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.

Leave a comment ?


  1. First of all, people who dedicate themselves to full-time benevolence probably never were or could have been self-interested shopkeepers. Some people seem to be born with more empathy or more generosity than others. And some people are born just plain selfish. However, for those for us in-between Donald Trump and Buddha, role-models seem important. Now, why does John choose the compassionate Buddha as his role model and why does Tom choose Mr. Trump? Chance may play a role in that or personality factors. Chance is often under-rated as a explanation of how values are formed: it was chance or the school bureaucracy that led you to a secondary school teacher who influenced your values. Finally, the existence of groups able to channel one’s compassionate or benevolent urges, especially if those groups involve one’s peers or those who one perceives as one’s peers or potential peers.

  2. What is wrong with selfish egoism? It is selfish egoism that keeps millions of people employed and allows them the ability to live a life of their choosing. While these values are influenced the stimuli in our environments it is ourselves who must retain ultimate responsibility for the formulation of our creeds.

    Those who choose to be selfless are those who have been condition to believe that the love of self is immoral when in fact it is the highest possible moral value. Individuals would be much happier and satisfied with their lives if they were taught not to be ashamed to hold your well-being above all others. This comes with the caveat that they must also be taught that their rights are only morally justified when they do not impinge upon the rights of others.

  3. Interesting topic. One of the things I have learned from my reading in Concentration Camp literature is that what a person really is comes out in bad situations. Goodness and leadership arise in the most unlikely people and the erstwhile pillars of the community snap like dry twigs.

    To combat the cynicism of the market ideology may I suggest a book by the Brazilian green activist Rabbi Hilton Bonder – The Kabbalah of Money Shambala. Sections include – ‘Prices and Profit’, ‘The Search for a Real Price’, ‘Competition’.

    ‘Tzedekah’ is the core concept, practice and technique. It’s complex but unless you have a grasp of it before the bad times come you’re a pre-basted turkey. Enjoy it by the way.

  4. John- People might be happier if that is the case, but that doesn’t mean its necessarily the right thing to do. And anyways, most evidence points to quite the opposite, that people who are self-interested are typically less happy than those who are not (the paradox of hedonism),

    Finally, I think there are serious flaws with egoism (and I’ve given it some serious thought… I called my self an egoist for most of my undergrad career). In particular common goods, or shared resources are very difficult to deal with in a world of just egoists. Everyone’s self interest is to exploit the resource, at the detriment of everyone, and themselves. To say that they should take collective interests into consideration is just to make egoism into utilitarianism.

  5. I wonder what Smith really meant? How do I “address myself” to a shopkeeper’s “self-love” in in a butcher’s or grocer’s shop? When I pay for the goods I guess. All the same, to get that far, I have to acknowledge him as a person in the shop, act so that I don’t look like I’m stealing etc. And is there not an element of benevolence on his part in getting up in the morning as expected, running the business instead of relying on the poor rates (as Smith would have put it, our DSS)? Perhaps the shop scenario is more complex than Smith gives it credit for.

    Obviously that doesn’t answer you question. Sorry.

  6. Yuen:

    Perhaps the selfishness that you speak of is not the selfishness to which I am referring. Selfishness is the serving of what one values and not what he or she does not value which allows that person to rationally seek their own happiness at the expense of no one but themselves. In no way can an egoist who is truly selfish in that sense really be unhappy because they are seeking happiness on their own terms without violating the rights of others to seek their own happiness.

    In reference to a common goods or collective resources, I do not agree that such things should exist. For example, an oil field that is owned by a company or individual is neither a common good nor collective resource, it is the property of an individual who is well within their rights in seeking their happiness. As for the baker, he should be baking only because that is the way he has chosen to live his life and make his money, not because he wants to selflessly provide a service to those who need bread. If he wants to provide free bread that is well within his right but he will not be able to do so for very long.

  7. It is said that a version of egoism, if not yours John Berry than the sort of thing driving the people in the first quotation, more than partly got us into the mess we’re in. There are at least some people ululating the death of capitalism here in London — arguing that self-interest, greed, leads only to this sort of thing in time.

    I know it’s not that simple, but it is at least weird that we are creatures capable of awe-inspiring levels of both greed and selflessness. While thinking a bit about the explanation of greed, I found myself concluding that ‘it’s human nature to want a lot’, but, annoyingly, it’s human nature to be selfless too. Smith, anyway, has me wondering what drives each aspect of us, what makes morality sometimes override greed, and of course what makes greed override our moral impulses.

    Maybe there’s no single thing under all of this to support the question, but I do wonder anyway.

  8. John- Well when I was thinking of collective resources, I was thinking of things like the ocean and the air and such. I have every good reason, because its in my interest to exploit these resources. It doesn’t really matter if I throw garbage in the ocean…. but if everyone did it, because its everyone’s individual interest to throw garbage into the ocean, then nobody would benefit from the ocean.

    Being true to your values is fine… But if thats what egoism is then its an odd kind of egoism. Because if I value making others happy, then that kinda goes against whats traditionally called egoism. I think what you’re describing is something closer to being an authentic individual… And even then, its not entirely clear whether we’ll be happy as authentic individuals. Kierkegaard says that being authentic necessarily entails a kind of angst and discomfort, as does Sartre.

  9. Michael: Hannah Arendt notes that among non-Jewish Germans their reaction to the treatment of the Jews during Nazism had no relation to their previous moral postures. Pillars of the community, to use your phrase, stood by passively, while less respectable and respected individuals saved Jewish lives. Eichmann, the man who always did what the legal authorities told him to do, sent millions of people to their death, while Schindler, a swindler, opportunist and womanizer, saved hundreds of lives. By the way, at his trial Eichmann claimed to have been a follower of Kant in the sense of placing duty above self-interest. Schindler was an innate free-rider.

  10. I do not see the problem really, in the simplest terms how has society always operated? The Strong stands on the backs of the Weak; “You show self-restrained benevolence and never talk to them of our necessities but of their advantages” in turn you are rewarded by some from of promotion for competency and cooperation (hence you are more strong than weak) to a degree you are now allowed to impose your ego on the weak; but still answer to a higher force. Even as a CEO or to an Emperor you are still accountable to natural forces or elements that are outside of your direct control; regardless if it’s natural economic conditions or your human boss. Competency and cooperation are rewarded. If those in power become so consumed with ego and starve the people into submission then odds are a revolt may occur (History points this out) But if people are to kind and giving then they may place themselves to be take advantage of more easily (a feeding ground of the selfish) Nature continues to play a role on human behavior to achieve a form of balance time and time again, Adam Smith’s point I think is stating that you cannot change human nature and systems created to alter our natural behavior will never work. An example is the American Constitution; it a system of containing power, it never claims to eliminate evil or the immoral, just to keep it from attaining absolution.

  11. Talking Philosophy | Mad men and Hippies - pingback on November 17, 2011 at 10:35 am

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