Resisting the Corruption of Fanaticism

Shanon FitzGerald for AdamSmithWorks


October 29, 2020
In her thoughtful and timely article published on this site on October 8, Sabine El-Chidiac articulates and explores the challenge of bringing a humane, Smithian disposition into a world so full of perturbation, conflict, and now even widespread dread at the thought of possible future developments. So much is happening in these days and months that they can, as Lenin once suggested, start to feel like—and take on the significance of—entire decades. One wonders about how best to live through them. 
 
In the process, we readers of AdamSmithWorks might ask questions like, Would Adam Smith approve of protest in a pandemic? What life skills would Smith suggest that we work on in these unusual times? What activities can we take up to help pass the time more pleasantly, but also in line with a broadly Smithian conception of virtue and propriety? These questions, on many of our minds in some form, have provided useful and fruitful prompts for several recent essays on this site. 
 
My essay today will continue to explore the theme of “living well with Adam Smith,” proceeding from the admittedly rather simple supposition that since Smith was a first-rate philosopher and attentive social observer, he probably has helpful advice for us concerning the practical arts of living among our fellows—insights for getting by better in this world. This deferential attitude toward “The Wisdom of Adam Smith” (the title of a 1977 Liberty Fund compilation of key Smith quotations), is, I think, an unstated premise of many pieces concerning the relevance of Smith’s statements to the present day; let’s see if this assumption, once brought into the daylight, still has any legs. (TL; DR—it does.)
 
My concern today is one that almost certainly would have resonated with Adam Smith as a scholar, citizen, and public official in his own day, as he observed the passionate feelings and arguments of various competing interest groups and political parties around him. Living amid intense bouts of political and moral competition (for converts) poses challenges. To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling (and also one of the best scenes in the film Apocalypse Now), the question is, how does one keep their head about them when all others seem to be losing theirs? 
 
To unpack how Smith might have thought about this challenge, let’s first turn to a relevant quotation from his Theory of Moral Sentiments. It reads:
A true party man hates and despises candor; and, in reality, there is no vice which could so effectually disqualify him for the trade of a party-man as that single virtue. The real, revered, and impartial spectator, therefore, is upon no occasion at a greater distance than amidst the violence and rage of contending parties. To them it may be said, that such a spectator scarce exists anywhere in the universe. Even to the great Judge of the universe they impute all their own prejudices and often view that divine Being as animated by all their own vindictive and implacable passions. Of all the corrupters of moral sentiments, therefore, faction and fanaticism have always been by far the greatest. (TMS pp. 259-260)
 
What a powerful conclusion. But how does Smith get there? Let’s dive deeper and unpack this quotation to find out. 
 
Party-people hate and despise frankness and honesty, Smith says. They’re so wrapped up in the rightness of their own beliefs, the superiority of their side and its arguments, that they can barely admit that an “impartial”—which is to say, unbiased and nuanced—observer could exist or have any correctives to offer them or their party. Who needs advice when you have all the right answers? To the party fanatic, who today I think it is fair to say is represented by certain kinds of activists, apologists, and agitators of both the left and the right, there are simply two sides: the benighted Cause of Us and the evil Cause of Them. Their way and our way: two distinct visions, admitting little to no possibility of compromise, alternatives, or mediation. On this dualistic view, anyone claiming to have the authority to moderate “Us” by virtue of their “impartial” orientation is simply one of “Them.” Where party reigns, impartiality—distance from party—conveys only error.
 
Anyone with any degree of appreciation for the necessity of intellectual humility can easily see the problem here. Our-way-or-the-highway party types have a difficult time admitting they might be wrong, or that their desired actions might have unintended negative consequences. But healthy people recognize that a third party, indeed an “impartial spectator,” can see things differently, and sometimes even better than we can—no matter how good we think our view is. Find me a “true party man” or woman today who would admit that.
 
The basic, root problem of factions and parties is that they distort peoples’ judgement, their sense of how to decide what is right and good or wrong and bad. The answer that one’s group has landed on becomes the Only Right Answer. The group as a whole has more power that way. All other answers are heckled, ridiculed, and disregarded. They introduce alternatives to the desired, unified moral vision. Proponents of other points of view can quickly come to be seen as dangerous—they corrupt the only true way of seeing. As this plays out in real life, conflicts become more intense and rhetoric gets more inflamed. Sound familiar? 
 
The alternative to party fealty that Smith identifies for us is a process of self-moderation. Thinking about the impartial spectator, we start to imagine how things might look to someone who is not a part of our group OR any other group. To someone who has obsessed at length about the badness of some particular opposing point of view, the reminder that there are other possible views (belonging neither to us nor them) can be refreshing. Perhaps we start to see, when we take a third-party perspective, some of the legitimate aspects of the arguments and proposals of our “others.” Or we realize that a “real, revealed, and impartial spectator”—who can easily be represented today by a foreigner or a less politically interested, yet morally upright fellow citizen—might have good reasons to look at our most beloved cause and say, “Thanks but no thanks.” In either instance, thinking about someone outside our preconceived binary categories can help us to recognize the insufficiency of those categories in our own thought. There are more than two ways of being human, and contrary to the strongest claims of party dogma, certainly there is more than one right way.
 
Faction and fanaticism obviously trouble our society today, exacerbated in many cases by media and technology. Many people, probably some you know, have gone in for sectarian, in-group accounts of the Right, the Good, and the Just. They cling to their causes and their concerns with tenacity, and in many cases those causes and concerns are not entirely without merit. But rarely are they totally right. Anyone aspiring to philosophy (literally, the love of wisdom) will eventually have to recognize that group-binding party-truths are not final truths; they are at best partial pictures of how things really are. To see whole, truth-seekers must constantly step back and consider how things appear from other political, sociological, and indeed ideological vantages.
 
We cannot force the impartial spectator on our resident fanatics, but we can model it for them. This, perhaps, is how we will keep our heads about us in the turbulent times ahead. For in the jarring clashes of conflicting visions, the discerning eye can see the partial merit of one point of view, as well as that of another. It’s not always split evenly, but almost never in human social affairs is there a legitimate monopoly on ultimate truth. Friends of the impartial spectator might take it upon themselves to point this out to those convinced otherwise. We might not be purists, as are the party-types, but I at least would trade ideological purity for a sounder grasp on reality any day. And I am grateful for the fact that I have Smith’s idea of the impartial spectator to help me do just that. 
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