Indulgent Sympathy and the Impartial Spectator

The into to Joshua Rust’s chapter:

Cognitive neuroscience is in the midst of what has been called an “affective revolution,” which places empathy at the center of a core set of moral competencies. While empathy has not been without its critics (Bloom, 2013; Prinz, 2011), both the radicals and the reactionaries routinely cite Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) as among the revolution’s vanguard. For Smith, justified moral judgment depends on the ability to sympathize—Smith’s term for the empathetic ability to imaginatively project into, or otherwise simulate the emotions of others. The impartial spectator is good at moral evaluation and the accurate assessment of the “fitness or propriety” of another’s sentiments “can be found nowhere but in the sympathetic feelings of the impartial and well-informed spectator” (TMS VII.II.i.49).

Smith presupposes that a sufficiently unsympathetic moral agent is bound to moral distortion. But some of Smith’s readers, including Fonna Forman-Barzilai and Emma Rothschild, assume that so long as our other basic capabilities are in place, ample sympathy guarantees justified moral judgment. Other readers affirm the necessity of sympathy for impartiality, while remaining silent on the question of sufficiency.

This essay aims to drive a wedge between the ideal of a merely sympathetic spectator and that of the impartial spectator. Having defined sympathy, I present independent grounds for thinking that an excess of sympathy might prompt judgments which diverge from that of the impartial spectator. I then return to the text to argue that Smith himself is wary of what he calls “excess” or “indulgent sympathy.” One can, thus, be a sympathetic spectator without being an impartial spectator. While I do not address empathy’s critics directly, this more robust notion of the impartial spectator would allow Smith to side-step at least some of the more superficial objections cast against those who would champion empathy. I conclude by presenting considerations which attempt to explain why sympathy occupies such a central place in the TMS, despite not being sufficient for impartial spectatorship. These considerations, in turn, shed some light on the relation between the TMS and the Wealth of Nations (WN).

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Making Visible “the Invisible Hand”: The Mission of Social Simulation

Cristiano Castelfranchi’s interesting article. For more on the invisible hand see Propriety and Prosperity: New Studies on the Philosophy of Adam Smith with the following contributions:

Metaphor Made Manifest: Taking Seriously Smith’s ‘Invisible Hand’ by Eugene Heath

The ‘Invisible Hand’ Phenomenon in Philosophy and Economics by Gavin Kennedy

Instincts and the Invisible Order: The Possibility of Progress by Jonathan B. Wight


Vernon Smith’s Foreward to Propriety and Prosperity: New Studies on the Philosophy of Adam Smith

Here is the opening paragraph to Vernon’s Foreward to Propriety and ProsperityI would urge anyone interested in situated cognition to read his superb Rationality in Economics: Constructivist and Ecological Forms amazingly an unknown classic to those of an externalist non-Cartesian persuasion. Also worth a read is Vernon’s memoir.


This book is a welcome addition to the resurgent scholarly and practical interest in Adam Smith’s contributions to market economics and its antecedents in the social order of human culture. In Smith, propriety concerned the rules that govern human sociability by mutual consent in local group interactions. Out of this experience were fashioned the rules of property, justice and the liberal order of political economy, and thence to economic prosperity. It is a grand narrative alive with meaning for the contemporary world in which side-by-side with markets the demand for sociability has found new expression in the social media companies. No wonder that in a seminar Kenneth Boulding could refer to Adam Smith as the first great post-Newtonian scientist.

In defence of spontaneous order: Hayek and libertarianism

The Economist 


According to Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek and everyone else who knows what he or she is talking about, well-functioning markets depend, inter alia, upon clear property rights and a judicial system that enforces agreements and resolve disputes.

It’s true that Friedrich Hayek, whom Mr Linker shamelessly abuses, is the most prominent 20th-century intellectual behind the concept of spontaneous order—the theory that systems, such as markets, naturally correct, and function best without human meddling. It’s true that Hayek is commonly lumped in with libertarians. It’s true that spontaneous order is an idea libertarians tend to promote. Yet spontaneous order is not a libertarian idea.