The Man within the Breast, the Supreme Impartial Spectator, and Other Impartial Spectators in Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments

GMU Working Paper in Economics No. 18-04

Forthcoming in: History of European Ideas

33 Pages Posted: 16 Mar 2018 Last revised: 4 Jun 2018

Daniel B. Klein

George Mason University - Department of Economics

Erik Matson

George Mason University - Department of Economics

Colin Doran

George Mason University - Department of Economics

Date Written: March 12, 2018

Abstract

Adam Smith infused the expression “impartial spectator” with a plexus of related meanings, one of which is a super-being, which normally would aptly take the definite article the, and which bears parallels to monotheistic ideas of God. As for any genuine, identified, human spectator of an incident, he can be deemed impartial only presumptively. Furthermore, his presumptive impartiality as regards the incident does not of itself carry extensive implications about his intelligence, nor about his being aligned with benevolence towards any larger whole. We may posit, however, a being who is impartial, and also posit that she holds higher levels of intelligence, and of benevolence, and then converse over what her sentiments would be about the matter under discussion. It is natural for people to conceive of a being who is unsurpassed and unsurpassable in such qualities, who is morally supreme, like monotheistic notions of God, and who naturally takes the definite article the without having been definitized by the writer (because unnecessary, just as we speak of “the world”). Signal passages in TMS, new to Ed. 6, suggest that Smith formulates the man within the breast as a representative of the always present and everywhere morally supreme impartial spectator. When Smith speaks of the man within the breast as “the supposed impartial spectator” (all new to Ed. 6), we interpret “supposed” as sup-pos-ed (purported), not sup-pos’d (posited). An Excel file collects all passages for key terms and codes all cases of “impartial spectator.”

Keywords: Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, philosophy, the impartial spectator, the man within the breast

JEL Classification: A13, B12, B31

Suggested Citation

Klein, Daniel B. and Matson, Erik and Doran, Colin, The Man within the Breast, the Supreme Impartial Spectator, and Other Impartial Spectators in Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments (March 12, 2018). GMU Working Paper in Economics No. 18-04. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3138927 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3138927

Daniel B. Klein (Contact Author)

George Mason University - Department of Economics ( email )

4400 University Drive
Fairfax, VA 22030
United States

Erik Matson

George Mason University - Department of Economics ( email )

4400 University Drive
Fairfax, VA 22030
United States

Colin Doran

George Mason University - Department of Economics ( email )

4400 University Drive
Fairfax, VA 22030
United States

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