Adam Smith's Impartial Spectator: His Reliance on Societal Values, Limits in Inspiring Altruism, and Application in Today's Context

Jung Min Shin


In his comprehensive overview of moral philosophy, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), Adam Smith made a key contribution through the concept of the “impartial spectator”—an imagined third party who allows an individual to objectively judge the ethical status of his or her actions. Also called the “man within the breast,” the impartial spectator is a tool through which individuals divide themselves into the “judge” and “the judged” to examine their own conduct in an unbiased manner. While Smith conceptualizes this imaginary figure as an embodiment of universal morality, and hence not limited to the values of one’s immediate community, I argue that this is largely impossible due to the character’s society-reliant nature. The impartial spectator is inevitably a local figure, a judge who, while objective, adjudicates based on the context of one’s immediate social milieu. Furthermore, due to his dependence on community norms, the impartial spectator is unable to motivate individuals to care for those outside conventional society’s concerns, and is ultimately restricted in his capacity to inspire moral improvement. Interestingly, however, the “man within the breast’s” society-driven nature seem less problematic and debilitating to Smith’s overall self-evaluation method in the context of today’s globalized, equality-driven world. His reliance on community norms does not serve as a key hindrance factor for inspiring altruism today, which demonstrates that Smith’s introspective technique may be better-suit for application in the present than in the philosopher’s time.


adam smith; liberalism; society; individual

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