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
Date Written: July 5, 2021
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: Suggested Citation