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I argue that Adam Smith’s impartial spectator should be regarded as an eminently human figure, not an ideal beyond ordinary people’s reach, let alone an emblem of the divine. This reading makes best sense of how the figure functions in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, enables Smith to construct a plausible version of moral sentimentalism, and gives him a response to a problem he saw in David Hume’s sentimentalism. The reading also makes it somewhat difficult for Smith to give a satisfying response to the dangers of cultural relativism, but that problem, I argue, his system shares with most other moral philosophies.
Podcast related to this article: Samuel Fleischacker on Adam Smith’s Impartial Spectator (EJW Audio, May 2016).