Classical Liberals Shouldn't be Afraid to Talk About the Common Good
By Dominic Pino
Patrick Deneen, a professor of political philosophy at Notre Dame and critic of liberalism, began a tweet thread on May 17 by asserting, “Liberalism holds that there can be no common good, only individual interests.” Deneen’s assertion is incorrect, but classical liberals can make it too easy for critics. Talk of the common good is not a collectivist plot, and classical liberals should be more comfortable affirming it in political discussions.
“Liberalism,” perhaps more than most words, has varied in meaning over time. When I write of “classical liberalism” or “liberalism,” I am looking to Adam Smith as my guide. Smith propounds a “liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice” in the Wealth of Nations, and he propounds a quite robust conception of the common good in The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
First published in 1759, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) investigates how human judgment works. One edition of the book was titled, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments, or An Essay towards an Analysis of the Principles by which Men naturally judge concerning the Conduct and Character, first of their Neighbours, and afterwards of themselves.” Although verbose, that title does better to set out what we might anachronistically call Smith’s “research question” for TMS: How do humans judge the conduct of other humans and themselves?
Smith eschews extreme individualism in the first sentence of TMS: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” Taking that as obviously true, Smith then explains how that works. After all, we can’t enter into the feelings of other people directly, and we aren’t ever completely sure how someone else actually feels.
Given that impenetrable barrier between ourselves and others, Smith surmises that the best we can do is imagine how we would feel if we were in another person’s situation. He calls that “sympathy,” and defines it as “our fellow-feeling with any passion whatever.” Sympathy is inherently social.
When discussing virtue, Smith first uses an expression that he uses throughout TMS: “impartial spectator.” By that phrase, Smith means many different things, and a fuller understanding of it can lead to a liberal definition of the common good. Daniel B. Klein, Erik Matson, and Colin Doran, all of George Mason University, provide a good exposition on the levels of the impartial spectator in TMS in their paper in History of European Ideas.
One can think of the impartial spectator existing on different levels. The lowest level is the most obvious: some person judging an event who isn’t on either side. We most commonly use the word “spectator” in an athletic context, so let’s consider a football game between the Packers and the Bears at Soldier Field in Chicago. Packers and Bears fans at the game would be spectators, but they are not impartial. But if a couple from Los Angeles who normally cheer for the Rams (who are in a different division and aren’t rivals with either the Packers or the Bears) were visiting Chicago and decided to attend the game just for something fun to do, they would be impartial spectators.
That’s the most obvious sense of the phrase, and it’s easy to see how the perspective of an impartial spectator would be important for judgment. Let’s say there’s 50 seconds left in the fourth quarter, and the Packers are down by four points. They’re on the Bears’ 15 yard line, and it’s fourth down. Aaron Rodgers tosses a pass into the endzone to a waiting Packers wide receiver, and a Bears defensive back makes a physical play to break up the pass. All the Bears fans are cheering, and all the Packers fans are crying for a defensive pass interference call from the referees.
Our couple from Los Angeles is going to provide better judgment on what the proper call was than the Bears fan sitting to their left or the Packers fan sitting to their right. As a Packers fan, I can hardly write this example without saying it was obviously pass interference!
The value of an impartial spectator now established, let’s consider a higher level of impartial spectator (I promise we will arrive at the common good eventually). There’s value in a random bystander’s opinion, but each of us have people we trust more than others. Those people can also be impartial spectators. Unlike our couple from Los Angeles at the football game, these impartial spectators often don’t really watch the event they are supposed to be judging. We think of them, however, to judge our actions. Examples might include parents, grandparents, clergy, teachers, professors, or coaches.
We have all had situations where a friend does something, and we shudder and think, “My mom would kill me if I did that.” Or we do something good, and we think, “Coach So-And-So would be so proud of me right now.” When we have those thoughts, we are using that higher level of the impartial spectator, and it’s more versatile than the real-life impartial spectator. The couple from Los Angeles at the football game would only be helpful in a few specific situations, but considering what our moral exemplars would think about actions is helpful in many various situations.
Now imagine an impartial spectator who is above all, overflowing with benevolence, and supremely knowledgeable. Smith writes that this impartial spectator
does not feel himself worn out by the present labour of those whose conduct he surveys; nor does he feel himself solicited by the importunate calls of their present appetites. To him their present, and what is likely to be their future situation, are very nearly the same: he sees them nearly at the same distance, and is affected by them very nearly in the same manner.
An impartial spectator who doesn’t grow weary, never tires of our petitions, and stands outside of time so that the past, present, and future look the same to him—if he’s not God, he’s at least godlike. Continuing the progression, this impartial spectator is universal and concerned with what we can safely call the common good (see, there it is).
Smith’s moral system is based on considering what other people think, i.e. it is inherently social. So social that Smith even sees the self as social. He describes our conscience as “the man within the breast” who is a representative of the universal impartial spectator from the previous block quote. Even when we make decisions by ourselves, we are still consulting the man within the breast, and by extension the impartial spectator, and wondering what he would think of our actions.
By making a moral system where sociality is essential, Smith also makes consideration of the common good essential. The highest-level impartial spectator is common to all of us, and when we consider what that impartial spectator would consider good, we are considering the common good.
Too many liberals seem to have taken a mischaracterization of Margaret Thatcher’s quote, “There is no such thing as society,” as a mantra. When you read that quote in context, it’s clear Thatcher was not saying that we should all just look out for ourselves. Immediately after saying there’s no such thing as society, she continued to say, “There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour….”
When we look after ourselves, our families, our neighbors, our communities, our countries, and our species, we are pleasing an impartial spectator who would look on our conduct. We are serving the common good. It is not illiberal to say so. Adam Smith said so in a very robust way in TMS. Anyone claiming to be his intellectual descendent should have no problem saying so too.
Liberals would do well to be more open about the common good. Sociality is not socialism, and we can affirm one without affirming the other. Adam Smith shows us the way to affirm the first and condemn the second, and we should follow his lead.
Dominic Pino is a graduate student in economics at George Mason University and a 2020 Political Studies Fellow at the Hertog Foundation.