial spectator.
In his essay, Dr. Klein argues that Burke, Hume, and Smith are policy liberals, but polity conservatives who seek to maintain laws as traditionally interpreted. Klein's argument about polity conservatism is well-taken in that Burke, Hume, and Smith all wanted to maintain political stability through rule of the law. However, I suggest that the foundations of their polity conservatism differ. While Burke bases his polity conservatism on adherence to tradition and a kind of patriotic reverence for precedent, I argue that in contrast, Hume and Smith advocate judgment ahead of patriotism—putting concern for justice and liberty ahead of duty to country. For Burke, love of country requires adherence to custom, whereas for Hume and Smith, custom can have negative effects on the impartial judgment required for liberal citizenship.
Patriotism and (Im)partiality
Burke argues for the importance of tradition. He speaks of "ancient chivalry" (R, 446), the "fabric of society" connecting "the whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth" (R, 456), and "love, veneration, admiration, [and] attachment" for one's country (R, 448).[1] Burke supported the English Civil War and the American Revolution because they reformed from within their traditions whereas the French wanted to throw out tradition altogether to form something new. The English and Americans consider "our liberties in the light of an inheritance" (R, 429). For Burke, patriots respect the nation that provides their liberties.
Hume and Smith also discuss patriotism. In "Of the Protestant Succession", Hume describes the "impartial patriot" who "would ponder and examine, in order to form a just judgment upon the whole" (E, 506).[2] He suggests a role for precedent in his "Of the Original Contract" because "human society is in perpetual flux" and following the "established constitution" provides stability. Without rule of law, freedom becomes subject to the will of tyrannical rulers motivated by "faction and fanaticism"—he gives the examples of Henry VIII and Charles I (E, 476-477). However, this faithfulness to precedent does not arise out of a duty to country. Instead "experience and observation" demonstrate the utility of maintaining traditions because they help preserve freedom (E, 480).
Smith rejects the man of system who uses his fellow citizens and denies them their liberty in an effort to achieve his vision of a perfect society. In contrast Smith discusses the man of public spirit, who sympathizes with those he is administering by "moderating" his behavior so as to "accommodate, as well as he can, his public arrangements to the confirmed habits and prejudices of the people" (TMS VI.ii.2.16). Smith's patriot is also impartial—he describes factions as the opposite of the impartial spectator: "In a nation distracted by faction, there are, no doubt, always a few though commonly but a very few, who preserve their judgment untainted by the general contagion" (TMS III.3.43). Faction along with deference to the rich and their customs are the greatest dangers to the moral sentiments (TMS III.3.43; I.iii.3.1). For Smith, patriotism is characterized by rising above partiality and party to advocate for the common good (Elazar Unpublished manuscript).
Smith consistently places concern for justice ahead of concern for country. The prudent man, he tells us, will serve his country "when distinctly called upon" but "he will not cabal in order to force himself into it" (TMS VI.i.13). Further, the prudence of public officials like generals, statesman, and legislators requires "sacred regard to the rules of justice" (TMS VI.i.15). Justice ought to inform patriotism. Smith supports maintenance of constitutional order for stability, but notes that in addition to respect for the constitution, the good citizen "promote[s], by every means in his power, the welfare of the whole society of his fellow-citizens" (TMS VI.ii.2.11). It is this perspective on patriotism, I would argue, that leads Smith to advocate liberal policies, among them the reform of the poor laws (WN I.x.c.45-63; Wolf (2017)) and the rights of the American colonists.[3]
Unlike Burke, Both Hume and Smith advocate a patriotism guided by moral judgment and separated from custom, duty, or tradition. For example, Burke is much more deferential to the crown than is Smith (Winch 1996, 172-178).
This dichotomy I've established is far from perfect, however. Smith appears partial to his native land when he asserts that Britain's colonial policy is less illiberal than that of Spain or Portugal (WN IV.vii.b.50-51). Burke expresses a skepticism about the British government's right to use their authority in his "Thoughts and Details on Scarcity" saying "My opinion is against an over-doing of any sort of administration, and more especially against this most momentous of all meddling on the part of authority; the meddling with the subsistence of the people."[4]
Judgment, Politics, and Morality
In Smith's and, to a lesser degree, Hume's, political philosophy, policy liberalism and polity conservatism require that citizens exercise judgment. The capacity for judgment is crucial for a healthy and free polity. Judgment is formed through everyday interactions with others and is based on affective connections with one's fellows in society. These affective connections are also essential for ensuring justice, morality, and liberty.
For Hume, whose definition of sympathy differs from Smith's, this occurs through conversation, debate, and fellow-feeling about common experiences—what Ryan Hanley (2011) has called "a politics of humanity." These shared experiences with others are how one develops judgment that is capable of overcoming faction. While judgment may have to be guided by elites, especially in matters of aesthetics, judgment remains essential.
For Smith, it is the exchange of sympathy—imaginatively changing place with another—in everyday interactions, like commercial transactions, that creates a basic foundation for morality for the average person. The "path to wealth" and the "path to virtue" are almost always the same because for them to achieve material success, they need to be esteemed by their neighbors (TMS I.iii.3.5). "Mere propriety" is all that is required to avoid social disorder (TMS I.i.5.7; Forman-Barzilai 2010, 113).[5] This is also why he thinks an education of some kind is required for the laboring poor. When they are confined to placing heads on pins all day they need opportunities to develop judgment elsewhere so they can exercise "just judgment" about both "ordinary duties of private life" and "extensive interests of [their] country" (WN V.i.f.50). Liberty rests in our capacity for judgment (Fleischacker 2004).
For Burke, the basis for politics should not be everyday experience, but rather inherited custom and tradition:
Society is, indeed, a contract. Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure; but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership in agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art, a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born." (R, 457-458).
The source of connection between citizens is everyone's participation in a given polity with a specific history and tradition. Judgment in politics should similarly be based on the system of established precedent, rather than everyday interactions with one's fellows.
For Hume and Smith, interaction with others is essential for forming moral, aesthetic, and political judgments. It is our sympathetic exchanges that lead us to resent injustice and fight on behalf of our brethren (TMS II.ii.1.4). However, Smith worries about custom perverting moral judgment. Smith notes the prejudices that can arise from custom, citing how Europeans see other culture's practices such as foot-binding as horrific and savage, but ironically, they think nothing of European women "squeez[ing] the beautiful roundness of their natural shape into a square form of the same kind" with corsets (TMS V.1.8).
Convention matters for Hume's theory of justice by providing a system by which we judge the propriety of others' behavior and then make our moral judgment, but convention does not itself guide our actions—it is merely a framework. We work out the standards of justice through experience, like two people rowing a boat, through trial and error figure out how to steer in a straight line rather than going in circles (T For Hume, unlike Burke, the antiquity of a law does not matter; instead, it is the process of deciding on the law with others and whether or not the law upholds standards of justice that is relevant (Haakonssen 1981, 42-43).
The differences inhere in the basis for judgment. For Burke, the basis of judgment rests in tradition and the antiquity of a given law, but for Hume and Smith, judgment rests in emotional sensibility and sympathetic exchange with one's fellows.[6] For Hume and Smith then, judgment can be developed widely because of the kinds of interactions that foster moral capacity.
The Danger of Emotion
The danger for liberty lies in judgment being overwhelmed by emotion. All three thinkers agree on this. For Hume and Smith emotion is central for a successful politics that is based on moral concern for and connection to others. It is a particular kind of emotion they find problematic. For Smith, this occurs when emotional fascination with order overtakes sympathy. This is his critique of the man of system who forgets the liberty of his fellow citizens in favor of his perfect plan of government (TMS VI.ii.2.17). For Hume this is evident when religious zeal blocks individuals' ability to feel with others and see their perspective which leads to faction (Herdt 1995). Burke fears the excess of emotion of the French revolutionaries that lead to irrational political judgments like executing the king and queen (R, 446). He argues that they "have wrought underground a mine that will blow up, at one grand explosion all examples of antiquity, all precedents, charters, and acts of Parliament" (R, 440). Each of these instances could be characterized by love of country or patriotism. Burke even suggests that the French revolutionaries think they are demonstrating love of country in their defense of "the rights of man" (R, 440).
Love of country is a dangerous emotional attachment if it overwhelms one's judgment formed through interaction with others. To have a truly liberal politics, citizens must be free to exercise their individual judgments according to their own principles. This judgment must be guided in some sense by a concern for the whole through interactions with others and the structure provided by the framework of law. Affective ties to others provide the limit on self-interest and a concern for justice. Patriotism and reverence for tradition alone are insufficient because they are subject to the dangers of faction, self-interest, and partiality to one's own belief system. Impartial judgment is crucial for liberalism.
Polity conservation requires citizens who can exercise judgment to move past their self-interested concerns or inherited policies to a society that supports individual freedom for all. This is only possible through shared experiences and connections with others. It is this kind of judgment that allows citizens to recognize, for example, the injustice of colonial, mercantilist policy or contemporary trade policy that supports the nation ahead of the freedom of individuals.
[1.] All references to Reflections on the Revolution in France are found in Burke (1999 [1790]) and will be cited parenthetically as (R, page).
[2.] All references to Essays Moral, Political, Literary are found in Hume (1994 [1777]) and will be cited parenthetically as (E, page).
[3.] Smith (1987 [1778], 380).
[4.] Burke (1990 [1795], 212).
[5.] Others have argued that Smith's goal is perfection in virtue. See Hanley (2009).
[6.] This can be seen in Burke's aesthetic judgment, which he argued should follow a system. He begins his Enquiry: "for if Taste has no fixed principles, if the imagination is not affected according to some invariable and certain laws, our labour is like to be employed to very little purpose; as it must be judged as useless, if not an absurd undertaking, to lay down rules for caprice, and to set up for a legislator of whims and fancies" Burke (1990 [1757], 12). Frazer (2015) argues that unlike Smith, Burke's politics followed this commitment to system.
Burke, Edmund. 1990 [1757]. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful Oxford: Oxford University Press.
———. 1990 [1795]. "Thoughts and Details on Scarcity." In The Portable Edmund Burke, ed. I. Kramnick. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc.
———. 1999 [1790]. "Reflections on the Revolution in France." In The Portable Edmund Burke, ed. I. Kramnick. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc.
Elazar, Yiftah. Unpublished manuscript. "Adam Smith on Impartial Patriotism."
Fleischacker, Samuel. 2004. A Short History of Distributive Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Forman-Barzilai, Fonna. 2010. Adam Smith and the Circles of Sympathy: Cosmopolitanism and Moral Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Frazer, Michael. 2015. "Seduced by System: Edmund Burke's Aesthetic Embrace of Adam Smith's Philosophy." Intellectual History Review 25 (3):357-72.
Haakonssen, Knud. 1981. The Science of a Legislator: The Natural Jurisprudence of David Hume and Adam Smith. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hanley, Ryan Patrick. 2009. Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
———. 2011. "David Hume and the "Politics of Humanity"." Political Theory 39 (2):205-33.
Herdt, Jennifer. 1995. "Opposite Sentiments: Hume's Fear of Faction and the Philosophy of Religion." American Journal of Theology & Philosophy 16 (3):245-59.
Hume, David. 1994 [1777]. Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.
———. 2001 [1738]. A treatise of human nature. Edited by D. F. Norton and M. J. Norton. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.
Smith, Adam. 1981 [1776]. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Edited by R. H. Campbell, Skinner, A.S., Todd, W.B. 2 vols. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.
———. 1982 [1759]. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Edited by D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.
———. 1987 [1778]. "Thoughts on the State of the Contest with America." In Correspondence of Adam Smith, ed. D. Stevens. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.
Winch, Donald. 1996. Riches and Poverty: An Intellectual History of Political Economy in Britain 1750-1834. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wolf, Brianne. 2017. "Beyond the Efficiency of the Market: Adam Smith on Sympathy and the Poor Law." In Interdisciplinary Studies of the Market Order: New Applications of Market Process Theory, ed. P. J. Boettke, V. H. Storr and C. J. Coyne. London: Rowman & Littlefield International.