Speaking of Smith

Can We Become the Impartial Spectator?

Nir Ben-Moshe for AdamSmithWorks


To what extent did Smith believe we can become the impartial spectator?
Here is a question I have been thinking about, following a referee comment on a recent paper and an exchange with Sam Fleischacker: to what extent did Adam Smith believe that we can become the impartial spectator? On the one hand, Smith makes numerous claims that make it sound as if most of us can shape, or even have shaped, our conscience in the form of an impartial spectator. For example: “It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct […] who, whenever we are about to act so as to affect the happiness of others, calls to us, with a voice capable of astonishing the most presumptuous of our passions, that […] when we prefer ourselves so shamefully and so blindly to others, we become the proper objects of resentment, abhorrence, and execration” (TMS III.3.4).

On the other hand, as a paper referee recently reminded me: “Smith believes we are imperfect and will always be imperfect: ‘There are some situations which bear so hard upon human nature, that the greatest degree of self-government, which can belong to so imperfect a creature as man, is not able to stifle, altogether, the voice of human weakness, or reduce the violence of the passions to that pitch of moderation, in which the impartial spectator can entirely enter into them’ (TMS I.i.5.8). I think Smith’s argument is that (1) what all of us can do is imagine what the impartial spectator would approve in a given situation; (2) we can develop and deploy self-command (or “self-government”) to more closely approximate the impartial spectator's judgment; but (3) we will never do so perfectly.”

In the passage that the referee quotes, Smith merely notes that there are “some situations” in which, while we can imagine what the impartial spectator would approve of and deploy self-command to more closely approximate the impartial spectator’s judgment, we will do so imperfectly. However, this is not true of all or even most situations. Nevertheless, Fleischacker has pointed out the following to me, which could strengthen the referee’s point, that is, that we can at most approximate the impartial spectator’s judgment but can never do so perfectly:

1) In TMS III.3.25, Smith describes the “wise and just man” as not merely “affect[ing] the sentiments of the impartial spectator” but “really adopt[ing] them.” However, he goes on to say: “He almost identifies himself with, he almost becomes that impartial spectator, and scarce even feels but as that great arbiter of his conduct directs him to feel” (italics added).  

2) Smith’s depiction of the “wise and virtuous man” in TMS VI.iii.25 is such that this person is always working to improve himself, and there is always something to improve. Moreover, this persons’ awareness that there is always something to improve (his humility) is part of his virtue.  


I am curious to hear what readers think: to what extent is the standpoint of the impartial spectator attainable for us?



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