The Edifying Discourse of Adam Smith: Focalism, Commerce, and Serving the Common Good

Forthcoming in the Journal of the History of Economic Thought

34 Pages Posted: 9 Dec 2020 Last revised: 20 Jul 2021

See all articles by Erik W. Matson

Erik W. Matson

Mercatus Center at George Mason University

Date Written: July 5, 2021

Abstract

Smith’s discourses aim to encourage mores, practices, and public policies in service to the common good, or that which a universally benevolent spectator would approve of. The Wealth of Nations illustrates how in pursuing our own happiness within the bounds of prudence and commutative justice we may be said, literally or metaphorically, to cooperate with God in furthering the happiness of humankind. The Theory of Moral Sentiments elaborates an ethic, here called “focalism,” that instructs us to proportion our beneficent efforts to our knowledge and ability. The relationship between political economy and focalism is bidirectionally reinforcing. In one direction, the ethic of focalism contributes to the moral authorization of self-love, thereby invigorating and dignifying honest commercial activities. In the other direction, the insights of political economy reinforce the ethic of focalism by elaborating how through prudent commerce and focal beneficence we cooperate, even if only metaphorically, in a grand social enterprise.

Keywords: focalism; common good; universal benevolence; political economy; economics and ethics

JEL Classification: B12; B31; P13

Suggested Citation

Matson, Erik W., The Edifying Discourse of Adam Smith: Focalism, Commerce, and Serving the Common Good (July 5, 2021). Forthcoming in the Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3730236 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3730236

Erik W. Matson (Contact Author)

Mercatus Center at George Mason University ( email )

3434 Washington Blvd., 4th Floor
Arlington, VA 22201
United States

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