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Adam Smith and Moral Knowledge

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  • Konow, James

Abstract

This paper examines the contribution of The Theory of Moral Sentiments to the study of how we acquire moral knowledge. In Smith, this is associated with the moral judgment of an impartial spectator, a hypothetical ideal conjured in the imagination of an agent. This imagined spectator has the properties of impartiality, information and sympathy. I argue Smith develops this construct in the context of personal ethics, i.e., as a guide to moral conduct in personal relationships. There are limitations, however, to this model for personal ethics, as acknowledged by Smith himself and suggested by subsequent social science findings. Moreover, this model does not necessarily extend to social ethics, i.e., to moral judgment in less personal economic and social interactions, such as firms, industries and governments. Hence, I propose modifying the spectator model in light of modern social science methods and of Smith’s own insights to address its limitations for personal ethics and to provide it with a foundation for social ethics. The proposed approach is based on a quasi-spectator, i.e., the empirical analysis of the moral views of real spectators whose properties approximate those of the ideal spectator. A review of quasi-spectator studies suggests this as a promising method for informing both descriptive and prescriptive ethics.

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Paper provided by University Library of Munich, Germany in its series MPRA Paper with number 18557.

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Date of creation: Sep 2009
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Handle: RePEc:pra:mprapa:18557

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Keywords: Adam Smith; ethics; moral knowledge;

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  1. Harrison, John R, 1995. "Imagination and Aesthetics in Adam Smith's Epistemology and Moral Philosophy," Contributions to Political Economy, Oxford University Press, Oxford University Press, vol. 14(0), pages 91-112.
  2. James Konow, 2000. "Fair Shares: Accountability and Cognitive Dissonance in Allocation Decisions," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 90(4), pages 1072-1091, September.
  3. Croson, Rachel & Konow, James, 2009. "Social preferences and moral biases," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 69(3), pages 201-212, March.
  4. Nava Ashraf & Colin F. Camerer & George Loewenstein, 2005. "Adam Smith, Behavioral Economist," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 19(3), pages 131-145, Summer.
  5. Easterlin, Richard A., 1995. "Will raising the incomes of all increase the happiness of all?," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 27(1), pages 35-47, June.
  6. Linda Babcock & George Loewenstein, 1997. "Explaining Bargaining Impasse: The Role of Self-Serving Biases," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 11(1), pages 109-126, Winter.
  7. Konow, James, 2006. "Is Fairness in the Eye of the Beholder? An Impartial Spectator Analysis of Justice," MPRA Paper 2730, University Library of Munich, Germany.
  8. H. M. Shefrin & Richard Thaler, 1977. "An Economic Theory of Self-Control," NBER Working Papers 0208, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  9. Konow, James, 2008. "The Moral High Ground: An Experimental Study of Spectator Impartiality," MPRA Paper 18558, University Library of Munich, Germany.
  10. Croson, Rachel & Konow, James, 2007. "Double Standards: Social Preferences and Moral Biases," MPRA Paper 2729, University Library of Munich, Germany.
  11. FLEURBAEY, Marc & SCHOKKAERT, Erik & DECANCQ, Koen, 2009. "What good is happiness?," CORE Discussion Papers, Université catholique de Louvain, Center for Operations Research and Econometrics (CORE) 2009017, Université catholique de Louvain, Center for Operations Research and Econometrics (CORE).
  12. Vivienne Brown, 2008. "Agency and discourse: revisiting the Adam Smith problem," Open Discussion Papers in Economics, The Open University, Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Economics 72, The Open University, Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Economics.
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