Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

What Did Adam Smith Say about Self-Love?

Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

What Did Adam Smith Say about Self-Love?

Article excerpt

How should we interpret what Adam Smith said about self-love in book 1, chapter 2 of The Wealth of Nations (WN 1776)? Smith's explanation of the role of self-love in motivating parties to exchange has been widely misunderstood. Understanding the textual setting of his reference to self-love is crucial to a correct interpretation. The first two chapters of WN must be read as a whole and in light of Smith's idea of "sympathy" from the Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS 1759) to get the full meaning of the appeal to self-love.

No necessary contradiction or dichotomy exists in Smith's two treatments of human behavior in TMS and WN, as shown by a close examination of his reference to self-love in WN. This article shows that the division of labor, complex production, and consumer needs and wants are the starting points for the analysis, not selfishness. Smith assumes that people are capable of both benevolence and self-love. He explains that an appeal to a merchant's benevolence provides a few of our needs at particular times but not all of our needs and wants all of the time. Smith's discussion of self-love did not point to purely selfish behavior but to the efficiency of appealing to the merchant's self-love rather than to his charity.

Criticisms of Smith as the one who turned political economy into "the science of egoism" or as the one who implied that greed is good are not warranted by his mention of self-love. Appealing to others' self-love is less egoistic than begging and generally more beneficial to society. Furthermore, a focus only on self-love versus benevolence misdirects our thoughts on the forces necessary for social cohesion, as a final quote from TMS will show.

In book 1, chapter 2 of the Wealth of Nations (WN), Adam Smith wrote what has become one of his most quoted passages:

   It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the
   baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own
   interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their
   self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of
   their advantages. (Smith 1776, 14)

This passage offends many because it seems to prefer selfishness to benevolence. The passage seems also to contradict the theme of sympathy as the basis for moral judgments in Smith's earlier text on moral philosophy, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS). Such apparent contradictions in Smith's views on human nature comprise the "Adam Smith Problem" (see David Collard 1978, Robert Heilbroner 1982, Glenn R. Morrow 1928, and Jeffrey Young 1997): How can ethically oriented ideas of sympathy and benevolence be reconciled with the pursuit of self-interest? (1)

Smith and the Commentators on Self-Love and Selfishness Versus Sympathy and Benevolence

What did Adam Smith mean when he used the words self-love, selfishness, sympathy, and benevolence? We can better understand by comparing Smith's use of terms to how commentators have understood these terms. Misunderstandings of his terms beget various misunderstandings of his ideas.

We can and will dismiss quickly those casual readings of WN that attribute to Smith the worst possible meaning of the passage: that he, for example, advocates outright selfishness in commercial exchange. Pure and immoral selfishness is not what Smith meant by self-love. Nor is his idea of sympathy purely other oriented or equivalent to benevolence (see TMS, 10-11, editors' note 1).

Defining Terms

Selfishness means to attend to one's own interests without regard to, or at the expense of, others. Self-interest and self-love, which Smith uses interchangeably at times, probably for variety of expression, mean attending to one's own interests but not necessarily at others' expense. (2) Adam West (1969, 95) notes that Smith, in TMS, viewed self-love in the context of Christ's admonition to "love your neighbor as your self" (see TMS, 25). …

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