Was Adam Smith selfish?

As part of my course, I do quite a lot of reading on Adam Smith at the moment. One thing that I came across is the notion of self-interest, which is completely different from the selfishness that people tend to think about when they read Smith.

According to Adam Smith, people have different motives for their actions, one of which is self-interest or self-love. It is important to note that Smith did provide a distinction between them. People are selfish if they act purely to gain for themselves. This involves the taking of more than one’s ‘fair share’. Smith actively condemned this behaviour in his writing:

‘…all for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.’

On the other hand, self-interested people do have other people’s interests in their mind. Self-interest is the interest in the well-being of the self. It is only a part of what people consider when they decide whether or not to act. Therefore, Smith thinks it is not logical to condemn this behaviour. It is not wrong if an individual wants to buy a new shirt for himself. He clearly acts upon his self-interest, but he is not selfish unless he stole the money in order to purchase the shirt.

Smith wrote that we benefit from the self-interest of the butcher, brewer and baker, and it is clear from his writing as a whole that, because they are self-interested, the butcher, brewer and baker look out for themselves; however, because they are not selfish, they also care for their customers. It is this kind of self-interest (not selfishness) that leads to social improvement.

3 Responses to “Was Adam Smith selfish?”

  1. Lo-Ruchama Oosthuyse Says:

    To be honest, before i came across this article I did not really know who Adam Smith was or what he had achieved, so I read up on him. Only to find out what a brilliant mind he had and just how much he contributed to society today. In response I fully agree with this article and what it says about self-interest vs selfishness. And sadly the more I look around me the more i see examples of selfishness. In every day examples and when looking at some countries as a whole. I believe that the actions of one person cannot not have an effect on others, and so if a whole government (as i have so often seen in the country where I live) acts purely for its own materialistic benefit it has a drastic effect of everyone in the country, and whats worse is those acting upon their need for more are not bothered by those who suffer because of their actions.Although I must say I am not totally cynical and do also believe that there are many people, like Adam Smith, who believe in and act on self-interest. I think everyone should take a page from Adam Smith and try to rethink on whether their actions are for greed, or good.

  2. 14262704 Says:

    I completely agree with Smith’s thinking. Just to provide another extreme example; when you buy yourself a new shirt it is beneficial not only to you but financially beneficial to the shop you purchase it from and other people would most likely not be against seeing you wear a new shirt out in public instead of you walking around shirtless all day… So I believe Smith has a point and just to add to that many many bad things have come from humans being selfish but many great things have also come from selfish ambition.

  3. 14262704 Says:

    I agree with all the content in this piece but i would just like to add to it by saying that when one purchases a shirt at one is not only helping yourself but also financially benefiting the business and the public community as a whole as i am sure they would prefer to see you walking around with a shirt on rather than topless… Yes, selfishness has lead to many bad things but it selfish ambition has also lead to many amazing things.

Leave a Reply