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Episode 69: Christel Fricke discusses Adam Smith’s theory of moral sentiment

This month, we discuss the moral philosophy of Adam Smith with Christel Fricke, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oslo, and Research Director at the Center for the Study of Mind in Nature in the Department of Philosophy, Classics, and History of Art and Ideas at the University of Oslo. Click here to listen to our conversation.

frickeDifferent moral theories have placed an emphasis on different things. Some philosophers have thought that being a good person means doing whatever will contribute to the optimal level of happiness in the greatest number of people. Some philosophers have thought that being a good person means obeying some basic set of principles, such as the golden rule. Adam Smith tried to define being a good person in terms of an ideal: you’re a good person just in case you do behave as though the ideal person would behave. More specifically, you’re a good person just in case you emotionally respond to thing the way this theoretical person would emotionally respond to things. This theoretical person was named ‘the impartial spectator.’

In this episode, Christel Fricke explains how Adam Smith thinks we build up a sense of what this ideal spectator is like through our interactions with others from early childhood on through adulthood. We figure out how this person would feel about the things that others say and do by carefully hashing through situations collectively and learning how to balance each other’s priorities. Join us as she explains how, on Adam Smith’s picture, all of that works!

Matt Teichman

Posted in Podcast.

2 Responses

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  1. Darragh McCurragh says

    “… you’re a good person just in case you do behave as though the ideal person would behave …” Like all such ethical theories I have come across so far, this leads to circular reasoning. You still have to FIRST know what “good” is to create a strawman of that “good” person. Since I don’t think there is anyone who still believes i impartiality and since today hardly anyone still seriously believes in divination (as to the final destiny of humankind), we have to leave all of these paths “open” for the future to decide. It is astonishing that Adam Smith who declared “invisible hands” at work would resort to a hard definition of “good”. Ever since cybernetics came along we know there is no such objective thing and this is why von Foerster finally came up with the imperative “Act in a manner in which choices increase”.

  2. Matt Teichman says

    Thanks for listening, Darragh! I think this is a general problem that comes up regarding any foundationalist argument in philosophy–that is, in any argument that seeks to define one difficult-to-understand thing in terms of a primitive, easier-to-understand thing. Some ethicists think that the ‘good’ is the derived notion, and ‘person one would admire’ is the primitive notion; some ethicists think that ‘person one would admire’ is the derived notion, and ‘good’ is the primitive notion. Is there any way to resolve this disagreement about what’s primitive and what’s derived? Not entirely clear.

    On the ‘invisible hand’ idea, you might enjoy this episode of Planet Money:

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