Distant voices: Amartya Sen on Adam Smith’s Impartial Spectator

2014-08-21T13:30:12Z (GMT) by Ian Fraser
For Amartya Sen, Adam Smith’s notion of the impartial spectator is a device that brings “distant voices” into our moral deliberations in order to prevent us from the parochialism that can limit our views on particular issues. Whilst recognising its importance, this article suggests that there are some problems with the way Sen uses this in his The Idea of Justice. Tensions arise around issues relating to his interpretation of Smith, a one-sided and undialectical understanding of the operation of the impartial spectator, an ambivalence in Sen’s approach between essentialism and cultural relativism, the capacity for people to carry out the demands of the impartial spectator and its efficacy in relation to real moral problems such as Smith’s case of infanticide. The conclusion is that in the search for openness, Sen leaves his idea of justice with insufficient grounding to forge a dialogue that can act as a challenge to entrenched beliefs rather than simply accept them in a limbo of fragile co-existence.