Indulgent Sympathy and the Impartial Spectator

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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