St. John Henry Newman, Adam Smith and Conscience

COMMENTARY: Has our inner voice discerning between right and wrong gone silent?

Tapestry featuring the portrait of the new Saint Cardinal John Henry Newman  is draped from the balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square during a canonization ceremony held by Pope Francis on October 13, 2019 in Vatican City, Vatican.
Tapestry featuring the portrait of the new Saint Cardinal John Henry Newman is draped from the balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square during a canonization ceremony held by Pope Francis on October 13, 2019 in Vatican City, Vatican. (photo: Franco Origlia / Getty)

In the middle of the 18th century, philosopher and economist Adam Smith wrote that behavior is guided by an “Impartial Spectator.” 

Almost a century later, St. John Henry Newman addressed the “Moral Governor,” a law of the mind speaking to us through nature and grace; in other words, “conscience.” 

Do Smith and Newman’s writings assist in understanding why today the inner voice discerning between right and wrong appears to have gone silent? 

Smith and Newman’s fundamental assumption is that every person is naturally endowed, independent of culture, with an inner compass assisting in determining what is correct behavior. Both entrust their respective moral visions to individuals acting freely but constrained by discernment of what is right or wrong. Behavior is not just determined by circumstances. Smith concentrates on human behavior consistent with an orderly and productive society. Newman, on the other hand, recognizes the Divine as passing through human nature and commanding obedience. 

Adam Smith sought to understand how from birth to maturity a person grows in moral sensibility. In his writings, The Theory of Moral Sentiment (1759) and The Wealth of Nations (1776), his sense of morality is earthly and grounded. Our sense of what is correct and incorrect is formed, Smith believed, as we navigate through an increasingly complex set of experiences in family, society and the marketplace. 

In his writings, Smith theorizes that we are pleased to discover that others react and judge people, actions and behavior as we do. He concludes that for each individual this knowledge of shared habits and rules of behavior results in an inner judgment of others and check on ourselves. Smith refers to this moral compass as the “Impartial Spectator.”

The morally mature person, per Smith, judges himself and others by an imaginary and idealized perspective in terms of his or her interior “Impartial Spectator.” Our ability to predict how others respond leads to regrets about one’s behavior. However, individuals may often judge incorrectly, particularly when given improper or indulgent feedback. Nonetheless, Smith concludes that a moral consensus regarding respect for life and property exists over history and among cultures. 

Along with other economists, Smith stresses “spontaneous order,” resulting from decentralized human actions. Language, sensitivity to others and economic markets are examples of “spontaneous order,” capable of increasing the quality of life. Through a trial-and-error process, interactions lead to principles and habits consistent with and beneficial to others. The source of shared moral sentiments resulting spontaneously derives from human nature and reason or, Smith allows, a Creator. 

For a society to function adequately, a judicial system, according to Smith, is essential. Markets and democracy require individuals to act in certain predictable ways. Smith recommends that institutions increase the probability that individuals guard against their worst inclinations. He notes that formal education habituates youths into a code prioritizing prudence, self-control, fairness and endurance. Government is not the primary source of socialization but has a responsibility to prevent “the almost entire corruption and degeneracy of the great body of people.” 

Highly specialized individuals, according to Smith, contribute much in their respective fields but add little to society’s overall moral sensibility! Although a proponent of the division of labor, Smith laments that repetitive jobs lower peoples’ capacity to make moral judgments. 

In his writings, Smith recommends tax subsidies for primary education to foster moral sensibility as well as literacy. He writes that such teachers be “generalists of demonstrated ability” and kept on task with adequate compensation. 

Smith realizes that religious instruction is designed “to prepare them [youths] for another and a better world in a life to come,” not for good citizenship. Nevertheless, he deems church affiliation necessary to prevent most individuals from abandoning themselves to “every sort of profligacy and vice.”

Individuals of rank and fortune tend to self-regulate because their positions depend on society’s respect. However, Smith observes that those lacking high status and removed from the social control provided in small villages are in particular need of religious affiliation. Again, we should be reminded, that Smith’s primary objective was an orderly well-functioning non-authoritarian society. 

Smith warns of clerics and businessmen seeking legal advantage. He neglects, however, to discuss organized crime or, for that matter, civil authorities co-opting private institutions. He does write, however, that basic universal morality can never long be avoided without the society in question self-destructing.  

St. John Henry Newman, unlike Smith, writes that there is more to conscience than socialization and insists that the religious nature of persons be given as much weight as any other aspect of human understanding. 

Newman’s Letter to the Duke of Norfolk” (1875) focuses on conscience from a Catholic theological perspective. In this letter, he addresses concerns about the dogma of papal infallibility in matters of faith and morals. Keep in mind that Newman was writing almost a century before Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s document that indicated that each person has the right to act with conscience and freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. 

One of Newman’s important contributions is to correct the perception that conscience is nothing more than a phantom of the imagination or liberation from religion and moral constraints. He anticipated and objected to the modern view that conscience liberates one from the guidance and formation of standards external to the individual. Newman adds that conscience is an element of the mind mediating a divine law even to unbelievers; conscience therefore is neither relativistic nor subjective. 

Cultural practices are not universal, but conscience, according to Smith, is capable of differentiating absolute standards of right and wrong in addition to planting seeds of faith and a sense of responsibility. Newman sees conscience as a built-in element of the mind, just “as our perception of other ideas may be, as our powers of reasoning, as our sense of order and the beautiful, and our other intellectual endowments.” 

In other words, individuals have an innate capacity to recognize and grow in what is good as well as in what is true and beautiful. 

Newman, however, hastens to point out that natural endowments, along with good role models and formal education, are insufficient. He writes that reason becomes perverted and ceases to be effective unless the natural religious sense is sustained and completed by Revelation, promulgated by the teaching authority of the Church, and practiced.  

Newman believed “that conscience is ever to be obeyed whether it tells truly or erroneously,” but whenever a person, through his or her fault, acts in error, “he [or she] is answerable to God.” In An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1874), Newman found no corruption in Church dogma and anticipated genuine development in line with established teachings. 

Smith and Newman would insist that the capacity to act and to discern between right and wrong does not weaken over time. However, they would accept that strong trade winds presently affect how our internal moral compass functions. Smith, the social philosopher, would be surprised at the extent to which behavior is believed to be determined by circumstances. Newman would lament the extent to which religion is no longer considered significant in describing the human condition. Thus, moral maturity is stunted when individuals are taught that there are no absolutes and that conscience merely represents liberation from external constraints. 

Furthermore, the North Star guiding individuals towards Smith’s orderly civil society or Newman’s eternal destiny has become obstructed. Both Smith and Neuman would agree that the loss of confidence in civil and religious authority in our time is due to leaders’ attempts to direct and determine outcomes rather than using their platforms for formation in what is true and good. 

Smith and Newman had clear, if separate, goals regarding human behavior, but each acknowledged and accepted that individuals act in line with an inner voice. Both are defenders of liberty and personal agency. Not that they always approved of individual behavior or that of those in authority! 

If, for Smith, adherence to a rule of law is essential for a society to subsist, for Newman, obedience to the voice of God in human nature is preparation for obedience to divine Revelation. The internal voice is not completely autonomous; codified civil law and/or the Church’s teaching authority informs and may be either accepted or rejected. Smith and Newman rely on and give priority to individuals’ inner voice. Both insist, therefore, that compliance with either civil or church authority requires that it be developed in a matter consistent with moral convictions nurtured over time in human hearts. 


Maryann O. Keating holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Notre Dame and is a member of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. She frequently co-authors with her husband, Barry P. Keating, with whom she shares three adult children.