The Impartial Spectator and the Strictness of Rules

Forthcoming in Adam Smith Review, 2021

21 Pages Posted: 12 Oct 2020

Date Written: July 16, 2019


Adam Smith argues that the ethical foundation of justice including property rights is to be found in the approbation of the impartial spectator. In this paper I argue that that the strictness, precision, and accuracy of the general rules of justice cannot be so explained. Something is missing. What is missing are the factors stressed by David Hume. The first is self-interest from the “general point of view.” Through the convention of justice our long-run self-interest is channeled toward social cooperation. Nevertheless, there are clearly incentives to depart from justice in a particular case. One incentive, not recognized by Smith, is derived from beneficence. Cases of justice do not come before us labeled as such. There is the danger of misplaced beneficence that will exempt a “sympathetic” individual from the requirements of justice. This in turn may produce a slippery slope toward the dilution of justice. To avoid these problems the rules of justice need to be relatively strict. But this strictness comes not from the requirements of the impartial spectator but from the recognition of its usefulness in promoting the public interest.

Keywords: Smith, strictness, rules, impartial

JEL Classification: B12, K10

Suggested Citation

Rizzo, Mario J., The Impartial Spectator and the Strictness of Rules (July 16, 2019). Forthcoming in Adam Smith Review, 2021 , Available at SSRN:

Mario J. Rizzo (Contact Author)

New York University ( email )

Department of Economics
19 W, 4th Street
New York, NY 10012
United States
212-998-8932 (Phone)
212-995-4186 (Fax)

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