Friday, November 13, 2009

Self-Interest is Not Selfishness

In a post I made on 10 November (see below), Greg Baldwin posted a comment. I would normally just reply to the comment. However, I consider the exchange of wider interest and importance, and to avert it being missed by those who do not search for the rare comments Lost Legacy receives, I post the exchange of comments for wider readership:

“Greg Baldwin said...

Thanks for the comment. Secretly I want to believe that self interest and selfishness can be neatly distinguished, but I'll confess quotes like this from our friend Mr. Smith have not helped me to find the clear distinction:

"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 self 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."

`Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations’

I'm not sure I fully understand everything Smith is trying to say here, but self-love + self interest do seem to be at least the basic ingredients for selfishness...no?

What am I missing?"

To which I replied:

Hi Greg

Thanks for your comment.

Many people quote the “Butcher, Brewer, Baker” example from Smith’s Wealth Of Nations (WN I.ii.2: 26-27) without appreciating exactly what he was saying. He advanced the same example in the 1762-3 lectures (23 March, 176: vi.46: 348) that he gave in Glasgow University (Smith, Lectures On Jurisprudence, Oxford University Press/Liberty Fund: 1978), hence it was an early part of his oeuvre long before he wrote Wealth Of Nations.

‘Self-interest’ and ‘self-love’ in 18th-century discourse did not mean selfishness and were clearly distinguished.

Bernard Mandeville (1724) celebrated selfishness as a virtue (as did Ayn Rand in the 20th century). Smith regarded Mandeville’s teachings as “licentious” (Moral Sentiments, 1759: TMS VII.ii.4: 306-14)).

Examine the quote: we expect our dinner “from their regard to their own self interest”. But there are two people in each transaction: the hungry would-be diner and the shopkeeper potentially supplying the meat, beer, or bread.

Smith excluded the virtuous motive of their “benevolence” as too weak to rely upon regularly (as common sense suggests it would be, except at the margin). So how is the transaction to be conducted?

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.”

We don’t talk of our necessities in the transaction but address “their self-love” - they are self-interested too! They have gone to the trouble of securing supplies of “meat, beer, and bread” and offering them for sale to potential customers.

The earlier transactions of the “butchers, brewers, and bakers” to secure their supplies (from farmers and those along the supply chain) involved multiple transactions on the same basis. All suppliers need access to freely bargained exchanges to supply their families with their needs from others.

In the sentences immediately preceding the ones you quote, Smith wrote:

But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of.”
(WN I.ii.2:26)

This is a clear description of the bargaining processes by which we obtain “those good offices which we stand in need of”.

Each party is self-interested in the outcome, but (and it is an important ‘but’) neither can obtain what they want without addressing what the other wants in voluntary exchange transactions. Two utterly selfish egoists would seldom, if ever, come to a voluntary agreement – neither would give up anything in place of demanding their price “or else”.

As Smith put it, in social converation we “persuade” to get what we want. Highlighting why something (what we offer to give) is good for someone is often a good place to start when seeking what we want to get.

That is the meaning of the paragraph from which you take the well-known quotation (in the process of which you elide from the 18th-century meaning of self-interest and self-love to a later meaning).

To read this as Smith advocating selfishness is quite different from the intended and explicit meaning of Smith's moral philosophy, as expressed in that paragraph.

And that Greg is the answer to you question: “What am I missing?”

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3 Comments:

Blogger JMJanssen said...

Extremely helpful towards a basic understanding of Smith's famous quote; thank you.

4:28 a.m.  
Blogger Rollo said...

“The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life, seems to arise from over-rating the difference between one permanent situation and another. Avarice over-rates the difference between poverty and riches: ambition, that between a private and a public station: vain-glory, that between obscurity and extensive reputation. The person under the influence of any of those extravagant passions, is not only miserable in his actual situation, but is often disposed to disturb the peace of society, in order to arrive at that which he so foolishly admires. The slightest observation, however, might satisfy him, that, in all the ordinary situations of human life, a well-disposed mind may be equally calm, equally cheerful, and equally contented. Some of those situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred to others: but none of them can deserve to be pursued with that passionate ardour which drives us to violate the rules either of prudence or of justice; or to corrupt the future tranquillity of our minds, either by shame from the remembrance of our own folly, or by remorse from the horror of our own injustice.”
- ― Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments

It has been said before that a leopard seldom changes his spots. Smith's comment in The Wealth of Nations might not directly speak of what he thought on the subject but his other work most blatantly does.

Self-interest and selfishness are different ideas and that's probably why Smith used different words to describe them.
That's still not to suggest that Smith didn't think that selfishness wasn't a very real problem.

7:33 p.m.  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Hi Rollo
Thanks for your comment, which I received on 6 March, 2012. I wonder why get comments for past years when Lost Legacy continues at: www.adamsmithslostlegacy.blogspot.com in 2012. Are you using an earlier address that was changed by Blogger for some reason?

Anyway, of course selfishness is a problem and Smith recognised the nature of the problem, which is why he described Mandeville's praise of selfishness as "licentious", and we can also use that term to describe Ayn Rand's "The Virtue of Selfishness".

I posted on this subject only yesterday (7 March 2012) - follow the above link.

Gavin

1:52 p.m.  

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