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.