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?



Comments
Jon Murphy

I agree with Sam and the referee. I do not think that we can ever fully enter into the Impartial Spectator, just like we can never fully sympathize with other people. We try, and we are guided by the man within the breast, but he is not perfect. Earlier on in the same Part, in III.2.32, Smith writes:

"But though man has, in this manner, been rendered the immediate judge of mankind, he has been rendered so only in the first instance; and an appeal lies from his sentence to a much higher tribunal, to the tribunal of their own consciences, to that of the *supposed* impartial and well-informed spectator, to that of the man within the breast, the great judge and arbiter of their conduct." (emphasis added).

The word "supposed" is key there. Our man within the breast, the man whose judgment we appeal to, is a supposed representation of the Impartial Spectator, but he is not perfect. Through reflection on our actions, and our judgments of those actions, and our judgments of those judgments (etc), we can help our supposed impartial spectator get closer to the Impartial Spectator, but he can still never be absolutely perfect.

Nir Ben-Moshe

Thanks for the comment, Jon!

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