Moral Innovation and the Man Within the Breast

30 Pages Posted: 28 Apr 2020

See all articles by Dylan J. DelliSanti

Dylan J. DelliSanti

George Mason University - Department of Economics

Date Written: April 5, 2020


In treating Adam Smith’s moral theory, several scholars have emphasized the socially-constructed nature of the conscience or “man within the breast.” In this paper I suggest that the process of such construction lies within two bounds. On one side is the most extreme historicity and determinism, where “the community” imprints its norms on the individual. At the other is the most extreme autonomy, where the individual fashions his own world in his own way with no significant dependence on any cultural influences. Smith sees humans as developing between the two extremes. People do depend on customs and traditions; the man within the breast is path dependent. But “the community” is not monolithic; rather, a variety of cultural resources are available, and every individual combines elements in her own way; we have some autonomy to fashion our respective men within the breast. In doing so, the individual faces the tension between innovation and tradition — what Thomas Kuhn called the essential tension. Innovation does not mean complete autonomy, complete independence of customs and traditions. But it represents a new kind of dependence, or a dependence on a new combination or formulation of such influences. In fashioning her own dependence, the individual may achieve an independence of any one cultural force, and hence a relative independence, generally considered. Smith teaches the hazards of, on the one side, adhering too faithfully to established conventions (or “usages”) and, on the other, of paying too little regard to custom and expectations.

Keywords: Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, impartial spectator, man within the breast, moral innovation, cosmopolitanism

JEL Classification: B12, B31

Suggested Citation

DelliSanti, Dylan J., Moral Innovation and the Man Within the Breast (April 5, 2020). Available at SSRN: or

Dylan J. DelliSanti (Contact Author)

George Mason University - Department of Economics ( email )

4400 University Drive
Fairfax, VA 22030
United States

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