Adam Smith and the wealth-worshipping spectator

Yiftah Elazar*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


What explains the ambition to get rich? Adam Smith is clear that commercial ambition, the passionate desire for great wealth, is not simply a desire to satisfy one's material needs. His argument on what underlies it, however, is not obvious. I review three possibilities suggested by Smith's work and the scholarly literature - vanity, the love of system, and the desire for tranquility - and conclude that none of them captures the underlying motive of commercial ambition. Instead, I argue that Smith understands commercial ambition as a misguided desire for excellence. Ambitious pursuers of wealth are driven by the desire to deserve and to enjoy recognition for their excellence, but their judgment of what is truly excellent is corrupted by the standards of a wealth-worshipping society. Instead of appealing to the moral standpoint of the impartial spectator, they construct in their minds and follow a corruptive moral guide: the wealth-worshipping spectator.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)278-297
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of the History of Economic Thought
Issue number2
StatePublished - 11 Jun 2023

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s), 2023. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the History of Economics Society.


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