Moral Innovation in Adam Smith

impartial spectator self-command just sentiments man within the breast

Dylan DelliSanti for AdamSmithWorks

DelliSanti explores the controversy about the nature of Smith's "man within the breast" and what kinds of individual innovations are possible in understanding and changing moral norms.

"[I]n Smith’s interpretation of the moral sphere, innovations are innovative consciences. In the moral sphere, the adoption by society of one person’s innovation is the adoption of that person’s conscience."

August 23, 2023
The impartiality of the impartial spectator—and of the related, though not synonymous, man within the breast—is one of the great controversies in Adam Smith scholarship. Some scholars read into Smith’s spectator the individualism of the early industrial age. For instance, Amartya Sen (2009, 125) writes that the impartial spectator, when evaluating an actor’s conduct, can “go beyond reasoning…constrained by local conventions of thought, and to examine deliberately…what the accepted conventions would look like from the perspective of a ‘spectator’ at a distance.”
Other scholars, however, have argued that the “man within the breast” is of limited use when it comes to seeing beyond our local conventions. Although the man within might encourage us to restrain our selfishness and conform to our society’s standards, the man within cannot correct us if our society’s standards are themselves flawed or hurtful. Samuel Fleischacker expresses this view:
If the moral standards, the basic moral sentiments, of a society are profoundly corrupt—if a feeling of contempt for Africans or hatred for Jews or homosexuals, say, has been taken for a moral feeling, and a society’s judgments of these people’s actions have been comprehensively skewed as a result—the impartial spectator within each individual will share in, rather than correcting for, that corruption. (Fleischacker 2011, 28-9)
If Fleischacker is correct, we might worry that Smith’s moral system veers toward conformism, determinism, and relativism. We might be led to believe that Smith was pessimistic about the possibility that people could reform and amend the beliefs they inherit from their community. And indeed, when we dig into Smith’s corpus, there is good reason to believe that he viewed humans as limited in amending received norms.
Humans are naturally sociable. We seek out the praise of our equals and we avoid becoming the subjects of their blame and censure. But, says Smith, we not only seek praise and avoid blame; we seek to be praiseworthy and avoid being blameworthy. That is, we seek to be worthy objects of praise, irrespective of the actual praise we receive. It would seem, then, that the impartial spectator as the arbiter of praise- and blame-worthiness might save humans from the circumstantial judgments of the community.
But Smith makes an important distinction between the impartial spectator and the man within the breast. Smith makes this distinction most apparent when talking of “the prudent man.” When “the prudent man” sacrifices present pleasure for more substantial reward in the future, Smith writes that “the prudent man is always both supported and rewarded by the entire approbation of the impartial spectator, and of the representative of the impartial spectator, the man within the breast” (TMS, 215, italics added). The passage makes it quite clear that this impartial spectator is postulated by Smith as a universal being. This impartial spectator is postulated as a universal and accurate judge of praiseworthiness and blameworthiness. This impartial spectator is God or a God-like being.
We mere humans, however, must make do communicating with the impartial spectator through his representative—the man within the breast. We must thus understand how the man within is constructed. Smith is most explicit about the development of the man within in a series of passages I refer to as the “great school of self-command” section.
When we are toddlers, we feel little need to moderate our passions or partiality—our parents indulge our every sentiment. But when we first attend school, we find that our classmates “have no such indulgent partiality” (TMS, 145). For our own good, we moderate our selfishness to obtain their approval. It is here that we enter, what Smith calls, “the great school of self-command” (ibid). In the great school of self-command, we develop our man within the breast. We are constantly thinking about how our actions must look from the standpoint of a third-party. When we share our cookies and make a new friend, any praise makes an impression on our man within; when we steal Lego blocks and make an enemy, that scorn too makes an impression. By constantly taking in the feedback from real spectators, we gradually form a sense of praiseworthy and blameworthy conduct.
Our man within, it is clear, is partly the product of social construction. However, charges of moral determinism and relativism would be premature. For though we develop our man within through our interactions with society, everyone’s man within is uniquely one’s own. Our collection of interactions with the world, what we make of those interactions, and the exemplars we choose to revere, are a product of our own individual life experience. Our society is not a monolithic entity, especially modern commercial societies. “Our society’s values” is actually a rich, diversified, open book, interpreted by each of us in our own way.
Smith writes that as we advance in the “great school of self-command,” as we have more practice at viewing ourselves the way others view us, we gradually move from a state of weakness and dependency upon the opinions of others to a state of a little more firmness and independency. A few will reach a state of wisdom in which they need only the approbation of their men within. Such individuals, Smith writes, have “been thoroughly bred in the great school of self-command, in the bustle and business of the world,” and have reached a state of “real constancy and firmness” (TMS, 146).
In striving for this state of “real constancy and firmness” Smith compares two different standards of propriety: “The one is the idea of exact propriety and perfection, so far as we are each of us capable of comprehending that idea. The other is that degree of approximation to this idea which is commonly attained in the world…” In the first standard we compare ourselves to some ideal; in the second, we compare ourselves to others in society. This first standard is what the “wise and virtuous man” strives for:
The wise and virtuous man directs his principal attention to the first standard—the idea of exact propriety and perfection. There exists in the mind of every man an idea of this kind, gradually formed from his observations upon the character and conduct both of himself and of other people. It is the slow, gradual, and progressive work of the great demigod within the breast, the great judge and arbiter of conduct. This idea is in every man more or less accurately drawn, its colouring is more or less just, its outlines are more or less exactly designed, according to the delicacy and acuteness of that sensibility with which those observations were made, and according to the care and attention employed in making them. (TMS, 247)
Although the “idea of exact propriety” is a result of our observations of the world, it is a standard we develop all our own, and it necessarily seeks to reach beyond any one of our own circumstantial attachments. When we improve our conduct in some degree, when we take note that some received wisdom of our upbringing was misleading or now unfitting, we have made a moral improvement. Smith continues:
In the wise and virtuous man they [moral improvements] have been made with the most acute and delicate sensibility, and the utmost care and attention have been employed in making them. Every day some feature is improved—every day some blemish is corrected. He has studied this idea [the idea of exact propriety and perfection] more than other people; he comprehends it more distinctly; he has formed a much more correct image of it, and is much more deeply enamoured of its exquisite and divine beauty: he endeavours as well as he can to assimilate his own character to this archetype of perfection. But he imitates the work of a divine artist, which can never be equalled. (247)
It is important that Smith compares our man within to an artist. Smith perceived a parallel between the process of development in morals and art. In art, most people in any given generation will follow the established customs, but, from time-to-time, “an eminent artist will bring about a considerable change in the established modes of each of those arts, and introduce a new fashion of writing, music, or architecture” (TMS, 197). Although these eminent artists inherit certain customs, their development in their respective fields allows them to make improvements.
While Smith speaks of making keener moral “observations” and improvements, what I propose to call the moral innovation—analogous to an economic innovation in products or services—is the entire man within the breast which those improvements and new features belong to. Just as a market innovation, say a new sort of vehicle, will display various new features, a moral innovation, a new sort of conscience, will exhibit various new features.
The man within the breast—or conscience—is the theater of innovation in Smith’s moral theory. That is, in Smith’s interpretation of the moral sphere, innovations are innovative consciences. In the moral sphere, the adoption by society of one person’s innovation is the adoption of that person’s conscience. Smith’s theorizing accommodated innovation in morals more than is sometimes recognized (DelliSanti forthcoming), just as his theorizing accommodated market innovation and societal dynamism more than is sometimes recognized (DelliSanti 2021).
Smith’s account of moral innovation seems to have a distinct Thomas Kuhn flavor: we inherit certain ideas about the world, work within those traditions, but eventually come to realize our own insights. These insights will not be completely unique, since we are always working within a social framework, but they will be wholly new adaptations of old moral insights to new social contexts. Of course, there is no guarantee that everyone will be a major moral innovator, just as there is no guarantee that every scientist will reach a breakthrough, or that every market participant will be an entrepreneur. Smith certainly doesn’t believe that everyone will become a “wise and virtuous” man. Most people, most of the time, are more likely to reflect their community’s standards than innovate upon them.
But I do think that Smith was aware that the burgeoning commercial age that he was witnessing was going to be a period of great moral innovation—or, perhaps more accurately, a period of great moral tumult. In fact, it already had been. The political and religious turmoil of 17th century England was brought about largely by a population that was increasingly opinionated and individualistic, increasingly interested in defining their own conception of the good life—the “disagreeably rigorous and unsocial” (WN, 796) religious sects that Smith refers to in Wealth of Nations. Anna Keay, in The Restless Republic, speaks to the climate of 1640s England:
If the King could be defied, the Archbishop of Canterbury executed and bishops and deans abolished, what else might not be open to question? New notions about society and religion began to germinate, put about and popularized by the printing presses which were now overrun with business. Among the noisiest agitators for change were the London radicals branded ‘Levellers’ for their egalitarian aspirations. With the distraction of war, and the divisions among the parliamentarians in the 1640s, censorship was patchy and popular debate and discussion reached levels never before seen in England. (Keay 2022, 40)
I think Smith knew the 17th century was not an aberration, that moral tumult would only grow as the division of labor became increasingly complex, commerce brought formerly distant cultures into contact with each other, and more people became enabled to voice their opinions. Indeed, he pessimistically wrote that “[i]n a nation distracted by faction, there are, no doubt, always a few, though commonly but a very few, who preserve their judgment untainted by the general contagion” (TMS, 155).
In “Parmenides Addresses Plato,” Jon Murphy and Andrew Humphries (2023) explain the significance of Smith’s peculiar tale of Parmenides delivering a philosophical discourse, during which the audience dwindles down until a sole soul remains, namely, Plato. Parmenides is reported by Smith to have said “that Plato alone was audience sufficient for him” (TMS 253). For Smith, one must find some soul to share sentiment with, and hence one is always dependent on social influences. But one may break away from and reject any one social influence, and even a dominant community norm.
Our world has, arguably, grown ever more fragmented and culturally disjointed. Smith does not leave us with a clear theory of how to navigate these strange times, for he too was unsure how to navigate them. However, two elements seem crucial in mitigating the negative side effects of moral innovation, and in benefiting from the positive: (1) humility and (2) an adherence to the liberal plan. To the first suggestion, in An Inquiry in the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Smith recommends “the study of science and philosophy” as well as amusing “publick diversions” as a way of combatting the animosity of hostile factions (WN, 796). By these two mechanisms, members of factions can come to see the extent of their ignorance and gain some epistemic humility.
The second suggestion, adherence to the liberal plan, helps to keep social affairs voluntary and decentralized, and those bottom-up conditions militate against deep moral corruption and large-scale evils (Mueller 2023). Also, the liberal plan militates against using government to impose a vision on the world. Where the rule of law is upheld, where government is chiefly umpire and not a leading player, people will not view it as a tool to force their ideology onto people and crush dissent. Smith’s favor for separating church and state reflects his belief that factions are less dangerous where the government neither subsidizes any religion nor restricts the liberty of competing religions.
But, of course, liberal principles are much easier recited than institutionalized. The same spirit of innovation that drives our economy also drives social changes. When everyone is free to try out their own ideas in the marketplace, they are also free to make up their own mind about the truth. And thus, we often find in an otherwise free society contending factions seeking to enlist the government in their schemes to win their political battles and impose their vision of the truth. But I, with Smith, hope that we few, we lonely few, take heart and continue to stand up for and defend good liberal principles in navigating tumultuous times.

Dylan DelliSanti is a writer and economist in Washington, D.C. In 2019 he defended his dissertation, “Three Essays on Adam Smith and the ‘Corruption Debate,’” at George Mason University (Economics). He has taught at Northern Virginia Community College and the DC Jail through the Georgetown University Prison Scholars Program. His research interests are in Adam Smith, intellectual history, and the ecology of cities.

This essay is part of the AdamSmithWorks series Just Sentiments curated by Daniel B. Klein and Erik Matson. New essays will be published on the fourth Wednesday of the month. You can read more about the series in this Speaking of Smith post, "Just Sentiments- Welcome!". Klein and Matson lead the Adam Smith Program in the Department of Economics at George Mason University, in association with the Mercatus Center. In the program, they study big ideas in jurisprudence, politics, ethics, and economics as they were pursued during the original arc of liberalism, especially in the 18th century in Britain.

DelliSanti, Dylan. 2021. The Dynamism of Liberalism: An Esoteric Interpretation of Adam Smith. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 184: 717–726. Link
DelliSanti, Dylan. Forthcoming. Moral Innovation and the Man Within the Breast. Adam Smith Review, forthcoming.
Fleischacker, Samuel. 2011. Adam Smith and Cultural Relativism. Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics: 4, 20-41.
Keay, Anna. The Restless Republic: Britain without a Crown. William Collins: 2022.
Mueller, Paul D. 2023. Moral Judgment and Governmentalizing Social Affairs. Just Sentiments, Adam Smith Works, Liberty Fund, March 22. Link
Murphy, Jon and Andrew Humphries. 2023. Parmenides Addresses Plato, as Adam Smith Addresses Us. Just Sentiments, Adam Smith Works, Liberty Fund, May 24. Link
Sen, Amartya. The Idea of Justice. Harvard University Press: 2009
Smith, Adam. 1976 [1776] (WN). An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of The Wealth of Nations, eds. R. H. Campbell and A. S. Skinner, 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Smith, Adam. 1976 [1790] (TMS). The Theory of Moral Sentiments, eds. D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie. Oxford: Oxford University Press.