Adam Smith infused the expression “impartial spectator” with a plexus of related meanings, one of which is a super-being, which normally would aptly take the definite article the, and which bears parallels to monotheistic ideas of God. As for any genuine, identified, human spectator of an incident, he can be deemed impartial only presumptively. Furthermore, his presumptive impartiality as regards the incident does not of itself carry extensive implications about his intelligence, nor about his being aligned with benevolence towards any larger whole. We may posit, however, a being who is impartial, and also posit that she holds higher levels of intelligence, and of benevolence, and then converse over what her sentiments would be about the matter under discussion. It is natural for people to conceive of a being who is unsurpassed and unsurpassable in such qualities, who is morally supreme, like monotheistic notions of God, and who naturally takes the definite article the without having been definitized by the writer (because unnecessary, just as we speak of “the world”). Signal passages in TMS, new to Ed. 6, suggest that Smith formulates the man within the breast as a representative of the always present and everywhere morally supreme impartial spectator. When Smith speaks of the man within the breast as “the supposed impartial spectator” (all new to Ed. 6), we interpret “supposed” as sup-pos-ed (purported), not sup-pos’d (posited). An Excel file collects all passages for key terms and codes all cases of “impartial spectator.”


Klein, Daniel B. and Matson, Erik and Doran, Colin, The Man within the Breast, the Supreme Impartial Spectator, and Other Impartial Spectators in Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (March 12, 2018). GMU Working Paper in Economics No. 18-04. Available at SSRN: or

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