Ethics Stimulus Package

Brace yourself for a double dose of Adam Smith:

‘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 necessities but of their advantages’

‘To feel much for others and little for ourselves; to restrain our selfishness and exercise our benevolent affections, constitute the perfection of human nature.’

He’s right on both counts, isn’t he?  In our business dealings we really do operate with not much more than our own interest in mind.  But that’s not all there is to us.  Even Adam Smith knows that.  When we get things right, when we near perfection, we’re feeling for others, ignoring or restraining ourselves, and acting out of concern for someone else.

Moral considerations kick in for their own reasons — what really gets them going is anybody’s guess.  (What moves us to see that the reasons which were there all along are suddenly not just good reasons, but the motivation for morally right action?)  Our governments are doing a lot to fix what’s gone wrong with our world, but I don’t think they can pour money into the categorical imperative or make our hedonistic calculations easier by adjusting interest rates.  I keep thinking, too, that we’ll do something ourselves if things get bad enough.  When times are really awful, human beings can, sometimes, gestalt shift themselves into selfless creatures.  Maybe you’ve seen it or done it yourself.  I just wonder what makes us do it, what tips us over from self-interested shopkeepers to manifestations of self-restrained benevolence.

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