The Impartial Spectator(s) & The Standing Chandelier

sympathy impartial spectator literature novels sympathetic imagination

Jon Murphy for AdamSmithWorks

"Smith seems to embrace the ambiguity, both as a means for us to become better aware of the world around us and as a means to avoid flattening morality down to a list of rules for people to follow"
From February 2-5, 2023 I attended a Liberty Fund colloquium on property and property rights.  One of our readings was The Standing Chandelier, part of the collection Property – Stories Between Two Novellas by Lionel Shriver.  Shriver’s novella explores the relationship between the three main characters, Jillian, Weston, and Paige and their relationship to a piece of property, a standing chandelier.  Needless to say, what follows contains massive spoilers for the novella. 

The novella begins with the relationship between Jillian and Weston, two college students who quickly build a deep and lasting friendship.  They become tennis partners, social critics, and occasional lovers.  Jillian is an eccentric, perhaps even socially oblivious, woman who delights in doing odd jobs and creating bizarre art.  Weston is a very reserved, slow-to-act man who delights in Jillian’s joie de vivre.  He is also a self-described coward when it comes to awkward social situations.  At some point in their middle years, Weston begins dating Paige.  In their first meeting, Paige develops an intense dislike of Jillian (to which Jillian never picks up on).  After a few years of dating, Weston proposes to Paige.  She agreed on one condition: Weston cuts Jillian out of his life forever; Paige does not trust Jillian and fears that, given their sexual history, an affair could develop.  After much hemming and hawing, Weston agrees, but he does not tell Jillian right away.  He decides initially to wait until just before the wedding to inform her that she is not invited.  Fearing it is something she did, Jillian decides to gift the soon-to-be newlyweds with her latest artistic creation: a standing chandelier made up of various parts of her life (including, but not limited to, actual body parts like her wisdom teeth).  While initially horrified by this gift, Paige comes to accept and even enjoy it.  When Weston finally gets the courage to inform Jillian that she must leave his life entirely, Jillian asks for the standing chandelier back.  The couple refuse, citing “social rules.”  The novella ends with Jillian responding to her former best friend that it’s not about social rules; Paige just wants to keep her “scalp” of Jillian.

The story is, in this reader’s eyes, heartbreaking.  But what was interesting was the conversation that followed the story; no one could agree upon who was the villain of the story.  In this room full of highly intelligent individuals, we all had different interpretations of the events, as well as Jillian, Weston, and Paige’s behavior.  The impartial spectators of this story could not agree.

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith invokes the impartial spectator as a way of considering the morality of a situation: who was right, who was wrong, and what could be done.  But what is often missed by readers is that there are three sorts of impartial spectators of an event: 

1)      The impartial spectators: observers from outside the event who witness and consider the events in light of their experiences and moral guides
2)      The supposed impartial spectator (sometimes called “the man within the breast”): the little voice inside our heads that tell us whether the judgement we passed in (1) is correct or not.  The supposed impartial spectator is a representative of (3)
3)      The Impartial Spectator: a large, godlike super-knowledgeable spectator who perfectly comprehends the situation and the moral rules

All three of these impartial spectators play important roles in our moral judgement, as Smith discusses.  We, as impartial spectators (1) observe a situation and pass judgement on it.  Then, in the “cool hour," we reflect on our judgment listening to what the supposed impartial spectator has to say (2).  We use that information to recalibrate our judgement as needed, hopefully to become better aligned with The Impartial Spectator (3).  However, throughout The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith tends to rely on fairly cut-and-dry examples: a sentinel that falls asleep on duty and puts everyone at risk, parents who abandon their children, a man who does nothing to help a neighbor in danger, slavery, etc.  He steers away from complex social situations like what we witness in The Sanding Chandelier

Does Smith’s avoidance of complex situations imply his framing is useless outside the cut and dry?  Doubtful.  Rather, Smith seems to embrace the ambiguity, both as a means for us to become better aware of the world around us and as a means to avoid flattening morality down to a list of rules for people to follow (in the last section of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith spills much ink decrying these “casuists” who treat morality as a laundry list of rules).  Some rules, like the rules of justice, are precise and accurate.  All other moral rules are loose, vague, and indeterminate.  Smith’s method of observation, sympathy, and reflection is perhaps more important to these loose and vague rules than to the precise and accurate. 

Those of us in that group will probably never fully agree on a judgement of the characters in The Standing Chandelier.  But that’s the glorious thing: we don’t have to.  The situation is ambiguous and the Smithian system provides us a framework both of evaluating the characters behavior and our judgement (and those of our peers) of the situation.  The Impartial Spectator is not God, nor are we.  It is a contemplative morality. 

Want to Read More?
Ryan Young's Empathy, Adam Smith, and Greek Tragedy
Nicole Penn's Heroes of the Smithian Turn
Sarah Skwire's My Five Favorite Novels with Economics Themes (which includes a different work from Lionel Shriver)
My Understanding of Adam Smith’s Impartial Spectator, a symposium from Econ Journal Watch
Nir Ben-Moshe's Can We Become the Impartial Spectator?