An Excursus on Adam Smith’s Use of Sympathy and the Impartial Spectators

  • László Tarnay Retired Associate Professor, University of Pécs
Keywords: individual, community, sympathy, empathy, morality, ethics, imagination, the Other, alien, anthropology, A14, B14, Z10


In the present paper, I investigate the use of sympathy and the Impartial Spectator in Adam Smith’s moral philosophy. My aim is not only a critical reading of Smith’s text but also to draw a historical perspective in which the two concepts evolved right into the 21st century. First, I distinguish three modes of constructing the relationship between the individual subject and the others of the community the subject belongs to. The first option is to define the individual in terms of the community, the second is to postulate a relatively autonomous individual who makes a contract with the community. The third is to conceive of both as mutually determining within a dynamic system. Smith tries to steer between the first two, while the third is developed in contemporary evolutionary and ecological approaches. Next, I will try to show that Adam Smith’s effort to ground moral judgment and behaviour on his idea of sympathy as a kind of imagination of what others feel and think, by means of an intermediary, the Impartial Spectator, runs into a paradox or vicious circle. Next, I offer a kind of solution to the regress of the irreducible distinction between morality and ethics. Then I extrapolate the idea of the Impartial Spectator to the problem of the radical Other, or alien, as it is developed in contemporary French phenomenology. Finally, I briefly apply the idea of the alien to fields other than philosophy such as anthropology, social networking, and ecology.

How to Cite
Tarnay, L. (2024). An Excursus on Adam Smith’s Use of Sympathy and the Impartial Spectators. Köz-Gazdaság - Review of Economic Theory and Policy, 19(2), 134-152.
Special Section: Adam Smith Revisited