Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Book Review: 'Adam Smith as Theologian', edited by Paul Oslington

This book is a collection of eleven essays which were presented at the Royal Society of Edinburgh Conference Centre on the 12th and 13th January 2009, during the Templeton Advanced Research Symposium 'Adam Smith as Theologian'.

The eleven essays are grouped into two parts. The first part 'Smith in Context' discusses "social imaginary" (as used by Charles Taylor to mean "the ways people imagine their social existence [not just theories about it but 'the images, stories, and legends' that help them make sense of the world], how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations [which create a 'widely shared sense of legitimacy']," p.53, n.13) in which Adam Smith lived.

The second part 'Analysis and Assessment of Adam Smith's Theology' examines the various theological notions found in Smith's works.

To talk about Smith's theology may seem unconventional, if not shocking, to many as the general education system and media portrayal of him as the father of modern economics.

The Preface of the book written by Anthony Waterman, who researches into Christian theology and political economy, clarifies that the title of the book is an anachronism. "Adam Smith was not a theologian." This is understandable, yet the following sentence may be surprising to some: "Nor was he an economist." ( Waterman explains that 'theologian' and 'economist' as commonly understood today do not resemble the kind of work that Smith was doing in the mid eighteenth century.

On top of that, Smith's career was the Professor of Moral Philosophy at University of Glasgow, not particularly in economics nor theology as we have them at present. One can sense that all the essayists in the book are well aware of this and used this as the framework to read Smith.

Harvard economist Benjamin M. Friedman points out that Smith's context sees politics and theology goes along together. Hence it is natural that Smith and his contemporaries are interested in the theological-political discussion of their day, and Smith works are products of "ongoing changes in religious thinking" of that time. (p.23)

Smith's deep admiration of pastor-theologians is evident in this passage found in Book 5, Chapter 1 of 'The Wealth of the Nations': "There is scarce perhaps to be found anywhere in Europe a more learned, decent, independent, and respectable set of men than the greater part of the presbyterian clergy of Holland, Geneva, Switzerland, and Scotland." (p.20)

John Haldane, Director of the Centre for Ethics,Philosophy and Public Affairs at St. Andrew's University, uncovers the ethical theory found in Smith's 'The Theory of Moral Sentiments' and observed that it is a form of natural law ethics characterized by its appeal to human sentiment--without revelation--influenced and in response to David Hume's works.

Haldane critiques Smith's ethical theory as "right to make a connection between value and approbation, but wrong, I believe, to treat sentiment as constitutive of ethical requiredness: approbation is a response to value, not a foundation to it." (p.31)

Princeton University's Professor Eric Gregory draws the similarities and differences between Smith's and Augustine's theology of desire, and how it helps us to understand present-day consumerist culture.

Joseph Blosser, who is a doctoral candidate at University of Chicago, highlights the pervasiveness of John Calvin's theology of human freedom in Adam Smith's thoughts. Blosser is clear that he is not suggesting that Smith was advocating Calvin's thoughts or even a direct link between both, but to point out the Calvinistic conception of freedom as the milieu that shapes Smith's own understanding of freedom.

Australian economist Paul Oslington, who is also the editor of the book, contributes a robust interpretation of the "invisible hand", the famous metaphor used by Smith, as a reference to the doctrine of providence. He studies how the metaphor is used in three of Smith's works 'History of Astronomy', 'Theory of Moral Sentiments', and 'Wealth of Nations'.

Oslington remarks that the hand language is derived from Isaac Newton's discussion of providence in natural theology. "[R]eading the passages against the background of the Newtonian theology of divine action and providence leads us to an invisible hand which is special providence, operating against, although ultimately supporting, general providence in the economic realm." (p.66. Emphasis added.)

Oslington's essay marks the end of the first part of the book.

The second part, which examines theological themes in Smith's works, begins with Oxford University's Peter Harrison's treatment of intellectual background of Smith, particularly the development of natural theology and natural science. Harrison sees a parallel between the discourse of natural theology and Smith's conception of moral philosophy and social ethics.

James Otteson, a philosopher and economist at Yeshiva University, studies the famous metaphor Smith used in his ethics theory: the "Impartial Spectator". This metaphor represents the imaginary neutral observer who we can consult to make a decision. Some interpret this as the voice of God, some interpret it as conscience.

Otteson concludes that the Spectator is not the voice of God because "[I]t is an all-too-human construction whose worth is judged by its effectiveness, which itself is measured by human beings against human goals." (p.96) However, there are reasons to "consider the voice of the Impartial Spectator as a human approximation of divine intention, if not itself a direct representative of the Divinity." (p.97)

Brendan Long, Senior Adviser to the Australian Cabinet Minister for Human Services, writes on Adam Smith's theodicy. He examines Smith's conception of evil and his proposal to deal with it. Long mentions that Smith is a product of his time, hence his optimism over human flourishing, where his theodicy is a "negative theodicy: a denial of theodicy, a theodicy that says that we can ignore theodicy." (p.103)

From this, Long concludes that this opens up an opportunity for dialog between theology and economics philosophy as the current state of economy seldom discusses 'evil' in the form of negative unintended consequences.

The Lecturer of Politics at University of Kent, Adrian Pabst, writes an essay that summarizes many of the themes covered by other articles in the book with emphasis given on Smith's proposal to transit from civil economy to political economy. Pabst argues for Smith's "theological debt to Newtonian divine physics, coupled with elements of Jansenist Augustinianism and Leibnizian theodicy" that "underpins his whole moral philosophy and political economy". (p.121) Hence Smith's works are best read and examined theologically.

When assessed in this way, Pabst finds Smith's claim that market exchange should be exempted from interpersonal relations is questionable as it presumes the artificial division between individual and collective sphere.

Ross B. Emmett, the Professor of Political Economy and Political Theory & Constitutional Democracy at Michigan State University, brings out the significance of social transformation by contrasting the two literary figures found in Smith's works: "man of public spirit" and "man of the system".

The book ends with the article by Paul S. Williams, who presides the David J. Brown Family Chair of Marketplace Theology and Leadership at Regent College, that lists out the contemporary lessons we can learn from Smith.

Williams shows the differences between Smith and "modern proponents of utilitarian economic orthodoxy" or "liberal capitalism", arguing that the former's "vision for humanity is not the amoral utility maximizing hypermobile free individual but rather one in which persons strive toward an ideal of neighbouliness, directed by the conscience of the impartial spectator which has been trained through prolonged relational attachment." (p.137)

In my reading, Williams' essay is at odd with part of Adrian Pabst's observation. The latter argues that Smith isolates interpersonal relations from market system, as seen in Smith's writing:

"[S]ociety may subsist among different men, as among different merchants, from a sense of its utility, without any mutual love or affection; and though no man in it should owe any obligation, or be bound in gratitude to any other, it may still be upheld by a mercenary exchange of good offices according to an agree valuation."
(Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments [USA: Prometheus, 2000], Part 2, Section 2, Chapter 3, p.124. Quoted in Pabst's 'From Civil to Political Economy: Adam Smith's Theological Debt' in Adam Smith as Theologian, ed. Paul Oslington [UK: Routledge, 2011], p.119)

As seen here, there is no "strive toward an ideal of neighbouliness" in Smith's vision for humanity as worked out by his proposal of the market system. If this is correct, then at best we can say that Smith's vision for humanity is correct, but the mechanism (i.e. market system) he proposed to realize this vision contradicts the vision itself.

Hence the proponents of utilitarian economic orthodoxy are not incorrect in their reading of Smith's vision of humanity if they examined the mechanism he proposed. Desiring the society to live happily is one thing. Distributing hallucinatory drug to everyone in order to create the illusion of happiness is altogether a different thing. Williams' essay wants to make Smith consistent in an aspect where Smith contradicts himself.

Overall, all the essays have many overlapping treatments with each focusing on particular aspect in the majestic works of Smith. I'm not sure how many are convinced that the best way to read Smith is to read him theologically. Neither am I sure how many are convinced there is a theological aspect to Smith's works. Yet after reading this book, one finds it hard to accept that Smith could have written what he had without the theological context and influences that constitute the social imaginary he lived in.


Martin Yee said...

Cool. Would love to read this book. But the price tag is exp$$ :)

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Martin,

Yes, it is cool and expensive. Now, it is priced at US$104. However, I have ordered the book four months before it is published. So I got it in the pre-publish price, which is about US$65. Yet it is STILL one of the rare expensive books that I'd to skipped a meal or two to get.