Wisdom of the Moderns: Smith and the Anguish of Being Evil

In Shakespeare’s Othello and Macbeth, and in John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, we find individuals face great anguish when they are faced with the question of the value of life. A solution to Shakespeare’s characters can be found in Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith would say that Othello temporarily ignored his impartial spectator until he had committed an evil so great that he could not bear the accusation of his spectator once he again felt its force. Macbeth, on the other hand, continually insisted on self-deceit, though he could feel the force of his spectator weighing upon him. Smith can partially answer Mill. He would say that Mill’s spectator did not function properly because Mill could not imagine his case in someone else. However, Smith would not be able to answer the core of Mill’s problem.

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