The Sparing, Indirect, and Invisible Hand: Smith Parries Philo on the Problem of Evil

just sentiments dialogues concerning natural religion problem of evil idleness industry

Paolo Santori for AdamSmithWorks

Santori speculates that the first book of Adam Smith's project in Wealth of Nations can also be read as a response to Hume's skepticism about God and the problem of evil.

"Smith’s best arguments to defend God’s work against the charge raised by Philo’s consideration of human evil [in Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion] are thus the birth of commercial society and the opulence of markets to the private and public good."

September 27, 2023
In his last days, David Hume asked Adam Smith to handle the posthumous publication of his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (DCNR), and Smith refused. Hume died in 1776. DCNR was published in 1779 by arrangements made by his nephew John Home.
In this article, I expound a speculative line of argument to the effect that the first book of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (WN) can be considered a parry to arguments in DCNR concerning God and the problem of evil.
Max Weber, in “Politics as Vocation,” asked, “How could a power that is said to be both omnipotent and good create such an irrational world of unmerited suffering, unpunished justice, and incorrigible stupidity?” (Weber 2004, 86). Weber here summarizes the question of theodicy, namely the relationship between God’s justice and worldly evils.
Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz coined the term “theodicy” in response to Pierre Bayle’s challenge to the Christian belief in divine providence. The debate regarding theodicy has ancient roots but is also widely recognized to have shaped intellectual modernity in Europe (Oslington 2017), when people were more inclined to critically examine God’s work. Jacob Viner (1972, 58) said: “Almost every learned Englishman, and still more every learned Scotsman, it would seem, at some stage of his career felt impelled to publish his views on ‘The Origin of Evil’.” Whether Hume and Smith belong to the modern trend is disputable, yet I pursue a line of thought as though they were speaking to the problem of evil. One thing that is clear is that otherworldly solutions were neither attractive nor adequate for Hume and Smith.

Hume on idleness and the very sparing hand of nature

At the center of my line of reasoning is the human attribute of idleness and indolence (Santori 2022). Idleness was a central issue for philosophers and theologians in the 17th and 18th centuries. They discussed idleness as an attribute of both the lower classes (poor workers) and upper classes (aristocracy, landlords). But idleness concerns human beings as such, irrespective of social class.
The church fathers and medieval Christianity mostly interpreted idleness and indolence as a manifestation of the sin of sloth, or Acedia (Lyman 1989; Sadlek 2004). English and Scottish modernity viewed the concept of idleness through Protestant ethics, which condemned idleness in favor of industriousness as described by Weber (2005, 104). Among the most well-known examples of this attitude is the “Homily Against Idleness,” part of the Books of Homilies, which, since the 16th century, has been an essential part of the ceremony of the Church of England. Also important was the exhortation of homilies by the Presbyterian-Puritan priest Richard Baxter (Weber 2005). Hume and Smith absorbed the religious atmosphere in the eighteenth century filled with the condemnation of idleness and indolence.
In most of his writings (Schabas and Wennerlind 2008; 2020), Hume discussed the advent of commercial society as an antidote to idleness, as the triumph of industriousness over indolence (Santori 2022). One significant exception is the DCNR. It is known that Hume had been working on it since 1750. When his health deteriorated, Hume appointed Smith to publish his manuscript. In a will drawn up in January 1776, Hume bequeathed to Smith “all [his] manuscripts without exception, desiring him to publish my Dialogues [C]oncerning Natural Religion” (Hume in Rasmussen 2017,188).
The DCNR has three main protagonists. One is the theist a priori Demea, who departs the company at the end of Part XI. The other two are the theist a posteriori Cleanthes and the skeptic Philo. Whether Cleanthes or Philo best represents Hume’s position has long been debated.
Philo treats theodicy. Philo argues that there are four proofs of the non-existence of God, including the God of revealed religions and natural or rational ones. These proofs against God’s existence coincide with four worldly evils, each testifying that God’s Providence/Nature does not govern our world. The third proof involves idleness.
According to Philo, man is naturally idle or indolent and not inclined to work or put effort into anything. God is responsible for this situation in two respects. On the one hand, though God gave man no special physical advantages to protect himself against hardships of nature, God provided man with reason and sagacity. Second, God made man with a propensity to idleness, which keeps him from achieving his full potential.
Philo says:
Every animal has the requisite endowments; but these endowments are bestowed with so scrupulous an economy, that any considerable diminution must entirely destroy the creature .... The human species, whose chief excellency is reason and sagacity, is of all the others the most necessitous; and the most deficient in bodily advantages .... An indulgent parent would have bestowed a large stock, in order to guard against accidents, and secure the happiness and welfare of the creature, in the most unfortunate concurrence of circumstances. (Hume 2007, 82–83, boldface added)In order to cure most of the ills of human life, I require not that man should have the wings of the eagle, the swiftness of the stag, the force of the ox, the arms of the lion, the scales of the crocodile or rhinoceros; much less do I demand the sagacity of an angel or cherubim. I am contented to take an increase in one single power or faculty of his soul. Let him be endowed with a greater propensity to industry and labour; a more vigorous spring and activity of mind; a more constant bent to business and application. Let the whole species possess naturally an equal diligence with that which many individuals are able to attain by habit and reflection; and the most beneficial consequences, without any allay of ill, is the immediate and necessary result of this endowment. (Hume 2007, 83, boldface added)
Philo continues his argument,
Almost all the moral, as well as natural evils of human life arise from idleness; and were our species, by the original constitution of their frame, exempt from this vice or infirmity, the perfect cultivation of land, the improvement of arts and manufactures, the exact execution of every office and duty, immediately follow; and men at once may fully reach that state of society, which is so imperfectly attained by the best regulated government. But as industry is a power, and the most valuable of any, nature seems determined, suitably to her usual maxims, to bestow it on men with a very sparing hand; and rather to punish him severely for his deficiency in it, than to reward him for his attainments. She has so contrived his frame, that nothing but the most violent necessity can oblige him to labour; and she employs all his other wants to overcome, at least in part, the want of diligence, and to endow him with some share of a faculty, of which she has thought fit naturally to bereave him. (Hume 2007, 83–84, boldface added)
The “very sparing hand” of Nature/God provided human beings, whose excellence lies in “reason and sagacity,” with little or no propensity to “industry and labour.” All human evils derive from this shortage. Philo’s hyperbolic tone could have been pedagogical, to warn against the risks of indolence (Matson 2021).
Thus, Philo advanced a social and economic argument against the existence and justice of God. It is also true that Philo saw an opening for hope in Nature’s work because it employs other human desires “to overcome, at least in part, the want of diligence.” We may think of Smith as taking this opening to defend God’s Providence. The good functioning of commercial society is Smith’s theodicy, a parry to Philo’s argument.
Hume uses “very sparing hand” to describe the operation of nature. Perhaps we meet here one more source of Smith’s invisible hand to add to the ones in the literature. I believe that Smith was not convinced by the atheistic conclusion reached in Part XI of DCNR, even though in the next and final Part, Philo seems closer to the cautious theism of Cleanthes. We know that Hume refused to identify as an atheist, feeling the skeptic category more appropriate (Coleman in Hume 2007, xxxix n31). Nonetheless, in Part XI the core of Philo's provocation about theodicy remained unchallenged.

Smith's parry: The Wealth of Nations

In WN, in the second chapter, Smith mentions human beings’ “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange” (25). Behind this propensity is “[t]he uniform, constant, and uninterrupted effort of every man to better his condition” (WN 343). These propensities produce the division of labor that, in turn, causes “[t]he greatest improvement in the productive powers of labour, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is anywhere directed, or applied” (WN 13). They impel man to help others since only then will they help him. Man is naturally concerned for his familiars, but he is also impelled to address strangers cooperatively, with a “regard to their own interest” (WN 27). The public good is thereby advanced.
After introducing “the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange,” Smith adds: “Whether this propensity be one of those original principles in human nature, of which no further account can be given; or whether, as seems more probable, it be the necessary consequence of the faculties of reason and speech, it belongs not to our present subject to enquire” (WN 25). The “disposition of trucking” was in Smith’s lessons of 1762–1763, after, as Dennis Rasmussen suggests (2017, 187), Smith was likely to have read Hume’s DCNR. As recorded in Lectures of Jurisprudence, Smith said: “If we should inquire into the principle in the human mind on which this disposition of trucking is founded, it is clearly the naturall inclination every one has to persuade” (LJ 352). These passages from WN and LJ closely resemble the “reason and sagacity” mentioned by Philo. Smith’s argument about propensities might be seen as an answer to the theodicy problem, parrying Philo’s atheistic argument.
In both DCNR and WN, human beings are described as needing the services of fellow citizens. Benevolence is insufficient for human beings to care for one another. The missing ingredient in Philo’s argument, the propensities to better one’s conditions and exchange, emerges at this point. Smith writes:
And thus the certainty of being able to exchange all that surplus part of the produce of his own labour … encourages every man to apply himself to a particular occupation, and to cultivate and bring to perfection whatever talent or genius he may possess for that particular species of business. (WN 28)
Similar reasoning is found in Smith’s LJ: “The offering of a shilling, which to us appears to have so plain and simple a meaning, is in reality offering an argument to persuade one to do so and so as it is for his interest” (352).
Smith concedes that God/Nature did not directly bequeath man with the propensity to work hard and reject idleness. But human beings are created with propensities that put in communication their different interests and, in so doing, arouse their motivation to work. As far as the butcher, the baker and the brewer are concerned, “[w]e address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages” (WN 27). The “evil” of human idleness is defeated by the combination of propensities to improve and exchange. Again, Philo’s third argument about evil proving God’s inexistence is parried.

The sparing, invisible hand

Philo said that if only man had been endowed with a natural love of being industrious, “the most beneficial consequences, without any allay of ill, is the immediate and necessary result” (Hume 2007, 83). In the DCNR (2007, 83), Hume cited “the perfect cultivation of land,” “the improvement of the arts” and the “exact execution of every office and duty.” To sum up, Philo says, “men at once may fully reach that state of society, which is so imperfectly attained by the best regulated government” (2007, 83-84). Suppose one approaches the first book of WN through this lens. In that case, it is impossible not to apprehend a demonstration of how beneficial consequences like those listed by Hume arise from the propensities toward betterment and exchange. The operations of natural forces implanted by God means that his hand is not “sparing.” The invisible hand of God only seems sparing because God’s creation, Nature (including human nature), operates indirectly. The direct approach would have been for God to make man to love being industrious. Instead, God made man to love things that become gettable by being industrious.
The introduction and first two chapters of book one of WN clearly lay out the indirectness. First, Smith affirms that “[t]he annual labour of every nation is the fund which originally supplies it with all the necessaries and conveniences of life” and that, in this respect, “the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which its labour is generally applied” plays a decisive role (WN 10). Smith remarks that “the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment” of humankind is the effect of the division of labour (WN 13). To conclude the argument, he envisages the division of labour as the natural and gradual consequence of “the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange” interacting with man’s urge to improvement (WN 25). The additional elements of the limit of commercial society, the role of the state in regulating markets and the role of man’s self-command or deserved esteem do not refute Smith’s central message in WN. Smith’s best arguments to defend God’s work against the charge raised by Philo’s consideration of human evil are thus the birth of commercial society and the opulence of markets to the private and public good.

Why would God opt for the indirect approach?

Thus, we might see Smith as suggesting that God’s hand is not only invisible but sparing and indirect. As a matter of God’s designs, one might still ask: Why would God choose such an indirect approach rather than a more direct one as Philo proposed, whether it be simply supplying man’s wants in abundance or endowing man with a love of industry.
Those are the sorts of questions one gets into when one tries to fathom God’s design. Here Philo’s skepticism may be apt:
All that belongs to human understanding, in this deep ignorance and obscurity, is to be sceptical, or at least cautious; and not to admit of any hypothesis, whatever; much less, of any which is supported by no appearance of probability. Now this I assert to be the case with regard to all the causes of evil, and the circumstances, on which it depends (Hume 2007, 80, boldface added).

Paolo Santori is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Tilburg University. His research interests include the history of economic thought, theology, and business ethics. Recently, he has been studying the philosophical and theological roots of the so-called three economic Enlightenments, i.e., the economic ideas of Adam Smith (Scottish Enlightenment), Immanuel Kant (German Enlightenment), and Antonio Genovesi (Italian Enlightenment).

This essay is part of the AdamSmithWorks series Just Sentiments curated by Daniel B. Klein and Erik Matson. New essays will be published on the fourth Wednesday of the month. You can read more about the series in this Speaking of Smith post, "Just Sentiments- Welcome!". Klein and Matson lead the Adam Smith Program in the Department of Economics at George Mason University, in association with the Mercatus Center. In the program, they study big ideas in jurisprudence, politics, ethics, and economics as they were pursued during the original arc of liberalism, especially in the 18th century in Britain.

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