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My Interview With Adam Smith


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#1 George H. Smith

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Posted 11 September 2011 - 12:46 AM

[I mentioned earlier that I have been experimenting with various formats for a future weekly blog that I will be writing. I am here posting an experiment that I decided I didn't want to use. This was a first draft that I wrote off the top of my head, so it tends to ramble from one point to the next.. Even so, some of you will find it interesting, so I didn't want to file it away among thousands of other files that contain other pieces that I decided not to publish over the years. I've made no attempt to proof this, so what you see is what you get. -- Ghs]

Ghs: My guest today is Dr. Adam Smith, who is best known for his masterpiece, The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, Dr. Smith died many years ago, but his spirit has remained with us, and I am honored that his spirit has agreed to this interview.

Dr. Smith, before we begin, may I assume that your spiritual self has remained current on everything -- that, for example, you know all about the modern libertarian movement, and so forth?

AS: Yes. You may assume that I know whatever you know.

Ghs: Good. I don’t detect any accent. What happened to it?

AS: I strongly recommend that we not explore any of the metaphysical intricacies of this interview, lest your readers begin to doubt that you are really interviewing me. Metaphysical investigations rarely yield useful knowledge. I will speak as you speak.

Ghs: Speaking of language, English was your second language. Correct?

AS: Yes, my native language was Scottish Gaelic.…..

Ghs: I have read that you were kidnapped at a young age by a band of gypsies, and then....

AS: Yes, yes – but, please, let’s skip these irrelevancies and proceed to more important matters. The incidentals of my childhood are unimportant.

Ghs Good idea. Let’s talk for a few minutes about the environment you grew up in. You were intellectually active at the peak of what is called the Scottish Enlightenment. There has been a lot of scholarly interest in recent decades about the Scottish Enlightenment. Even so, when most people hear the word “Enlightenment,” they think of the French Enlightenment and of names like Voltaire and Rousseau. Does this bother you?

AS: Of course not. Why should it? We regarded the Enlightenment as an international movement, and we were not jingoistic. We admired Voltaire, for example, for his heroic efforts to end torture. Some of us, such as Mr. Hume, even liked Rousseau, however much we disagreed with him. Unfortunately, Rousseau had some – how should I put this? – personal problems. He was hyper-sensitive to criticism, whether real or imagained. I assume you know how Mr. Hume attempted to help Rousseau, only to have Rousseau turn on him like a vicious dog.

Ghs You mentioned David Hume. I understand you were very good friends.

AS: Mr. Hume was one of my dearest friends. I very much appreciated the encouragment he kept giving me to complete the Wealth of Nations, even when he was close to death. He wrote to me once with a report of how much weight he was losing. He implored me to finish my book before he disappeared altogether.

Ghs: Did you disagree politically? I ask this because you were known as a whig, whereas Hume has frequently been called a tory.

AS: Political labels meant very little to us. The important thing was our common desire to advance the science of man, or what today you would call the social sciences. We Scots were pioneers in economics, sociology, social psychology (we regarded these as branches of moral philosophy), history…well, the list goes on and on, as you know.

In point of fact, Mr. Hume and I differed very little on political and economic matters. He wrote some brilliant essays on economics – or political economy, as we called it in those days, -- years before I published anything. I believe there were only nine altogether, but they contained some of the same arguments for free trade and against mercantilism that I wrote about in more detail later on. His attack on the balance of trade doctrine was brilliant and groundbreaking.

Today you think of Mr. Hume as a philosopher, but in his day he was best known as a historian. His multi-volume History of England was a best-seller and had an enormous influence. This is what he was known for among the general population.

Ghs: I recall that Thomas Jefferson claimed that Hume had distorted facts in order to whitewash the Stuarts, especially Charles I, who was executed in 1649. Jefferson went so far as to say that Hume’s History, because of its popularity, dealt an enormous blow to the cause of freedom.

AS: Mr. Hume had no interest in defending either Tories or Tory principles. He felt that previous histories had lacked balance and objectivity, and he wanted to write an impartial history. Previous Tory and Whig histories had locked horns on the legitimacy of the English civil wars during the 1640s. Whig historians painted a black and white picture in which the Parliamentarians were champions of freedom who opposed the absolutism of the Royalists. These historians typically failed to mention the intolerance of the Puritans who wanted to impose their religious beliefs on others and who, after the execution of the King, shut down theaters and enacted other repressive laws.

But what most upset Mr. Jefferson and other Whigs was the position Mr. Hume took on a controversy that will seem arcane to modern readers. He argued that English despotism did not begin with the Stuarts but in fact had a long provenance in English history. In his treatment of Queen Elizabeth, for example, Mr. Hume rebutted the Whig argument that Elizabeth had respected parliamentary rights and the ancient “Saxon” liberties of Englishmen. He argued that this was nonsense, that Elizabeth was as despotic as the Stuarts were, and that the Stuarts were merely a continuation of this tradition.

Ghs: Why was this argument so important?

AS: Because the ancient liberties of Englishmen played a crucial role in the Parliamentary justification for revolting against the King and eventually executing him. Whigs argued that the Stuarts represented a radical break from previous monarchs, or at least most of them, and that absolutism was therefore a dangerous innovation that needed to be crushed in its cradle. Mr. Hume claimed that Whig historians understated both the absolutism of the Tudors and overstated the absolutism of the Stuarts, because they wanted to present the Stuarts as tyrants who were attempting to overthrow the ancient British constitution. This is why they exaggerated the significance of the Magna Charta, which in fact only helped out the nobles and was never intended to apply more broadly.

Ghs: So why did the civil wars occur when they did?

AS: Mr. Hume gave a number of reasons, including the rise of the Puritans and other groups who would no longer tolerate traditional English practices. In short, the real innovations did not occur in the monarchy but in these malcontents.

Ghs: I recall reading something you said in your lectures at Glasgow University to the effect that serious historians no longer disputed Hume’s version of the reign of Elizabeth.

AS: Yes, and I said that early in my career. No one ever accused me of being a Tory, but because Mr. Hume was widely known for defending the same view, which was branded as Tory by many Whigs, he got stuck with the label. Yet, as I said before, we agreed on every major point in history, political theory, and economics.

Ghs: You mentioned the time you spent as a professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow. I understand that Scottish universities were regarded as the best in Europe at that time.

AS: Absolutely. We established, within a relatively short time, the best and most prestigious universities in Europe. People came from all over the world, including America, to attend them. They became far more respected than Oxford and Cambridge, as Edward Gibbon noted when he said the years he spent at Oxford were a waste of time. Mr. Gibbon quoted my argument that the tenured professors at Oxford had become fat and lazy, whereas in Scottish universities a professor was paid according to how many students attended his lectures. As I put it, a lecture that a student must be forced to attend is not worth giving in the first place. Our universities excelled because of their competitive structure.

Ghs: This is an amazing story that some of my readers may not be familiar with. What makes it so amazing is how quickly Scotland developed from what can only be described as a third world country to a great center of the Enlightenment in just a handful of decades. It was Edinburgh, not London, that was praised as a second Paris. How did all this happen so quickly?

AS: The single most significant particular cause in the rapid transformation of Scotland was the Act of Union in 1707. And the rapid progress of commerce that this made possible was the most influential general cause of our intellectual achievements.

Ghs: But the Act of Union stripped Scotland of its political independence. The parliament in Edinburgh was abolished, and though you were permitted some representation in the English Parliament, the number of representatives was too small to have much influence. Most Scots opposed the Act of Union, and with great passion, believing that it was designed by the English to further their own interests. Allegations abounded that the only reason the Act of Union was approved by your politicians was because of widespread bribery.

AS: All that you have said is true. The motives of the English government were purely self-interested. They cared nothing for us. You need only look at the murderous economic restrictions they had imposed on us earlier. We were not permitted to trade with any country but England, and we were told what we could and could not produce. Those and other mercantilist restrictions kept us in abject poverty. We could not progress because the English would not let us engage in commerce. When a famine hit Scotland in the late 1600s, it devastated our population. My countrymen starved by the thousands and tens of thousands, and dead bodies littered the streets. Even then the English would not permit us the freedom to produce and trade in a manner that served our interests instead of theirs.

So, yes, we lost the last vestige of our independence, and with it some our pride. But we got something of much greater value in return from the Act of Union: We got free trade. Most Scots did not foresee the long term benefits that unrestrained commerce would bring to Scotland, but those benefits were not long in coming.

The loss of our parliament actually proved beneficial as well, although these benefits were an unintended consequence. By stripping Edinburgh of its political power, the Act of Union hastened its development as a great commercial center. People now flocked to Edinburgh to make money, not to seek power or favors from politicians. A poverty stricken country cannot develop a vibrant intellectual culture and the institutions, such as universities, needed to promote that culture. These require the accumulation of capital and the leisure needed for intellectual pursuits. No one foresaw that these would be the long term effects of losing our independence – the English certainly didn’t strip us of our independence for altruistic reasons—but those were the effects nonetheless. I assume you have read the letter I wrote to Mr. Hume on this controversy.

Ghs: This historical background helps to explain why you were so determined to demolish mercantilist doctrines in the Wealth of Nations, and why you and so many of your countrymen were ardent defenders of free trade.
What I find especially fascinating about your account is the role you attribute to unintended consequences, which of course was a major theme in the Wealth of Nations. There you refer to it as the invisible hand, a process whereby people who pursue their own economic gain unintentionally benefit others. People usually think of the theory of unintended consequences as an economic theory, but you have obviously applied it to historical explanations as well.

AS: My invisible hand theory has often been misunderstood. It is not an explanation per se. Rather, it is a explanatory method, one that can be adapted and applied to any attempt to explain the effects of human actions. Are you aware that I also mention the “invisible hand” in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a book that I wrote many years before the Wealth of Nations?

Ghs: Yes As I recall, you mention it in a discussion of how the rise of commerce in England dramatically weakened the power of the feudal nobility and contributed to the creation of an independent middle class. You claim that nobles didn’t intend any of this to happen when they became obsessed with purchasing luxuries from abroad – trinkets and baubles, I think you call them; but in diverting their fortunes to purchase these status symbols, nobles could no longer afford to support hundreds of dependents and retainers, and therefore had to put them out to fend for themselves. You then go on to explain how former dependents, by going into various trades and branches of commerce, developed a “spirit of independence” that they previously lacked and thereby contributed to the transformation of English culture. And all this because of trinkets and baubles that appealed to the vanity of nobles.

AS: Exactly. A merchant or shopkeeper does not rely on the business of one customer alone, so he does not need to fawn over some worthless and spoiled noble brat. The merchant can tell the fellow to get lost, if wants to. But if that shopkeeper had been totally dependent on that one person, then he would need to learn the fine art of deference and groveling.

Ghs: In James Boswell’s celebrated biography, he tells the story how of Samuel Johnson got really angry at a lowly shoeblack who had the temerity to talk back to him. The shoeblack didn’t fear what Johnson might do in retaliation, because he had a lot of other customers. I think Johnson called the shoeblack’s behavior saucy and impertinent. Johnson goes on to blame the emergence of a commercial society for breaking down traditional class distinctions in England.

AS: I praised that new spirit of independence in the Wealth of Nations and elsewhere, as did most of my colleagues. We had had a bellyful of English arrogance. Most of the intellectuals who condemned the spirit of independence, which we regarded as essential to a free society, were English, not Scottish. By the way, James Boswell was a former student of mine.

Ghs: How did you and other Scottish intellectuals feel about the English. Did you get along?

AS: There were some conflicts certainly, but we were great admirers of English culture. Who could not admire a culture that had produced Bacon, Newton and, Locke? They were our intellectual heroes, and the Scottish Enlightenment would have been impossible without them. Most of us loved living in England, especially in London, and we sometimes called ourselves North Britons rather than Scots.

One problem was our Scottish brogue and other verbal mannerisms. If you were in London with that brogue, you were instantly recognizable as a Scot. And this functioned like a green light for even the lowest of the lowlifes in London to ridicule you with an air of superiority, and perhaps even to assault you. Your achievements and perhaps even your wealth counted for nothing. We were – and please excuse my language – the “niggers” of England.

The progress of Scotland had been swift, and there was considerable resentment after we had eclipsed England in intellectual achievements. As our middle class was moving up the social ladder, the English upper class was moving down. Many noble families had little left except a title, a sword, a crumbling castle they could not afford to maintain, and a bad attitude.

Some of us tried to learn to speak like good Englishman. As you may have heard, I had mixed success with my efforts. It became a source of some amusement among my students and friends to hear my unique blend of English and Scottish accents.

Mr. Hume refused to budge.. He always spoke with a heavy brogue, and he had no intention of changing anything. He once wrote to me and expressed his desire to settle in either London or Paris. He preferred the intellectual culture of London over that of Paris, but he said, in effect, that he wasn’t about to take shit from anyone for being a Scot. I wrote back to tell him that I understood, but that he shouldn’t be too hard on the English. They were a great people, and their irrational prejudices against the Scots could surely not last much longer....


[Adam Smith's spirit abruptly disappeared at this point, so I could not continue.]

#2 Dennis Hardin

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Posted 13 September 2011 - 01:34 AM

George,

Your interview reminds me of the old PBS series, Meeting of the Minds, in which Steve Allen apparently used the actual words and writings of his famous guests to write his scripts. Sandy Kenyon, a character actor (like Allen, now deceased) who did the voice of Jon Arbuckle in the animated series Here Comes Garfield, played Adam Smith.

Lots of fascinating history here—you bring out some nuances of both Smith and Hume that offset common preconceptions--and the interview format makes it a pleasure to read.

The author of The Wealth of Nations is usually thought of as an advocate of self-interest, but, ironically, based on what I have read, Smith seems to have been more of an altruist. Like other Enlightenment thinkers, he started with a conception of human nature. His idea of the "invisible hand"-- that part of our nature that leads us, without deliberate intention, to promote the interests of society-- was first mentioned (as he says in your interview) in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, so it is more than just an observation about the workings of society and economics. It is a kind of psychological principle. The Wealth of Nations was really a continuation of Moral Sentiments, in which the "invisible hand" is introduced as a by-product of the struggle between our selfish passions and our internal "impartial spectator" (or conscience).

Smith seems to have believed in a kind of duality of the human soul-- a mind-body dichotomy similar to Descartes-- an ongoing inner battle between our self-seeking passions and the self-regulatory function of reason. This inner conflict is theorized to work itself out in ways that promote social institutions that serve to mitigate our natural duality and promote "the common good." This duality would likely disqualify him from being a psychological egoist like Hobbes, since he obviously thought that non-egoistic factors were necessary to explain human motivation.

Like Hobbes, Smith seems to have largely identified the self-seeking aspects of human nature as something pernicious that human beings must harness through reason. In other words, he accepted the conventional view that true moral conduct requires the suppression of self-interest. But then again so did most thinkers of his day. And present day, too, for that matter.

Great stuff, and clever as hell. Thanks very much for posting this.

#3 George H. Smith

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Posted 13 September 2011 - 06:38 AM

Dennis,

Thanks for your comments.

No, Smith was not an altruist, nor would I call him an egoist. This dichotomy did not make much sense in the ethical context in which Smith was working. Smith believed that both self-regarding actions and other-regarding actions can be moral, if they are not carried to excess. The notion of a rational balance was essential to this way of thinking.

Smith did not offer the invisible hand as a justification for self-interested actions. The overall point of the Wealth of Nations was to show how a society based on nothing but the pursuit of economic gain could subsist and prosper, so long as the rules of justice were respected, even if no one ever acted with the intent of helping others. The point of the invisible hand argument was to show that the interests of people in a free society do not conflict, because everyone benefits in the long run from a free market. The purpose of the invisible hand argument was to show how this is possible, i.e., how I will benefit by allowing you the freedom to pursue your economic self-interest, and vice versa. In other words, it is in my interest to respect your rights.

This is far cry from maintaining, as you suggest was Smith's argument, that self-interested economic actions are justified only because they unintentionally benefit others. Smith never argued this, and this was never his point.

In the Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith elaborates on this point. He argues that the rules of justice (i.e., respecting the rights of others) constitute the essential foundation of a society. A society would disintegrate without justice, but it could survive without beneficence. Nevertheless, a society based solely on the pursuit of economic gain would not be the best possible society. The virtues of beneficence (which should not be confused with altruism) are the "ornaments" of a society, those features that make society a better place.

This is why Smith insisted that only the rules of justice should be subject to coercive laws, and that the virtues of beneficence should fall solely in the domain of voluntary choice and persuasion.

Smith did not agree with his teacher, Francis Hutcheson, that self-regarding actions have no moral worth. (Hutcheson, it should be noted, did not condemn self-interested actions; on the contrary, he thought they were absolutely essential. He just didn't think there is anything morally praiseworthy about preferring your own interests over the interests of others, since this is what we tend to do naturally.) Smith agreed with Bishop Butler, according to whom "cool self-love" was a crucial aspect of leading a good life and is therefore highly moral, so long as it does not degenerate into "selfishness," which was regarded as an exclusive regard for one's own interests to the point of having no respect for the rights of others.

You can find many condemnations of "selfishness" in the writings of 18th century British moralists, but you will search in vain for condemnations of "rational self-interest," which was widely praised. And their interest in the virtues of "beneficence" (or what was often called "benevolence" ) was not the same thing as "altruism," in Rand's sense.

In short, Smith and many others in his tradition viewed the distinction between egoism and altruism as too simplistic.

Ghs

#4 Merlin Jetton

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Posted 13 September 2011 - 07:10 AM

[snip]

You can find many condemnations of "selfishness" in the writings of 18th century British moralists, but you will search in vain for condemnations of "rational self-interest." And their interest in the virtues of "beneficence" (or what was often called "benevolence" ) was not the same thing as "altruism," in Rand's sense.

In short, Smith and many others in his tradition viewed the distinction between egoism and altruism as too simplistic.


What did they mean by "selfishness"? Examples?

I agree with Smith (link).

#5 George H. Smith

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Posted 13 September 2011 - 07:43 AM

[snip] You can find many condemnations of "selfishness" in the writings of 18th century British moralists, but you will search in vain for condemnations of "rational self-interest." And their interest in the virtues of "beneficence" (or what was often called "benevolence" ) was not the same thing as "altruism," in Rand's sense. In short, Smith and many others in his tradition viewed the distinction between egoism and altruism as too simplistic.

What did they mean by "selfishness"? Examples? I agree with Smith (link).


A "selfish" person would be a person who lies, cheats, steals, etc., in the belief that such actions, which show no regard for others, are in his self-interest. "Rational self-interest," in contrast, was regarded as pursuing one's own interests while treating other people as autonomous moral agents and respecting their rights.

It was widely argued that a "selfish" person will never be truly happy, so "selfishness" is actually detrimental to one's rational self-interest. In substance, this is quite similar to Rand's position, but she used "selfishness" in a positive sense, and this difference in terminology can generate a lot of confusion when Randians read earlier moral philosophy.

I have actually found a few cases where "selfish" is used to mean "rationally self-interested", but such cases are very rare.

There is another problem when we read the 18th century moral philosophers, namely, that they often focus on what we call today social psychology rather than on ethics per se. They are interested, for example, in how we acquire our sense of justice and other "moral sentiments," such as benevolence. This psychological focus led many of them to discuss the nature and importance of self-esteem -- some even used the expression -- and contrast legitimate self-esteem with vanity, false pride, and so forth. More than once I have found the argument that we must value ourselves before we can value others. I have even found interesting interpretations of the Christian maxim "Love your neighbor as yourself" to the effect that this demands a strong love of self as a precondition of loving others. 8-)

Ghs

Ghs

#6 Dennis Hardin

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Posted 13 September 2011 - 04:20 PM


Smith did not agree with his teacher, Francis Hutcheson, that self-regarding actions have no moral worth. (Hutcheson, it should be noted, did not condemn self-interested actions; on the contrary, he thought they were absolutely essential. He just didn't think there is anything morally praiseworthy about preferring your own interests over the interests of others, since this is what we tend to do naturally.) Smith agreed with Bishop Butler, according to whom "cool self-love" was a crucial aspect of leading a good life and is therefore highly moral, so long as it does not degenerate into "selfishness," which was regarded as an exclusive regard for one's own interests to the point of having no respect for the rights of others.

You can find many condemnations of "selfishness" in the writings of 18th century British moralists, but you will search in vain for condemnations of "rational self-interest," which was widely praised. And their interest in the virtues of "beneficence" (or what was often called "benevolence" ) was not the same thing as "altruism," in Rand's sense.

In short, Smith and many others in his tradition viewed the distinction between egoism and altruism as too simplistic.

Ghs


George,

I agree that rational balance was essential to Smith’s thinking. I’m not sure where we differ with respect to our understanding of the ‘invisible hand.’ More on that later.

You do seem to have an understanding of egoism very different from Objectivism.

The meaning of selfishness or egoism is that each man must be the direct beneficiary of his own actions. There can’t be a breach between actor and beneficiary without an injustice: the person earning the value through his actions is the person who must benefit, ethically speaking. Anything else is an injustice. This means that oneself should be the exclusive intended beneficiary (although not necessarily in terms of consequences).

There are only two choices with regard to the intentional beneficiary of one’s actions: self or others.

Everyone is not a third option. If you choose to make ‘everyone’ your moral beneficiary, you are placing yourself on an equal level with others—you are implying that others deserve to benefit from your actions as much as you do--so you are choosing the “others” option.

Egoism and altruism (i.e., living for the sake of others) are the only two choices, although obviously you could have varying degrees of consistency with each.

Of course, this does not mean that you cannot include those whom you value in your ethical choices. But they are included because they are of value to self—so you are still treating yourself as the exclusive beneficiary. In the case of love, one may literally value another person equally with oneself. With regard to friends and others in general, they can be of enormous selfish value as well. That’s why benevolence is properly one of the egoistic virtues.

#7 Ninth Doctor

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Posted 13 September 2011 - 04:40 PM

[Adam Smith's spirit abruptly disappeared at this point, so I could not continue.]


Maybe you can get Neil to teach you his mind meld method so you can have longer interviews. I just use the TARDIS, that way I can check out the contemporary scenery, but I don’t get the benefit of interviewing someone who knows all about subsequent history. I’ve mentioned on one or two threads that I have William of Ockham suspended in a time eddy just a few months before the plague got him in 1348. That hairy beast is always having me supply replacement cartridges for his razor. For those who are curious I can confirm that the beer in Munich had even more character back then.

Posted Image

No, Smith was not an altruist, nor would I call him an egoist. This dichotomy did not make much sense in the ethical context in which Smith was working. Smith believed that both self-regarding actions and other-regarding actions can be moral, if they are not carried to excess. The notion of a rational balance was essential to this way of thinking.


You mean Peter Schwartz misrepresents Adam Smith?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rn-NRr_cXuI

Unprecedented!
Prandium gratis non est

#8 George H. Smith

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Posted 13 September 2011 - 05:09 PM

You mean Peter Schwartz misrepresents Adam Smith?


This is unadulterated garbage, pure and simple. I would bet dollars to donuts that Schwartz has never actually read the Wealth of Nations, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Lectures on Jurisprudence, or anything else by Adam Smith. Nowhere in Smith will we find even a hint that self-interested actions are justified only if they benefit others. I defy anyone to produce a passage by Smith in which he says this.

One of Smith's principal concerns was to refute the mercantilist notion that voluntary trade, whether between individuals or nations, is a zero-sum game, i.e., a transaction in which one party can profit only at the expense of the other party. The major focus of his free trade arguments, including the invisible hand aspect, was to show how both parties in a voluntary exchange benefit, even if neither party intends to help the other. Voluntary exchange, in other words, is a positive sum game; and this is why (as I said before) it is in my self-interest to respect your right to pursue your own interests, even if you don't give a damn about me.

The invisible hand argument was also designed to keep government out of the economy by showing how the freedom for individuals to pursue their own economic interests will produce better results (greater wealth, etc.) than government intervention ever could -- even if no individual intends these social outcomes. Indeed, there is a scathing passage in WN in which Smith says that we should always be deeply suspicious of any merchant or manufacturer who claims to be acting for the public good. Such a person, Smith says, is almost certainly looking for special privileges from the government.

For these and other reasons, I have long regarded the Wealth of Nations as the single greatest work on freedom ever written, despite some problems here and there (e.g., the relatively minor exceptions that Smith made to laissez-faire). To see it butchered by the likes of Schwartz is a travesty. Have those people no shame?

Ghs

#9 George H. Smith

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Posted 13 September 2011 - 05:27 PM

Here is one of the most famous passages in the Wealth of Nations (from Chapter 2). I have added some italics for emphasis.


Two greyhounds, in running down the same hare, have sometimes the appearance of acting in some sort of concert. Each turns her towards his companion, or endeavours to intercept her when his companion turns her towards himself. This, however, is not the effect of any contract, but of the accidental concurrence of their passions in the same object at that particular time. Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog.*Nobody ever saw one animal by its gestures and natural cries signify to another, this is mine, that yours; I am willing to give this for that. When an animal wants to obtain something either of a man or of another animal, it has no other means of persuasion but to gain the favour of those whose service it requires. A puppy fawns upon its dam, and a spaniel endeavours by a thousand attractions to engage the attention of its master who is at dinner, when it wants to be fed by him. Man sometimes uses the same arts with his brethren, and when he has no other means of engaging them to act according to his inclinations, endeavours by every servile and fawning attention to obtain their good will. He has not time, however, to do this upon every occasion. In civilized society he stands at all times in need of the cooperation and assistance of great multitudes, while his whole life is scarce sufficient to gain the friendship of a few persons. In almost every other race of animals each individual, when it is grown up to maturity, is entirely independent, and in its natural state has occasion for the assistance of no other living creature. 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. 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. Nobody but a beggar chuses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens.


How anyone can detect altruism in this basic theme, which recurs through WN and all of Smith's writings, is a mystery to me.

Ghs

#10 Brant Gaede

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Posted 13 September 2011 - 05:44 PM

He got "He is dead," right.

--Brant
I'd be embarrassed to use that one-liner; my one-liners are much better

Rational Individualist, Rational self-interest, Individual Rights--limited government libertarian heavily influenced by Objectivism


#11 George H. Smith

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Posted 13 September 2011 - 07:05 PM

Smith did not agree with his teacher, Francis Hutcheson, that self-regarding actions have no moral worth. (Hutcheson, it should be noted, did not condemn self-interested actions; on the contrary, he thought they were absolutely essential. He just didn't think there is anything morally praiseworthy about preferring your own interests over the interests of others, since this is what we tend to do naturally.) Smith agreed with Bishop Butler, according to whom "cool self-love" was a crucial aspect of leading a good life and is therefore highly moral, so long as it does not degenerate into "selfishness," which was regarded as an exclusive regard for one's own interests to the point of having no respect for the rights of others. You can find many condemnations of "selfishness" in the writings of 18th century British moralists, but you will search in vain for condemnations of "rational self-interest," which was widely praised. And their interest in the virtues of "beneficence" (or what was often called "benevolence" ) was not the same thing as "altruism," in Rand's sense. In short, Smith and many others in his tradition viewed the distinction between egoism and altruism as too simplistic. Ghs

George, I agree that rational balance was essential to Smith’s thinking. I’m not sure where we differ with respect to our understanding of the ‘invisible hand.’ More on that later. You do seem to have an understanding of egoism very different from Objectivism. The meaning of selfishness or egoism is that each man must be the direct beneficiary of his own actions. There can’t be a breach between actor and beneficiary without an injustice: the person earning the value through his actions is the person who must benefit, ethically speaking. Anything else is an injustice. This means that oneself should be the exclusive intended beneficiary (although not necessarily in terms of consequences). There are only two choices with regard to the intentional beneficiary of one’s actions: self or others. Everyone is not a third option. If you choose to make ‘everyone’ your moral beneficiary, you are placing yourself on an equal level with others—you are implying that others deserve to benefit from your actions as much as you do--so you are choosing the “others” option. Egoism and altruism (i.e., living for the sake of others) are the only two choices, although obviously you could have varying degrees of consistency with each. Of course, this does not mean that you cannot include those whom you value in your ethical choices. But they are included because they are of value to self—so you are still treating yourself as the exclusive beneficiary. In the case of love, one may literally value another person equally with oneself. With regard to friends and others in general, they can be of enormous selfish value as well. That’s why benevolence is properly one of the egoistic virtues.


I don't have the text in front of me, but in the intro to VOS, I recall that Rand maintains that the beneficiary of an action is not a moral primary. Adam Smith would have agreed wholeheartedly.

Smith, like most of his contemporaries, maintained that the purpose of one's life is happiness, and that the specifics of a happy life will vary a good deal from person to person. We sometimes further our happiness by focusing on our own interests, and we sometimes further it by focusing on the interests of others. This is all highly contextual, according to Smith, and to insist that we should always have our own interests foremost in mind whenever we act would have seemed absurd to him.

No one in Smith's tradition advocated "altruism" in Rand's sense. On the contrary, many argued that the pursuit of one's own happiness is a moral duty. (The very expression, the pursuit of happiness, is found in a number of these writers, and Jefferson got it from them.) This approach is eudaemonistic but not necessarily egoistic in Rand's sense. They talked about the virtues of benevolence, not about self-sacrifice. They believed that man is naturally a "sociable" being who cannot attain happiness by living an isolated life. He requires interaction with others for a number of crucial reasons, such as what NB once called "visibility."

So are the virtues of benevolence ultimately self-interested? This was the source of considerable controversy at the time and led to endless discussions and debates about the psychological egoism of Hobbes and Mandeville. Mandeville, for example, argued that no one contributes to charity out of a true concern for others. Rather, they do so to feel better about themselves and to receive praise from others. Smith generally fell into the opposing camp, but he agreed with Hume that our circle of benevolence is quite limited. We do have a legitimate concern for our family and close friends, so we might be willing, when appropriate, to sacrifice our own immediate interests for their benefit, with no thought of how such actions might harm ourselves in the short run. But this sentiment of benevolence cannot possibly extend very far. I think it was Hume who said that a cut on our little finger will naturally be of more concern to us than a natural disaster in China that kills thousands. Thus the only obligation that we owe to the vast majority of humankind is justice, i.e., a respect for the equal rights of others.

A dedicated Randian altruism-hunter can always find passages in these writers that, when taken out of context, makes them seem like Randian villains. But I am not interested in this cut-and-paste method of doing intellectual history. Scottish philosophy had a huge influence on Jefferson, Madison, and other early Americans; and the Declaration of Independence, among other documents, testifies to this influence.

Ghs

#12 Brant Gaede

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Posted 13 September 2011 - 07:16 PM

The whole real point of the VOS is to disable the collectivists who use altruism to enslave people psychologically and politically and achieve freedom through the actual pursuit and embracement of happiness sans guilt.

--Brant

Rational Individualist, Rational self-interest, Individual Rights--limited government libertarian heavily influenced by Objectivism


#13 Brant Gaede

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Posted 13 September 2011 - 07:20 PM

A dedicated Randian altruism-hunter can always find passages in these writers that, when taken out of context, makes them seem like Randian villains. But I am not interested in this cut-and-paste method of doing intellectual history. Scottish philosophy had a huge influence on Jefferson, Madison, and other early Americans; and the Declaration of Independence, among other documents, testifies to this influence.

Ghs

Could these Scots have been like that--reactive--because of British historical oppression?

--Brant

Edited by Brant Gaede, 13 September 2011 - 07:22 PM.

Rational Individualist, Rational self-interest, Individual Rights--limited government libertarian heavily influenced by Objectivism


#14 George H. Smith

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Posted 13 September 2011 - 08:00 PM

Anyone who wishes to understand the idea of the 18th century British moralists, including those of Adam Smith, must first read and understand the arguments put forward by Bishop (Joseph) Butler in his Sermons, first published in 1726. Not every British moralist agreed with Butler in every particular, but they generally endorsed his fundamental ideas about the relationship between self-interest (or what he called self-love) and benevolence. I first read Butler during my college years, and I was extremely impressed by his arguments. I still am. I don't think anyone has ever written anything better on this subject.

Butler's analysis is very intricate and detailed : here I will only quote his overall conclusion:


[W]hoever will consider all the possible respects and relations which any particular affection can have to self-love and private interest, will, I think, see demonstrably that benevolence is not in any respect more at variance with self-love , than any other particular affection whatever, but that it is in every respect, at least, as friendly to it.

If the observation be true, it follows, that self-love and benevolence, virtue and interest, are not to be opposed, but only to be distinguished from each other; in the same way as virtue and any other particular affection, love of arts, suppose, are to be distinguished. Every thing is what it is, and not another thing. The goodness or badness of actions does not arise from hence, that the epithet, interested or disinterested, may be applied to them, any more than that any other indifferent epithet, suppose inquisitive or jealous, may or may not be applied to them; not from their being intended with present or future pleasure or pain; but from their being what they are; namely what becomes such creatures as we are, what the state of the case requires, or the contrary. Or in other words, we may judge and determine, that an action is morally goodor evil, before we so much as consider, whether it be interested or disinterested. This consideration no more comes in to determine whether an action be virtuous, than to determine whether it be resentful. Self-love in its due degree is as just and morally good, as any affection whatever. Benevolence towards particular persons may be to a degree of weakness, and so be blameable; and disinterestedness is so far from being in itself commendable, that the utmost possible depravity which we can in imagination conceive, is that of disinterested cruelty.
[Selby-Bigge, British Moralists, vol. i, pp. 193-4]


To summarize Butler's argument in Randian terms: Context is everything. 8-)

Ghs

#15 George H. Smith

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Posted 13 September 2011 - 08:20 PM

A dedicated Randian altruism-hunter can always find passages in these writers that, when taken out of context, makes them seem like Randian villains. But I am not interested in this cut-and-paste method of doing intellectual history. Scottish philosophy had a huge influence on Jefferson, Madison, and other early Americans; and the Declaration of Independence, among other documents, testifies to this influence.

Ghs

Could these Scots have been like that--reactive--because of British historical oppression?

--Brant


Enlightenment Scots who influenced American thinking, such as Francis Hutcheson, were essentially Lockeans who added some bells and whistles to Locke's theory. For example: Although Locke clearly had a notion of inalienable rights, he never uses the term. But Hutcheson does, and he explicitly uses the violation of inalienable rights as a bright line test for when revolution becomes justified -- which of course is what Jefferson says in the Declaration.

Can we explain this by past oppression?. Well, maybe, but not all the Scots were as radical as Hutcheson. Adam Smith, though he was a student of Hutcheson and an advocate of natural rights,, rejected the Lockean model of social contract for the same reasons voiced by Hume. Both thought that the social contract model made revolutions far too easy to justify, and so would encourage revolutions that would cause far more harm than good.

Smith was a conservative in this respect, but guess what? He agreed that revolutions were indeed justified when a government became so tyrannical as to tax one-third of a nation's wealth. This one-third test is found in a number of writers in that era; it was regarded as decisive because during the middle ages feudal overlords confiscated one third of the produce of serfs. Thus, for a modern government to tax at the rate of one-third would mean that its citizens had no more rights than lowly serfs. This was clearly intolerable, and any such government should be overthrown, by violence if necessary.

In lectures over the years, I have often emphasized the irony of the one-third test being the conservative whig position on revolution, in contrast to the arguments of those hot-heated Lockean radicals, who didn't even require this much before overthrowing a government.

I have said this many times, but I will say it again: Most modern libertarians, especially O'ists, have very little appreciation of how radical our intellectual forefathers truly were. To closelyy paraphrase the distinguished historian Robert Palmer about revolutionary Americans: One suspects that the cry "No taxation without representation" really meant "No taxation with representation, either." 8-)

Ghs

#16 Dennis Hardin

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Posted 14 September 2011 - 03:10 AM

The point of the invisible hand argument was to show that the interests of people in a free society do not conflict, because everyone benefits in the long run from a free market. The purpose of the invisible hand argument was to show how this is possible, i.e., how I will benefit by allowing you the freedom to pursue your economic self-interest, and vice versa. In other words, it is in my interest to respect your rights.

This is far cry from maintaining, as you suggest was Smith's argument, that self-interested economic actions are justified only because they unintentionally benefit others. Smith never argued this, and this was never his point.


I was not aware that I had made that argument. I was simply trying to make a connection between Smith’s views on the psychological (or internal) mechanics of human motivation and the external workings of the invisible hand. I don’t mean to argue that this causal connection was offered as a justification of anything.

There is the “impartial spectator”:

p. 135—“It is a stronger power, a more forcible motive, which exerts itself upon such occasions. It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct. . ."



And there is the impact of the “impartial spectator” on “self-seeking” behavior:

p. 187—“The rich. . .in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity. . . are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species…"



The whole idea of the “invisible hand” seemed to me to be derived from Smith’s discussion (in Moral Sentiments) of how the “impartial spectator” (i.e., conscience) within each person serves to mitigate self-seeking behavior. It is their capacity for rational self-regulation and sympathy that offsets the selfish passions, thus creating the duality of motivation that leads to the workings of the “invisible hand.”

A dedicated Randian altruism-hunter can always find passages in these writers that, when taken out of context, makes them seem like Randian villains. But I am not interested in this cut-and-paste method of doing intellectual history. Scottish philosophy had a huge influence on Jefferson, Madison, and other early Americans; and the Declaration of Independence, among other documents, testifies to this influence.


Since you included this in your response to me, I assume you believe this to be my approach. (I haven’t watched the Schwartz video, so I have no idea what his argument is.) In any case, my point is not to portray Smith as a “Randian villain,” but to clarify where I think he went wrong.


But this sentiment of benevolence cannot possibly extend very far. I think it was Hume who said that a cut on our little finger will naturally be of more concern to us than a natural disaster in China that kills thousands. Thus the only obligation that we owe to the vast majority of humankind is justice, i.e., a respect for the equal rights of others.


Have you read David Kelley’s Unrugged Individualism? He clearly demonstrates that benevolence and civility are crucially important to the achievement of a fulfilling, satisfying life. The reason one should be benevolent is not out of any sense of obligation to others, but out of an individual’s selfish obligation to his own best long term interests. Respecting the rights of others is a key political principle for a civilized society, but it isn’t going to add much emotional satisfaction to your life.

I don't have the text in front of me, but in the intro to VOS, I recall that Rand maintains that the beneficiary of an action is not a moral primary. Adam Smith would have agreed wholeheartedly.


Rand does say that the choice of beneficiary is not a moral primary because it has to be derived from the fundamental premises of a moral system. This does not make the issue unimportant, however. She also says that, in her egoistic system, man must be the beneficiary of his own moral actions. To the extent that Smith regarded “self-regarding” behavior as something that has to be balanced with “other-regarding” behavior, he was wrong. At the same time, I certainly do acknowledge that much of his thinking had a very positive influence on America’s Founders.

The point is: Is ethical egoism the proper moral foundation for capitalism? Obviously I think it is. And that’s why I’m defending it.

#17 George H. Smith

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Posted 14 September 2011 - 05:56 AM

Dennis,

A few brief remarks will need to suffice for now.

First, the purpose of conscience (the impartial spectator) for Adam Smith is not merely to moderate or restrain excessive selfishness. It functions as a check on all kinds of excessive behavior, such as excessive pity.

Second, I don't understand the connection you are attempting to make between Smith's notion of conscience and his invisible hand. They have no direct relationship to one another. There is no "duality of motives" involved here. The invisible hand is a method of explaining how self-interested behavior can benefit others in ways that were neither intended nor foreseen by the actor. For example, it explains how beneficial institutions, such as money, evolved over time without a designer.

Third, Smith leaves no doubt about the morality of rational self-interest. He affirms this again and again in clear and explicit language. For example, in TMS he writes: "The man of the most perfect virtue is he who commands...is he who joins, to the most perfect command of his own original and selfish feelings, the exquisite sensibility both to the original and sympathetic feelings of others." The latter part of this sentence refers to the fact that if you want to develop the social side of your nature, which Smith regarded as essential to happiness, you need to be aware of the sensibilities of other people.

This Stoic principle of "self-command" is the key to Smith's ethics, and this ability to keep one's passions under control is a function of conscience.

Fourth, you insist that "man must be the beneficiary of his own moral actions." Smith would say that man should act according to his nature in a manner that will further his own happiness. So what's the difference?

Randians have convinced themselves that if, say, a rational parent sacrifices his life for his child that this action is really egoistic, even though there is no longer a "self" to reap the benefits. I know the standard Randian routine here, so you don't need to repeat it, but Smith would simply call this an other-regarding action, because the immediate beneficiary is the child, not a parent who no longer exists. Both Rand and Smith would justify this"sacrifice" as an act of loyalty to one's values. So what if Smith didn''t regard such actions as "self interested"? The substance of his argument is the same as Rand's.

A lot of this is quibbling over words. Where Rand spoke of self-interest, many British moralists spoke of happiness. And where the British moralists would sometimes discuss other-regarding actions as an aspect of one's happiness, Rand would say that the same actions are not other-regarding at all, but ultimately self-regarding. Thus if we substitute "conducive to one's happiness" for "selfish" or "self-regarding," then there is no substantial disagreement here. For if an "other regarding" action did in fact contribute to my happiness, what possible objection could any Randian have to it? Would he insist that I remain purely "selfish," by his standards, even if this makes me miserable? I thought happiness was the ultimate goal here, not rigid rules that must be obeyed in the name of egoism.

As for Kelley's observations about benevolence, all he has done, in essence, is to summarize and use somewhat different words to explain the position taken by many 18th century moralists, Smith included. Those philosophers never regarded benevolent acts as somehow self-sacrificial. The thought never even occurred to them. Benevolent acts, for them, are essential to a good social life, which in turn is essential to one's happiness.

For example, is picking up a dinner check for one's friends a "selfish" act? Well, Smith would say no, that it is a benevolent act. It is an other-regarding act that, because of our sympathetic responses to others, enables us to share in their pleasure and thereby contributes to our own happiness. This subject of the "contagious" nature of social emotions is a major theme of TMS and a key to understanding why our benevolent acts contribute to our own happiness. Whether we call such benevolent acts "self-interested" is a matter of very minor importance.

Lastly, Smith would say that the proper moral foundation of capitalism is the right of every individual to pursue his interests as he sees fit, not some kind of moral obligation to make sure that all of his actions are self-interested, which is what you seem to think egoism entails. If your summary accurately characterizes Rand's position -- and I don't think it does -- then Smith was right and Rand was wrong. It is the right to pursue one own happiness in one's own way that is the crucial point, so far as capitalism is concerned.

Given the freedom to act, Smith thought that most people will naturally seek to maximinize their economic gain. And he thought this was terrific, so long as everyone respects the rules of justice by respecting the rights of others. To pursue one's own rational interests, for Smith, is both natural and morally right.

What more do you want?

Ghs

#18 Dennis Hardin

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Posted 16 September 2011 - 02:56 AM

George,

You make a lot of excellent observations here. And I certainly agree with the essence of your argument—if I understand you correctly—that the similarities between what you describe as Smith’s viewpoint and Rand’s viewpoint are much more important than the differences.

However, If you (or anyone else) think I summarized Rand’s position incorrectly, I would be very interested to know how. Obviously I will have to disagree with you on this point until and unless someone can show me where I am wrong.

Rights, of course, are a political concept, and are derived from ethical principles. Rand would say that rights, as a social principle, are a precondition of capitalism, but not a moral justification of capitalism. The notion that rights are a moral primary will, it seems, forever remain a major point of contention between libertarians and Objectivists—and the main reason (along with anarchism) that she was so critical of libertarianism as a political theory.

What more do I want? A stronger appreciation of the vital importance of philosophy and ethics to the defense of capitalism on the part of more libertarians.

And more discussions of this important issue that reflect the mutual respect of this one. My profound thanks to you for that.

Dennis

#19 Merlin Jetton

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Posted 16 September 2011 - 06:18 AM

...
Fourth, you insist that "man must be the beneficiary of his own moral actions." Smith would say that man should act according to his nature in a manner that will further his own happiness. So what's the difference?
...
For example, is picking up a dinner check for one's friends a "selfish" act? Well, Smith would say no, that it is a benevolent act. It is an other-regarding act that, because of our sympathetic responses to others, enables us to share in their pleasure and thereby contributes to our own happiness. This subject of the "contagious" nature of social emotions is a major theme of TMS and a key to understanding why our benevolent acts contribute to our own happiness. Whether we call such benevolent acts "self-interested" is a matter of very minor importance.

There is much play in the words in bold. If one man buys the groceries and prepares a meal for only himself, he is the beneficiary of his own moral actions. If one man buys the groceries and prepares a meal for himself and several others, he is again the beneficiary of his own moral actions. However, the several others are also beneficiaries. There is also a lot of play in the latter example. The other beneficiaries might be the man's kin, his personal friends, or his co-workers. The occasion with the friends or co-workers might be routine or it might be celebratory. To consider the multi-person examples as not "other-regarding" is absurd in my opinion.

#20 George H. Smith

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Posted 16 September 2011 - 08:51 AM

... Fourth, you insist that "man must be the beneficiary of his own moral actions." Smith would say that man should act according to his nature in a manner that will further his own happiness. So what's the difference? ... For example, is picking up a dinner check for one's friends a "selfish" act? Well, Smith would say no, that it is a benevolent act. It is an other-regarding act that, because of our sympathetic responses to others, enables us to share in their pleasure and thereby contributes to our own happiness. This subject of the "contagious" nature of social emotions is a major theme of TMS and a key to understanding why our benevolent acts contribute to our own happiness. Whether we call such benevolent acts "self-interested" is a matter of very minor importance.

There is much play in the words in bold. If one man buys the groceries and prepares a meal for only himself, he is the beneficiary of his own moral actions. If one man buys the groceries and prepares a meal for himself and several others, he is again the beneficiary of his own moral actions. However, the several others are also beneficiaries. There is also a lot of play in the latter example. The other beneficiaries might be the man's kin, his personal friends, or his co-workers. The occasion with the friends or co-workers might be routine or it might be celebratory. To consider the multi-person examples as not "other-regarding" is absurd in my opinion.


Here is the first line from Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments (pt 1, sec. 1):


How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.


This line, which introduces Smith's discussion of "sympathy" (or "empathy," as we might call it today), illustrates a point that I made earlier, namely, that Smith, while stating that the happiness of others may be "necessary" to our own happiness, regards our interest in those others a matter of benevolence, not of self-interest per se.

Smith classifies actions according to their motives. If our primary motive is to benefit ourselves, then the action is self-interested. If our primary motive is to benefit someone else, then the action is benevolent, or other regarding. If I help a friend, my primary motive is to help that friend, not to make make myself feel better, so this is a benevolent action. It does not follow, however, that my benevolent action conflicts with my self-interest; on the contrary, it may actually contribute to my happiness.

Ghs




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