This essay will discuss the philosophical viability of Linda Zagzebski’s refreshingly radical theory of moral exemplarism that attempts to elucidate the nature of human morality through an analysis of the structure of our admiration for morally exemplary individuals. After raising some systematic worries about exemplarism, I will turn to Adam Smith and his Theory of Moral Sentiments. There are indeed strands in Smith’s thoughts that contain an exemplarist flavor. Nevertheless, from the Smithian perspective that I favor, our moral concepts emerge from the everyday practice of holding each other morally accountable through empathic perspective-taking. Such a practice is prior to our admiration for the exemplary person. It takes place in the domain of the “ordinary and vulgar”, that is, in the domain of the butcher, the brewer, and the baker. Moreover, our normative commitment to the impartial spectator perspective can be revealed as a regulative ideal only in light of an analysis of such practices. Ultimately, what is truly admirable is tied to our commitment to the impartial spectator perspective, whose normative authority should be established independently of our urge to admire, or at least so I am inclined to argue.
Throughout history we have admired the works of exceptionally talented people in the arts, the sciences, the humanities, and even in sports. We are also in awe of the extraordinary deeds by ordinary people—such as a policeman sacrificing his life in trying to save a drowning child—the lifestyle of the rich and powerful, or the perceived accomplishments of our political leaders. We admire these individuals because aspects of their lives exemplify…
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