The Impartial Spectator: Adam Smith's Moral Philosophy

The Impartial Spectator: Adam Smith's Moral Philosophy

The Impartial Spectator: Adam Smith's Moral Philosophy

The Impartial Spectator: Adam Smith's Moral Philosophy


D. D. Raphael provides a critical account of the moral philosophy of Adam Smith, presented in his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Whilst it does not have the same prominence in its field as his work on economics, The Wealth of Nations, Smith's writing on ethics is of continuing importance and interest today, especially for its theory of conscience. Smith sees the origin of conscience in the sympathetic and antipathetic feelings of spectators. As spectators of the actions of other people, we can imagine how we would feel in their situation. If we would share their motives, we approve of their action. If not, we disapprove. When we ourselves take an action, we know from experience what spectators would feel, approval or disapproval. That knowledge forms conscience, an imagined impartial spectator who tells us whether an action is right or wrong. In describing the content of moral judgment, Smith is much influenced by Stoic ethics, with an emphasis on self-command, but he voices criticism as well as praise. His own position is a combination of Stoic and Christian values.

There is a substantial difference between the first five editions of the Moral Sentiments and the sixth. Failure to take account of this has led some commentators to mistaken views about the supposed youthful idealism of the Moral Sentiments as contrasted with the mature realism of The Wealth of Nations. A further source of error has been the supposition that Smith treats sympathy as the motive of moral action, as contrasted with the supposedly universal motive of self-interest in The Wealth of Nations.


Adam Smith is known to the world as the author of The Wealth of Nations, a pioneering classic in the field of economics. That work was first published in 1776, when Smith was almost 53 years old. He wrote the first version of his other book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, much earlier: it was published in 1759, when he was a young professor of 36. A drastically revised and expanded version, the sixth edition, appeared a few months before Smith's death in 1790 at the age of 67. The Moral Sentiments, unlike The Wealth of Nations, is not one of the great classical texts in its field, moral philosophy, but it has a prominent place among texts of the second rank. Smith himself is said to have thought it superior to The Wealth of Nations. Despite some long-winded sentences, the language is hardly ever obscure and the argument is easy to follow. Yet it has often been misunderstood and on that account it calls for an interpretation based on knowledge of what Smith wrote in his youth and in his relative old age.

One source of misunderstanding is that many of the commentators have been economists who have looked at the Moral Sentiments simply in order to find some relevance for The Wealth of Nations. This gave rise to the so-called Adam Smith problem, a supposed inconsistency between the psychological assumptions of the two books.

Another source of error has been a failure to note whether a particular passage was written for the first or for the sixth edition. Until the publication of the Glasgow Edition of Smith's works, most readers of the Moral Sentiments used a copy that reproduces the text of the sixth edition with no indication that the original version . . .

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