Adam smith, the impartial spectator and embodiment: Towards an economics of accountability and dialogue

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This article argues that Adam Smith’s notion of sympathy and the impartial spectator in his work The Theory of Moral Sentiments [1759] connects the individual to society. In this work, Smith’s economics are far more complex than mere self-interest as a driver of commerce. Self-interest functions within a socio-ethical framework that limits excess and narcissism. However, morality was not based on normative assumptions for Smith and Hume. Morality was directly linked to social and cognitive processes in which the approbation of others was important. In other words, behaviour was based on the perceptions of others; therefore, action was to be adjusted to obtain sympathy. The impartial spectator refers to the cognitive process in which moral assessments are made. Therefore, the empiricism of Smith differs from determinism as related to physical causation because it operates through habituation and/or socialisation that can accommodate change and variation. Clearly, the socio-cultural presupposition of society directly influences the moral judgment of the individual. However, this deterministic tendency may result in an uncritical assessment of moral behaviour. To address this potential limitation of determinism, the embodied phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty is explored as an alternative theory which attempts to move beyond a dualism rooted in materialism/idealism. This perspective may expand on Smith’s economics by adding a more inclusive assessment of behaviour. Specifically, Merleau-Ponty’s corporeality provides a theory of behaviour that goes beyond a particular society’s perceptions of acceptable behaviour. This framework may provide the impartial spectator with a more encompassing perspective on moral assessment that may also be beneficial for sustainable commerce. It will be proposed that Merleau-Ponty’s embodied phenomenology and the hyper-dialectic of the flesh highlights the role of accountability and dialogue in moral assessment that may contribute to responsible economics in the South African context.




Rathbone, M. (2018). Adam smith, the impartial spectator and embodiment: Towards an economics of accountability and dialogue. Religions, 9(4).

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