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Adam Smith and Self-Command

Posted By Russ Roberts On December 30, 2004 @ 11:51 am In Charity | Comments Disabled

Most people assume that Adam Smith was a passionate defender of selfishness.  But Sam Fleischacker notes that Smith

rejects the notion that human
beings are thoroughly selfish, put about by Hobbes and Mandeville. But
for the same reason he rejects the idea that human beings ever were or
ever will be capable of the passionate altruism or patriotism on which
utopian thinkers pinned their hopes (Thomas More before Smith;
Rousseauvians in his time; Marxists later on).

The ultimate virtue for Smith, Fleischacker argues was self-command, the ability to get beyond one’s narrow self-interest:

The foundation of all virtue for Smith is "self-command," the
ability to control our feelings, to restrain our passion for our own
interests and to enhance our feelings for others. But we achieve
self-command only after the disapproval of others has led us to develop
a habit of dampening our self-love. The first great "school of
self-command," says Smith, is the company of our playfellows, who
refuse to indulge us the way our parents do; when we are adult, the
major arena in which we need constantly to attend to the interests of
others, and restrain our self-absorption, is the market. When I try to
strike a bargain with someone else, and especially when I try to hold
down a regular job, I need to try to meet other people’s needs instead
of just bleating about my own:

 

[M]an 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 favor, and shew 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…. 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. (WN
I.ii.2; 26-27. Online: par. I.2.2 [1].)

Fleischacker goes on to point out that we often misread the famous Smith quote about the butcher and the baker:

 

The point of these famous lines is not that my butcher and baker are self-interested but that I
know how to "address" that self-interest, that I know how to "shew them
that it is for their own advantage" to do something that will help me.
But my ability to address their interests takes me beyond myself,
whatever it does to them; I must go beyond my own self-love in order to
enlist theirs in my aid. And it is that ability to restrain our own
self-love, and understand and further the interests of others, Smith
says, that distinguishes human beings from other animals. So
participation in the market fosters human character, helps us develop a
trait crucial to our ability to be courageous, kind, or in any other
way virtuous.

The whole of Fleischacker’s essay is here [2].

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[1] par. I.2.2: http://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smWN1.html#B.I,%20Ch.2,%20Of%20the%20Principle%20which%20gives%20Occasion%20to%20the%20Division%20of%20Labour,%20constant%20occasion

[2] here: http://www.econlib.org/library/Columns/y2004/FleischackerSmith.html

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