Liberty Matters

Second Response to Daniel J. Mahoney: Chimneys on Short and Crooked Houses

I thank Dan Mahoney for his profound and friendly engagement. He writes: “Dan excessively subjectivizes the higher objects of a person’s life by identifying them with what a particular person, Dan calls him Jim, holds dear, and then with the ‘sacred’ itself.”
Suppose that Jim spends hours on end, on a daily basis, with MSNBC, The Financial Times, and Vox. Suppose that Dan and I are dining privately at a restaurant, and converse about Jim. Does it make sense for us to speak of what Jim holds dear as “higher” and “sacred”? I think it does. We mean higher to Jim, sacred to Jim.
I regard “nihilism” as an awfully strong word. In its entry on Nihilism, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says: “’Nihilism’ comes from the Latin nihil, or nothing, which means not anything, that which does not exist. It appears in the verb ‘annihilate,’ meaning to bring to nothing, to destroy completely.”
I am prepared to theorize about Jim in terms that Jim would not accept or avouch. So my reluctance to calling Jim a nihilist is not simply a matter of: “But we do not hear Jim espousing nihilism.”
Dan notes that Adam Smith used the expression “impartial spectator” in speaking of Jim’s conscience. Most of the times where Smith does so in Ed. 6 of Theory of Moral Sentiments, he qualifies with the word “supposed”—which coauthors and I read as the three-syllable “sup-po-sed” (rather than the two-syllable “sup-pos’d”). Smith writes of the conscience as “the supposed impartial spectator.”
In Ed. 6 Smith introduced an unmistakable and undeniable distinction between the conscience (“the man within the breast”) and a higher sense of “impartial spectator,” writing:
…the prudent man is always both supported and rewarded by the entire approbation of the impartial spectator, and of the representative of the impartial spectator, the man within the breast. (boldface added)
Jim’s conscience is a representative of the higher impartial spectator. But that representative is not necessarily a good representative. Sacred to Jim might not correspond to sacred to Adam Smith or to the supreme impartial spectator. Along the lines of the notion that everything that rises must converge, we might say that Jim’s house may be short and crooked.
Still, there is a chimney on top. Smith taught that there is a sympathy involved in every moral sentiment that Jim experiences. That teaching would seem to suggest that we ought not regard Jim a nihilist. Smith taught us how to talk to Jim about what he makes sacred.
A conversation about the polysemy of “liberty” has led us to the polysemy of “sacred” and “impartial spectator.” Good conversations—good to Dan, anyway—often do!