Smithian Spectatorship in Liberal Democracies

impartial spectator liberalism spectatorship democracy

Thomas Bunting for AdamSmithWorks

Adam Smith demonstrates the primacy of emotion and feeling for creating morality and society. For Smith, we experience these emotions through spectatorship, culminating in the creation of the impartial spectator.

September 14, 2022
Is spectatorship compatible with liberal democracy or is it something that facilitates irrational politics of spectacle and totalitarianism? This is a perennial question in Western political thought, but Adam Smith’s analysis of spectatorship and contribution to the conversation is often overlooked. In this essay, I will show how Adam Smith provides helpful insights into the nature of spectatorship and how it might inform politics. I will first examine Smith’s understanding of spectatorship in Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS). In this section, I show how Smith demonstrates the primacy of emotion and feeling for creating morality and society. For Smith, we experience these emotions through spectatorship, culminating in the creation of the impartial spectator. I will then look at how Smith’s understanding speaks to critics of spectatorship and advances more recent work in spectator democracy.
For Smith, spectatorship is an essential part of how human beings relate to one another. Through watching others, we can imagine what they must be experiencing. He writes,
“Whatever is the passion which arises from any object in the person principally concerned, an analogous emotion springs up, at the thought of his situation, in the breast of every attentive spectator,” (TMS 10).
Without spectatorship, we would be unable to understand others or imagine what they are feeling. Smith’s spectatorship, far from distancing us from reality, connects us to world around us. A key point is that this connection is to other people. Spectatorship inspires sympathy. As Smith writes,
“Upon some occasions sympathy may seem to arise merely from the view of a certain emotion in another person…. Grief and joy, for example, strong expressed in the look and gestures of any one, at once affect the spectator with some degree of a like panful or agreeable emotion,” (TMS 11).
This sympathetic connection to others is what makes Smith’s man a political animal, much like Aristotle. We share in the grief, joy, and other emotions of others and this shared experience allows us to form bonds with others and communities. These bonds are formed by spectatorship, but necessarily limited by spectatorship as well, raising the extent to how large a community we could live within. And as Smith notes, it is not only about social utility, but pleasure. It is pleasant to have others sympathize with us and to sympathize with others (24). Conversely, it is quite unpleasant to interact with someone who only feels for themselves! Sympathy forms a relationship of care that begins with ourselves and extends to the family, children, friends, city, country, and to some extent humanity in general, though the links of sympathy get weaker as they extend further (219-237).
The fact that this circle of care weakens the further it extends is crucial. For Smith, our sympathy and feelings we have for others will never quite match the fervor of the feelings that we have for ourselves. Smith writes,
“the emotions of the spectator will still be very apt to fall short of the violence of what is felt by the sufferer. Mankind, though naturally sympathetic, never conceive, for what has befallen another, that degree of passion which naturally animates the person principally concerned,” (21).
That we feel our own misfortunes and joys more than others is fairly self-evident—actually being tortured is more painful than watching someone being tortured; winning the World Series is (presumably) more enjoyable than watching one’s favorite team win the World Series.
One of Smith’s most famous passages reiterates this point. Smith argues that if the entire empire of China were swallowed up in an earthquake, of course any normal person living far away would be sad and express their sorrow at such a happening. However, at the end of the day, this person would not likely have any issues going to sleep after such a huge disaster. This is not the case with small disasters to ourselves that we feel quite keenly. Smith writes,
“The most frivolous disaster which could befal himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night,” (136).
On a practical level, losing one’s pinky finger is more top of mind than the loss of untold millions we have never met. However, if you were to give someone the choice between losing their finger or sacrificing millions of people, Smith says it is clear what to do. Smith writes,
“To prevent therefore, this paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them? Human nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as would be capable of entertaining it,” (137).
What accounts for this difference between on the one hand, a seemingly self-centered nine-fingered individual and the other altruistic individual willing to sacrifice her pinky?
For Smith, spectatorship provides an ability to look at our own actions and judge them. In this case, he says that what motivates the actor is “reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct,” (137). For Smith, by judging the actions of others, we learn to judge the actions of ourselves and can make recourse to his impartial spectator to know whether our actions are right or wrong. He writes,
“We endeavor to examine our own conduct as we imagine any other fair and impartial spectator would examine it. If, upon placing ourselves in his situation, we thoroughly enter into all the passions and motives which influenced it, we approve of it, by sympathy with the approbation of this supposed equitable judge. If otherwise, we enter into his disapprobation, and condemn it,” (110).
Spectatorship of others begins as a way for us to feel sympathy with others and eventually judge their actions and whether they seem appropriate to us or not. However, spectatorship is not merely about judging others. Instead, society acts as a mirror and spectatorship turns inward, allowing us to judge ourselves as we would judge others.
Smith here is getting at a key insight into not only social relationship, but self-awareness and understanding. It is easy to be too prejudiced towards ourselves and certainly it is not fun to think ill of ourselves (158). By the same token, for many, it is easy to be too hard on ourselves. For a more realistic understanding of our actions, we should ask—what would I say of a friend in this situation? Or better, for Smith, what would an impartial spectator have to say about my actions in this situation?
For Smith, the impartial spectator is a type of judge within the hearts of all people that gives us access to an inner conscious based on reason to judge others and ourselves. The impartial spectator gives individuals an appeal to a higher tribunal, as Smith describes it, it is an appeal “to the tribunal of their own consciences, to that of the supposed impartial and well-informed spectator, to that man within the breast, the great judge and arbiter of their conduct” (130). The impartial spectator, although formed through emotion and spectatorship, gives individuals a rational way to evaluate the moral fitness of their actions. The impartial spectator can even be a useful appeal against the sometimes violent and loud clamor of the crowd (131). The impartial spectator then, is the ultimate fruit of spectatorship and a way of judging our actions and the actions of others.
This process of appealing to the impartial spectator is not always easy, but it is one way to live consistently. It recalls Socrates’ advice in The Republic to mind one’s own business or Kant’s categorical imperative. Smith even connects living constantly with the impartial spectatorship to justice. He says of the wise and just man,
“He has never dared to forget for one moment the judgment which the impartial spectator would pass upon his sentiments and conduct. He has never dared to suffer the man within the breast to be absent one moment from his attention…He does not merely affect the sentiments of the impartial spectator. He really adopts them. He almost identifies with, he almost becomes himself that impartial spectator, and scarce even feels but as that arbiter of his conduct directs him to feel,” (147).
Living in harmony with the impartial spectator one almost becomes that spectator. This evokes many other themes in Western political thought and is reminiscent of Socrates’ daimon that resembles more than anything, a conscience. Crucially, spectatorship that fosters the impartial spectator results in judgement.
In Hannah Arendt’s “Thinking and Moral Considerations,” she connects judgement to thought. For Arendt, the ability to liberate our thinking results in liberating judgment, our most political capacity. Channeling Socrates and William Shakespeare, this means we can live with ourselves, like Socrates, rather than fleeing our actions like Shakespeare’s Richard III. This connection between thinking and judgement is important, but misses what Smith highlights—we only come to reflection on the actions of ourselves and others through the mechanism of spectatorship. In other words, we cannot conceive of a robust world of moral judgment absent spectatorship.
What does Smith’s understanding of spectatorship add to ongoing debates about spectatorship in Western political thought?
Beginning with Plato, there has been an unease about spectatorship. Plato believed that our senses can be deceiving, and the Allegory of the Cave shows how in the thrall of images, citizens lose touch with reality. For Plato, spectacles and vision distract us from truth which can only be accessed using reason. Here Smith’s understanding of the impartial spectator is helpful. When we watch others, we can maintain a critical perspective of their actions and use our judgment. Spectatorship is not opposed to critical thinking, but part of the process.
Critiques of spectatorship only grew in the 20th century with the rise of fascism and its use of spectacle. Writers like Gustave Le Bon wrote The Crowd on crowd dynamics and argued that such crowds are impulsive, incapable of reason and sober judgment. Individuals in the crowd lose their sense of individuality. Elias Canneti also wrote Crowds and Power, which argues that crowds display pack dynamics in submitting to the power of leaders. These are but a few examples of a commonly held belief that spectatorship was intrinsically bound up with crowd dynamics and a logic of authoritarian, top-down politics.
In contemporary democratic theory, voice and deliberation lie at the center of politics. Deliberative democracy is based on the idea that the center of politics is reason and deliberation. Irrational things like the feelings we experience when watching others ought not to figure into how we operate politically. Some, like Nadia Urbinati, go so far as to describe spectatorship in politics as a celebration of passivity (see especially the article “Unpolitical Democracy”).
Some recent work has reassessed how spectatorship operates in democratic life. Jeffrey Green’s The Eyes of the People shows how spectatorship can advance a more accessible kind of plebiscitary democracy. Part of why this work is essential is something that Smith realizes—spectatorship is a natural condition of everyday life. A big problem with rejecting spectatorship as simply dangerous is that we all act as spectators constantly; we watch politics, people, sports, news, entertainment, etc. How can something so common be so inherently dangerous?
This recent work on spectatorship advances some of the key insights of Smith’s theory. Crucially, what Smith’s analysis shows is that spectatorship is not passive at all; instead, it is a necessary precursor to forming moral judgements and political communities. These judgements can be based on reason and good for democratic life. When we watch politicians, neighbors, events, etc., we are forming judgements. Spectators are not in thrall at the spectacle, but emancipated viewers and actors themselves.
One thing that remains unclear is how far this spectatorship can extend. Can we meaningful evaluate cultures or societies radically different from our own for Smith? Can we understand a world that is increasingly more global? Smith’s theory may be useful for cultivating judgment within our communities and ourselves, but less useful for cultivating judgment outside of them.
The implications of Smith’s work for how we conceive of liberal democracy are rather large. Reason and deliberation are often thought to be the core of liberal democratic government, but Smith shows how spectatorship and sentiment can instead form good morals and communities. This does not mean reason is unimportant, but that we need to think of citizens and democracy in more robust, complicated ways. Ultimately, Smith shows that our everyday condition as spectators is not something that enervates democratic life, instead it is empowering. As spectators, we learn to sympathize with others, understand ourselves, and form judgements. Far from leaving us disengaged, spectatorship can inform and shape the most important constituent parts of democratic life.