The Impartial Spectator to the Rescue?

Alternative Title: Two Problems with Mutual Sympathy and Adam Smith’s Solution

Although the sympathy of others (to paraphrase Smith) is necessary to our happiness, and although we also want to receive the sympathy, attention, and esteem of others, Ryan Patrick Hanley points out two further problems with Smith’s theory of mutual sympathy in practice. One problem is that we are often selective and superficial in choosing the objects of our sympathy. As Hanley puts it (p. 30), “the wealthy are often worshipped, and the poor willfully overlooked.” Aside from this bias issue, the other problem is that our single-minded pursuit of sympathy, attention, and esteem can itself get out of hand. We might spend way too much time and effort in trying to seek the attention of others, or we might end up painting a false picture of ourselves–as anyone who has spent time on social media can attest to. To sum up, the pursuit of attention, combined with a bias toward the wealthy, might thus lead to “mindless striving” (p. 41) and even to “mental mutilation” (p. 39).

So, what is to be done? Here is where Hanley introduces us to the ingenious distinction Adam Smith drew between “praise” and “praiseworthiness” (perhaps the most important distinction in all of Smith’s work) as well as to Smith’s imaginary device of the “impartial spectator.” And here too is where Smith’s analysis of morality and life moves from the descriptive (Hume’s “is”) to the normative (“ought”). For according to Smith, it’s just not enough to obtain the praise and esteem of others; we must also be deserving of this praise.

But this fundamental Smithian distinction between “praise” and “praiseworthiness” poses a new problem for us: how to do we know when are truly deserving of praise? Here is where the perspective of Smith’s “impartial spectator” comes into play. Ideally, this impartial spectator, this “man within,” will act as an impartial judge and juror, reviewing our actions and our motives and determining whether we are truly deserving of the praise of others. At a minimum, the impartial spectator helps us understand that “we are just one of the multitude.” Either way, whether he is operating as a neutral judge or just as a simple reminder that–contra Mr Rogers–we are not all that special, the impartial spectator invites us to take into account the perspective of others and to put our self-interest and self-concern into perspective.

Before we proceed into the last major aspect of Smith’s theory and conclude our review of Hanley, I want to call a “time out” in the name of David Hume and point out that the impartial spectator is an imaginary fellow. He does not really exist, so his ability to influence our behavior, let alone control it, is probably negligible at best. Smith or Hanley might reply by asking, Is the imaginary nature of the impartial spectator a feature or a bug? These are difficult questions, and as it happens, an entire volume of Econ Journal Watch is devoted to the impartial spectator (see here). I will weigh the pros and cons of Smith’s impartial spectator in my next post.

Image result for impartial spectator

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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