Observed without Sympathy: Adam Smith on Inequality and Spectatorship

The forthcoming article “Observed without Sympathy: Adam Smith on Inequality and Spectatorship” by Kristen R. Collins is summarized by the author below. 

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Inequality is increasingly becoming central to studies of American politicsAs socioeconomic inequality has grown, democratic participation has declined, particularly among people making the least amount of money. Using the concept of “spectatorship,” democratic theorists have highlighted how most people observe politics unfolding, even if they do not vote. But, at the same time, people are observed themselves, affecting how they experience American democracy. Due to intrusive surveillance practices, some government programs intended to alleviate poverty and inequality can end up discouraging political participation 

To examine how inequality shapes how we observe and are observed by each other, I turn to the moral philosophy of Adam Smith. Social spectatorship is central to his account of how we develop moral judgmentsinequality is a major factor that warps these judgmentsAccording to Smith, people disproportionately attend to, trust, and admire people who are wealthy and socially distinguished. Conversely, not only do spectators tend to ignore people living in poverty, but when spectators do deign to look at them, they assume them to have inferior moral qualities, such as being craven and dishonest.  

Although Smith focuses his criticisms on how these tendencies cause moral decay in the community at large, he also acknowledges the problems posed by mistaken public judgments in general. By analyzing his account of unearned social censure, I show how harsh public judgments can harm a person’s self-imageEven people who have a strong sense of moral judgment, who know they are good people, can nevertheless be severely demoralized by the mistaken judgments of others. 

In order to build a bridge between Smith’s time and ours, I extend his insights about the harmful effects of obligatory public exposure to an example he suggests but does not discuss in detailthe experience of a survivor of rape. Smith’s criticisms of casuists, who too harshly rebuke a man who breaks a promise made under coercion, which he compares to the socially induced shame experienced by survivor of rape, shows how the problems posed by mistaken judgments can arise within intimate settings. 

By connecting Smith’s insights to contemporary studies of the experiences of people using public assistance, I highlight the moral dimension of social and state surveillance. Disparaging rhetoric perpetuated by politicians and other members of the community regarding people living in poverty evoke the English discourse that Smith challenges. Participants in public assistance programs cite obligatory questions about sexuality and experiences of violence as particularly demeaning. In contemporary democracy, many people may be subject to gazes more scrutinizing than those experienced by politicians, transforming socioeconomic inequality into political inequality 

Smith’s approach to spectatorship illuminates how people’s experiences of watching and being watched interactEngaging with his work brings to mind the perennial nature of the consequences of inequality, through which society is stratified and individuals are disempowered 

About the Author: Kristen R. Collins is a senior fellow in the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, Mercatus Center, George Mason University. Their research Observed without Sympathy: Adam Smith on Inequality and Spectatorship” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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