IDEAS home Printed from
MyIDEAS: Login to save this paper or follow this series

Adam Smith and Moral Knowledge

  • Konow, James

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.

If you experience problems downloading a file, check if you have the proper application to view it first. In case of further problems read the IDEAS help page. Note that these files are not on the IDEAS site. Please be patient as the files may be large.

File URL:
File Function: original version
Download Restriction: no

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

in new window

Date of creation: Sep 2009
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:pra:mprapa:18557
Contact details of provider: Postal: Schackstr. 4, D-80539 Munich, Germany
Phone: +49-(0)89-2180-2219
Fax: +49-(0)89-2180-3900
Web page:

More information through EDIRC

References listed on IDEAS
Please report citation or reference errors to , or , if you are the registered author of the cited work, log in to your RePEc Author Service profile, click on "citations" and make appropriate adjustments.:

as in new window
  1. H. M. Shefrin & Richard Thaler, 1977. "An Economic Theory of Self-Control," NBER Working Papers 0208, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  2. Vivienne Brown, 2008. "Agency and discourse: revisiting the Adam Smith problem," Open Discussion Papers in Economics 72, The Open University, Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Economics.
  3. Harrison, John R, 1995. "Imagination and Aesthetics in Adam Smith's Epistemology and Moral Philosophy," Contributions to Political Economy, Oxford University Press, vol. 14(0), pages 91-112.
  4. 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.
  5. Konow, James, 2008. "The Moral High Ground: An Experimental Study of Spectator Impartiality," MPRA Paper 18558, University Library of Munich, Germany.
  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. 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.
  8. Croson, Rachel & Konow, James, 2009. "Social preferences and moral biases," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 69(3), pages 201-212, March.
  9. 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.
  10. FLEURBAEY, Marc & SCHOKKAERT, Erik & DECANCQ, Koen, 2009. "What good is happiness?," CORE Discussion Papers 2009017, Université catholique de Louvain, Center for Operations Research and Econometrics (CORE).
  11. Croson, Rachel & Konow, James, 2007. "Double Standards: Social Preferences and Moral Biases," MPRA Paper 2729, University Library of Munich, Germany.
  12. 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.
Full references (including those not matched with items on IDEAS)

This item is not listed on Wikipedia, on a reading list or among the top items on IDEAS.

When requesting a correction, please mention this item's handle: RePEc:pra:mprapa:18557. See general information about how to correct material in RePEc.

For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: (Ekkehart Schlicht)

If you have authored this item and are not yet registered with RePEc, we encourage you to do it here. This allows to link your profile to this item. It also allows you to accept potential citations to this item that we are uncertain about.

If references are entirely missing, you can add them using this form.

If the full references list an item that is present in RePEc, but the system did not link to it, you can help with this form.

If you know of missing items citing this one, you can help us creating those links by adding the relevant references in the same way as above, for each refering item. If you are a registered author of this item, you may also want to check the "citations" tab in your profile, as there may be some citations waiting for confirmation.

Please note that corrections may take a couple of weeks to filter through the various RePEc services.

This information is provided to you by IDEAS at the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis using RePEc data.