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Adam Smith and the Human Impossibility of Benevolence

Those who plunged the entire world into our current economic difficulties have no right to claim Adam Smith, the so-called “father” of capitalism in eighteenth-century Scotland, as their intellectual and moral father, or so I have argued in three previous columns.

The second column outlined three reservations about Milton Friedman’s claim that the sole ethical responsibility of managers is to make as much money as possible for those who owners of businesses, with all restraints to the pursuit of profits mandated by external authorities. The most important inadequacy of such thinking is that it rests upon an account of human nature that is too individualistic, as even Republican columnist David Brooks acknowledges. I think Scripture would agree.

The third column pointed out that Smith explicitly distinguished self-interest and selfishness, condoning the first and condemning the second. Contrary to what many apparently believe, he did not teach that “Greed is good.”

Our next step is to acknowledge that Adam Smith sometimes wrote that benevolence is impossible for human beings and that this is partly why some people understand him differently than I do. Here is one such passage from The Theory of Moral Sentiments:1

Benevolence may, perhaps, be the sole principle of action in the Deity, and there are several, not improbable, arguments which tend to persuade us that it is so. It is not easy to conceive what other motive an independent and all-perfect Being, who stands in need of nothing external, and whose happiness is complete in himself, can act from. But whatever may be the case with the Deity, so imperfect a creature as man, the support of whose existence requires so many things external to him, must often act from many other motives. The condition of human nature were peculiarly hard, if those affections, which, by the very nature of our being, ought frequently to influence our conduct, could upon no occasion appear virtuous, or deserve esteem and commendation from any body.2

These lines do not necessarily mean that Smith believed in God. Also, we don’t have to agree that God “needs nothing else,” a determination that depends upon what we mean by the key terms.

Smith’s claim is that only this kind of God, a deity who is absolutely and completely self-contained, could possibly be benevolent. For those of us who are human beings, this is impossible because we have a necessary interest in how others can benefit us.

This makes sense when we remember that in these lines Smith is disagreeing with what he took his mentor, Francis Hutcheson, sometimes to be saying. This is that benevolence consists in total disregard of one’s own needs and exclusive devotion to the needs of others. Smith holds that this account of benevolence is fine if you are the kind of God he describes, but not if you aren’t.

Here is one of Smith’s summaries of what Hutcheson taught. It, too, is from The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

Dr. Hutcheson was so far from allowing self-love to be in any case a motive of virtuous actions, that even a regard to the pleasure of self-approbation, to the comfortable applause of our own consciences, according to him, diminished the merit of a benevolent action. This was a selfish motive, he thought, which, so far as it contributed to any action, demonstrated the weakness of that pure and disinterested benevolence which could alone stamp upon the conduct of man the character of virtue. In the common judgments of mankind, however, this regard to the approbation of our own minds is so far from being considered as what can in any respect diminish the virtue of any action, that it is rather looked upon as the sole motive which deserves the appellation of virtuous.3

I suggest that Smith condemned selfishness for being too self-interested and benevolence for not being enough. Another way to put this is that for Smith self-interest and beneficence are opposite sides of the same authentic coin but that selfishness and benevolence are contrary counterfeits.

That this is a plausible account of what he says is evident in one of Smith’s most famous lines from The Wealth of Nations, and the rarely quoted sentences that immediately precede it:

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.4

Because our motives are always some mixture of what we call altruism and egoism, and they should be, it is not our moral responsibility to choose one or the other; it is to integrate them in the best possible way on a case-by-case basis. Had all our business leaders kept this in mind, I doubt that we would be in the fix we’re now in!

“The Disappearance of Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand” is the title for the next column in this series.

Notes and References

1. Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 6th ed. (London: A. Miller, 1790) This and other pertinent books are available on the Internet at the 2. Ibid., VII. II. 89.

3. Ibid., VII. II. 84.

4. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into The Wealth of Nations, Edwin Cannan, ed. ( London: Methuen, 1776), I.2.2. Emphasis supplied.

David Larson teaches in the School of Religion at Loma Linda University.

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