Butler and Smith's Ethical and Theological Framing of Commerce

Adam Smith, Theology, and Morality, ed. Ballor and van der Kooi (London: Routledge, Forthcoming)

41 Pages Posted: 9 Mar 2021 Last revised: 28 Jun 2021

See all articles by Erik W. Matson

Erik W. Matson

Mercatus Center at George Mason University

Date Written: March 8, 2021

Abstract

This chapter presents ethical and theological perspectives on commerce in Adam Smith through the lens of Bishop Joseph Butler. After discussing the context of Butler's political economy and Smith's and Butler's overlapping theological and psychological frameworks, I focus on three issues. The first is self-love. Against Hobbes, the French Jansenists, and then especially Mandeville, Butler rehabilitates self-love, framing it as morally legitimate, interrelated with conscience, and consistent with the good of our neighbor. Smith follows suit. Second is the dialectical relationship between self-love and benevolence. Butler is clear that the affections of self-love and benevolence interrelate on a psychological level. But the objects of self-love and benevolence--private and public good--also coincide. In pursuing our own happiness, we very often further what a benevolent onlooker would approve of; in knowledge of that coincidence, we may derive a deeper satisfaction from the pursuit. Third, Smith follows Butler's sensibilities about effective benevolence and the limits of knowledge. Both thinkers warmly regard charity and distributive justice. But they see that to pursue distributive justice in an impersonal, abstract fashion is to reach beyond our comprehension. Commercial activity and local beneficence within the bounds of our knowledge appear as principal ways in which we can cooperate with God in serving the good of humankind.

Keywords: Joseph Butler; Adam Smith; commerce; theology; self-love; charity

JEL Classification: B12, B30, I3

Suggested Citation

Matson, Erik W., Butler and Smith's Ethical and Theological Framing of Commerce (March 8, 2021). Adam Smith, Theology, and Morality, ed. Ballor and van der Kooi (London: Routledge, Forthcoming), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3800447

Erik W. Matson (Contact Author)

Mercatus Center at George Mason University ( email )

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Arlington, VA 22201
United States

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