Self Command: Learn This Powerful Thinking Tool

Emily Chamlee-Wright, president of the Institute for Humane Studies, considers what Adam Smith had to say about self-censorship in the latest IHS – Big Think video series.

Smith’s book The Theory of Moral Sentiments provides guidance on when it’s appropriate, and when it’s not appropriate, to engage in self-censorship.

“Think for example you’re in a live exchange with a conversation partner and your conversation partner starts acting like an arrogant jerk,” Chamlee-Wright notes. “What do you do? Our first impulse might be to mirror that behavior, to jump in and start being an arrogant jerk back. But, if we’re wise to the ways of the world, we tend to say maybe that’s not the right thing to do. And what we’re doing here is we’re engaging in what Smith calls the ‘impartial spectator.’”

This means we start to view our own conduct not through our eyes, but through the eyes of somebody else.

“The really wise scholar,” Chamlee-Wright continues, “is not going to just look at our conduct from the vantage point of our conversation partner, who’s being such an arrogant jerk. We’re going to look at our conduct from the standpoint of the audience… We would imagine ourselves switching places with them and then looking at our perspective conduct, doing a gut check. Is what I’m about to say appropriate? Is it proper? Is it in alignment with what’s expected of me as a student or as a scholar? By imagining that we’re switching places, that helps us to find the right thing to do.”

The impartial spectator helps us muster up the restraint to dampen down our emotions. Smith calls this “self-command,” and this is a form of self-censorship. We’re censoring what would be our immediate response, and that’s a good thing.  

Chamlee-Wright also describes another situation we might encounter: where we’re in a conversation with someone, and there’s an audience. In this case, our conversation partner and the audience are challenging us in confrontational ways. Smith calls this the “clamor and vehemence” of public opinion. What do we do in this case?

It’s important to draw on the impartial spectator in this scenario as well. We should pause and think hard about what’s being said. We should ask ourselves if we’re aiming at truth-seeking, and aiming at doing what is praiseworthy—not simply chasing praise itself. “If we make our argument after we’ve had this thoughtful deliberation,” Chamlee-Wright says, “then it’s something the impartial spectator will approve of. Even if there’s a lot of clamor and vehemence from the crowd, I can trust that impartial judge.”

We don’t just arrive on the stage of public discourse fully formed in this way. It takes a lot of practice.

“We need to become practiced in exercising this skill of switching places and assessing our conduct from the vantage point sometimes of the general public,” Chamlee-Wright says, “but also sometimes from that impartial well-informed judge that is going to give us an honest assessment of our conduct, despite what that clamor and vehemence of the crowd might say.” 

This video is one in an extended series about civil discourse. To view additional videos from the series, visit the Institute for Humane Studies blog.

Prior videos in this series:

The Psychology of Moral Grandstanding
with Brandon Warmke, Bowling Green State University assistant professor of philosophy

Why Free Speech Has No Political Party
with Jon Zimmerman, University of Pennsylvania professor of history of education

John Stuart Mill’s Big Idea: Harsh Critics Make Good Thinkers
with Keith Whittington, Princeton University professor of politics

Why Pitting Prejudices Against Each Other Keeps Society Free
with Jonathan Rauch, Brookings senior fellow

Free Speech on College Campuses: A Bottom-up Approach
with Emily Chamlee-Wright, IHS president

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