Understanding Adam Smith - Empathy Before It Was Cool

This is the 4th of an eight-part series designed to explain several important aspects of Adam Smith’s writing, or at least correct widespread misconceptions regarding those writings. You can pick up the start of this series here.


In the previous post we introduced a construct of Smith’s he called the ‘impartial spectator’. You can read that blog here. Why did Smith create the impartial spectator? Let’s take a closer look.


Here’s Smith’s earliest description of the purpose of the impartial spectator, as found in Moral Sentiments:

In all such cases, that there may be some correspondence of sentiments between the spectator and the person principally concerned, the spectator must, first of all, endeavor, as much as he can to put himself in the situation of the other, and to bring home to himself every little circumstance of distress which can possibly occur to the sufferer. He must adopt the whole case of his companion, with all its minutest incidents; and strive to render as perfect as possible that imaginary change of situation upon which his sympathy is founded. (See, Part I, Section 1, Chapter IV, Paragraph 6.)

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For us modern readers, Smith’s eighteenth-century English is sometimes difficult to parse. But the prose clears up after a few passes and as the ear becomes accustomed to the style. Notice the opening words “in all such cases.” Smith often uses this phrase and close variations when considering the presence of the impartial spectator.


For example, in the second paragraph before the only use of the term ‘invisible hand’ in Moral Sentiments, Smith writes, “If he is to live in society, indeed, there can be no comparison, because in this, as in all other cases, we constantly pay more regard to the sentiments of the spectator, than to those of the person principally concerned, and consider rather how his situation will appear to other people than how it will appear to himself.” (See, Part IV, Chapter 1, Paragraph 7.) Notice the parallel use of the phrase in Wealth of Nations, “and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand.” (Emphasis ours, See, Book IV, Chapter II, Paragraph 9.)


The impartial spectator—made in the image of you and me—is an imaginary, mental construct that Smith says guides us over time and through our experiences to establish rules regarding acceptable behavior. In other words, our individual and collective morality. Toward the end of Moral Sentiments, Smith offers a summary to that point.

Concern for our own happiness recommends to us the virtue of prudence; concern for that of other people, the virtues of justice and beneficence—of which the one restrains us from hurting, the other prompts us to promote that happiness. . . . [A]nd no man, during either the whole of his life or that of any considerable part of it, ever trod steadily and uniformly in the paths of prudence, of justice, or of proper beneficence, whose conduct was not principally directed by a regard to the sentiments of the supposed impartial spectator, of the great inmate of the breast, the great judge and arbiter of conduct. (See, Part IV, Conclusion, Paragraph 1.)


The impartial spectator is a construct by the guy we all call the father of capitalism. We need to be aware of and understand the purpose of the impartial spectator if we’re to more correctly understand Adam Smith and his writings, particularly Wealth of Nations. In our plain meaning reading of the impartial spectator, we see an empathic influencer whose purpose is to provide balanced guidance in our interactions with each other.


In bringing the impartial spectator to your attention, we don’t cherry pick texts or try to persuade you regarding Smith wrote. Yes, we just shared with you a summary of our understanding. At the same time, we point you to and want you to read for yourself what Smith wrote.


Remember, the impartial spectator is a construct (i.e., “the great inmate of the breast, the great judge and arbiter of conduct”) by the father of capitalism to be used for our interactions and decision-making, including in our marketplace exchanges and economic systems. In the next Part 5 we further flesh out the impartial spectator, its connection to the invisible hand, and the implications for those constructs and their connection for a better capitalism. Stay tuned!



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