Adam Smith would seem to agree with this. After all, in the index of The Wealth of Nations, self-love is identified as "the governing principle in the intercourse of human society" (Liberty Fund edition, 1069). And the reference for this is the famous passage about how we persuade the butcher, the brewer, and the baker to provide us our dinner:
"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 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. 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 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 advantage. Nobody but a beggar chuses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow citizens" (26-27).Smith's language here echoes the language in some passages of Bernard Mandeville's Fable of the Bees, or Private Vices, Public Benefits (Liberty Fund edition, 2:349-50). Mandeville's book was one of the most scandalous books of the 18th century because of his famous claim conveyed in the subtitle that private vices are public benefits. If we define virtue as self-denial in acting contrary to all of one's natural passions or desires, and thus denying one's selfish interests in serving the good of others as dictated by pure reason, then human beings are almost never virtuous, because they generally act out of self-love to satisfy their selfish passions and desires. They are social animals who need the cooperation of others and who crave the praise and recognition of others to satisfy their selfish vanity. For this reason, they will not deny their passions, but they will conceal them in order to appear to be virtuous.
A civilized society of wealth and refinement would be impossible if most human beings were really virtuous, because in living a life of ascetic self-denial, they would never generate the luxury and grandeur that is achieved in commercial societies where everyone actively pursues the wealth and honor that will gratify their selfish desires. And thus it is that our private vices are turned into public benefits.
Many readers of Smith's Wealth of Nations have seen it as adopting Mandeville's argument for how a commercial society generates all the economic, social, and intellectual benefits of a free market society where everyone is motivated by self-love. Much of the modern economic theory of capitalism has been based on the assumption that human beings can be seen as selfish egoists whose selfishness can be channeled through free market exchange to generate gains from trade that benefit everyone.
But in recent decades, many social scientists have challenged this conception of Homo economicus as too narrow to explain the full range of human motivation, which must include truly other-regarding behavior as well as purely self-regarding behavior. And many of these social scientists have turned to Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments as presenting the moral psychology of Homo moralis--of human beings as moved by moral concerns for the good of others that go beyond self-interest.
Smith's rejection of Mandeville's argument is announced in the very first sentence of The Theory of Moral Sentiments: "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" (9).
This first sentence seems to begin in the middle of a conversation. Apparently, some people--such as Hobbes or Mandeville--have argued for the natural selfishness of human beings. Smith is responding by suggesting that even if we agree with this, we should see that there are other principles in human nature that interest a man in the happiness of others. He goes on to identify pity or compassion as obvious examples of those "original passions of human nature" by which we enter into the pleasure or pain of others. "As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation." We do this through imagination in projecting ourselves into their situations. This supports our experience of "sympathy," which Smith defines broadly as "our fellow-feeling with any passion whatever" (10).
We have a natural desire for the pleasure of mutual sympathy. Nothing pleases us more than to see that others sympathize with our emotions, and nothing disturbs us more than the sense that others cannot share our emotions. Smith anticipates that those like Hobbes and Mandeville will try to explain this as an expression of self-love.
"Those who are fond of deducing all our sentiments from certain refinements of self-love, think themselves at no loss to account, according to their own principles, both for this pleasure and this pain. Man, say they, conscious of his own weakness, and of the need which he has for the assistance of others, rejoices whenever he observes that they adopt his own passions, because he is then assured of that assistance; and grieves whenever he observes the contrary, because he is then assured of their opposition. But both the pleasure and the pain are always felt so instantaneously, and often upon frivolous occasions, that it seems evident that neither of them can be derived from any such self-interested consideration. A man is mortified when, after having endeavoured to divert the company, he looks round and sees that nobody laughs at his jests but himself. On the contrary, the mirth of the company is highly agreeable to him, and he regards this correspondence of their sentiments with his own as the greatest applause" (13-14).Here we see Smith's common method of reasoning, in which he appeals to some ordinary human experience--such as the pain we feel when those around us don't laugh at our jokes--to confirm a general claim about human nature. He indicates that this shows a concern for how others see us that cannot be explained as self-interested. But Hobbes and Mandeville would point to the desire for applause as showing the vanity of the comic entertainer.
This desire for the pleasure of mutual sympathy is seen by Smith as the fundamental motivation for morality. In praising or blaming one another, indicating whether we can or cannot share one another's emotions, we create social norms of good and bad conduct. We judge our conduct by whether it is approved or disapproved by those around us. We discover that those spectators are sometimes mistaken in their judgments if they are uninformed, misinformed, or biased. But then we can imagine how a fully informed and impartial spectator would judge us, and we can then internalize that imaginary impartial spectator as our conscience. That conscience can then give us the social approbation that we seek--as self-approbation--even when those in our social circle fail to give us the approbation that we deserve.
We must wonder, however, whether this really refutes Mandeville's position. Some of Smith's readers during his lifetime--such as Thomas Reid--said that his "system of sympathy" was "only a refinement of the selfish system" of Mandeville.
In the last part of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith has a chapter on Mandeville entitled "Of licentious Systems" (VII.ii.4.4, pp. 306-314). He declares that Mandeville's ideas are "wholly pernicious" and "in almost every respect erroneous," although "there are, however, some appearances in human nature, which, when viewed in a certain manner, seem at first sight to favour them" (308). We might suspect, then, that there is at least some partial truth to what Mandeville says.
Smith responds to Mandeville with two claims. First, he claims that Mandeville's argument that all appearance of praiseworthy conduct is actually motivated by vanity fails to distinguish two higher levels of passion that go beyond vanity. Second, he claims that Mandeville deceptively assumes that all virtue requires complete self-denial and ascetic repression of all our natural passions, which obscures the idea that virtue requires not the denial of the passions but their moderation.
Vanity is the passion or desire for praise even when we do not deserve it, Smith explains, and that passion or desire is rightly despised. But this is different from the passion or desire for acquiring praise by really deserving it. And this is different from the passion or desire for rendering ourselves praiseworthy without any regard for whether we are in fact praised by others. The second is the love of true glory. The third is the love of virtue. Vanity is rightly blamed. But the love of true glory and the love of virtue are rightly praised.
The lover of true glory is like the vain man in that both desire to be praised. But unlike the vain man, the lover of true glory desires to be praised because he really is praiseworthy, and thus he is morally superior to the vain man.
The lover of virtue is like the lover of true glory in that they both deserve to be praised. But unlike the lover of true glory, the lover of virtue cares not whether he is actually praised by anyone, because he cares only to deserve praise. "The man who acts solely from a regard to what is right and fit to be done, from a regard to what is the proper object of esteem and approbation, though these sentiments should never be bestowed upon him, acts from the most sublime and godlike motive which human nature is even capable of conceiving" (311).
The lover of virtue has a happiness from his own self-approbation that makes him independent of fortune and of the opinions of those around him. He cannot be mortified by the foolish opinions of those who do not recognize his virtue. As a man of real magnanimity he cannot be disturbed by undeserved blame. And yet Smith admits that this is rarely achieved: "It seldom happens, however, that human nature arrives at this degree of firmness" (311).
Mandeville has a response to this claim that the lover of virtue is morally superior to the vain man. He recognizes that some people perform good deeds in silence and out of public view, because they love doing what is praiseworthy for its own sake, regardless of whether they are actually praised. Mandeville observes:
"Such Men, I confess, have acquir'd more refin'd Notions of Virtue than those I have hitherto spoke of; yet even in these (with which the World has yet never swarm'd) we may discover no small Symptoms of Pride, and the humblest Man alive must confess, that the Reward of a Virtuous Action, which is the Satisfaction that ensues upon it, consists in a certain pleasure he procures to himself by Contemplating on his own Worth: Which Pleasure, together with the Occasion of it, are as certain Signs of Pride, as looking Pale and Trembling at any imminent Danger, are the Symptoms of Fear" (1:57).The lover of virtue, who understands virtue as character that is praiseworthy, is proud in praising himself, and thus satisfying his passion or desire for approbation, even if it's only his own self-approbation. Such pride expresses self-love, and therefore it cannot be virtue in the traditional Christian sense of self-denial.
Smith objects to Mandeville's appeal to Christian virtue. In every case, Mandeville pretends that human nature "falls short of that complete self-denial which it pretends to, and, instead of a conquest, is commonly no more that a concealed indulgence of our passions" (312). "Some popular ascetic doctrines which had been current before his time, and which placed virtue in the entire extirpation and annihilation of all of our passions, were the real foundation of this licentious system" (313).
Some commentators on Mandeville--such as F. B. Kaye, the editor of the edition of The Fable of the Bees published by Liberty Fund--see his book as a satirical reductio ad absurdum that refutes traditional Christian and rationalistic conceptions of virtue that require complete self-denial by showing how contrary they are to our natural moral experience.
In contrast to the ascetic Christian virtues of self-denial, which almost no human beings really follow, Mandeville sees that most human beings in civilized societies follow the "doctrine of good manners," according to which human pride motivates people to conceal their pride in pretending to care more about others than about themselves (2:66, 2:109, 2:145-56). Most human beings care about appearing to be good in conforming to public standards of good conduct because they are afraid of being shamed by the public exposure of their vices. Men of honor are even more careful about appearing to conform to the highest standards of conduct by showing the most praiseworthy character and achievements.
Men of honor will pretend to be religious believers, because disbelief is shameful, but they cannot be "real believers" (1:269, 1:308; 2:97, 2:102). Moreover, Mandeville suggests, "men of reflection" are prone to infidelity (2:313-317). Although Smith uses religious language, especially in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, his friendship with David Hume brought him under the suspicion of atheism.
Ryan Hanley--in his book Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue--argues that far from rejecting Christian virtue, however, Smith embraces it as the highest human excellence. Hanley sees the love of praise as governed by the commercial virtue of prudence, the love of true glory as governed by the classical virtue of magnanimity, and the love of virtue expressed in beneficence as the Christian virtue.
For the highest level of virtue, we need religion, Hanley argues, because "religion provides the longing for self-transcendence with an object and is thus an important ally in efforts to overcome self-preference" (143-44). This claim that Smith is looking for a Christian virtue that provides "self-transcendence" is confusing, however. Hanley generally presents Smith as showing a "continuum of self-love" (98) moving from the lowest form of self-love (vanity) to the higher form (love of true glory) to the highest form (love of virtue). Hanley speaks of the "elevated form of self-love" (147), "noble self-love" (151), or "refined self-love" (156). But this suggests that there has not been any complete transcendence of self-love, because even the most refined form of self-love is still self-love.
This suggests to me that Smith is implicitly drawing on the ancient Aristotelian teaching that the good man loves himself and loves his friends as reflections of himself (Nicomachean Ethics, 1168a29-1170b20). If so, then Smith is rejecting the Christian teaching of virtue as self-denial and affirming the virtue rooted in self-love that is taught by Mandeville.
Smith sees the peak of human excellence in the "wise and virtuous man," and Smith does use some religious language in describing this man's grasp of "divine perfection." But this religious language could be explained as a rhetorical gesture by Smith that is necessary to protect himself against the charge of infidelity or atheism.
The only time that Smith identifies anyone in particular as a "wise and virtuous man" is when he identifies Hume as approximating the "perfectly wise and virtuous man" as closely as any human being could. This remark concluded his letter about Hume's calm facing of his own death, a letter that provoked a storm of bitter condemnation from Christians. In a letter to Alexander Wedderburn, Smith described Hume as dying "with great cheerfulness and good humour and with more real resignation to the necessary course of things, than any Whining Christian ever dyed with pretended resignation to the will of God" (Correspondence, 203). Hanley notices this identification of Hume as the "wise and virtuous man," but Hanley is silent about Smith's implication in this that the highest wisdom and virtue can be attained by an infamous atheist (192).
To be continued . . .