Virtue, Commerce, and Self-Love

Hume Studies 21 (2):275-287 (1995)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Hume Studies Volume XXI, Number 2, November 1995, pp. 275-287 Virtue, Commerce, and Self-Love R. G. FREY Can economic activity be virtuous? Can the pursuit of commerce and profits be moral? Both Hume and Adam Smith are agreed that Britain will live or die as a trading nation, and trade requires the harvesting or production of goods with which to trade. This in turn requires that people be motivated to harvest or to produce these goods, and neither Hume nor Smith give any evidence of believing that people are motivated by a general love of mankind, an extensive sympathy, or a broadly-encompassing benevolence to produce them. Indeed, quite the opposite appears to be the case: both writers think the pursuit of luxury, wealth, and the general riches of life have much more to do with the harvesting and production of goods for trade than does any widespread, general concern for the well-being of others. And this fact leads straightforwardly to the question I want to consider, namely, whether this kind of what I shall call economic motivation is compatible with moral motivation.1 In Smith, our question can be seen as leading to what is sometimes called the "Adam Smith problem" (which on another occasion I should want to argue is a pseudo-problem). The Theory of Moral Sentiments gives an account of moral motivation in which sympathy and/or benevolence plays an integral role, whereas in The Wealth of Nations self-love is very much to the fore. No remark in Smith is better-known than his statement of this latter position: R. G. Frey is at the Department of Philosophy, Bowling Green State University, 305 Shatzel Hall, Bowling Green OH 43403-0222 USA. e-mail: [email protected] 276 R. G. Frey 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.2 Now it has sometimes been suggested that the way to solve this problem is to keep economics and ethics separate, to try to confine economic activity to a domain about which, in essence, we do not ask ethical questions. But to most of us this clearly will not do; the whole point is that we do want to ask ethical questions about economic activity. That is, in pursuing their trades, it must be possible for the butcher, brewer, and baker to be acting morally; otherwise, commerce and virtue will be incompatible, and in enjoining us to take up and to pursue the former vigorously Hume and Smith would be advocating immorality. Again, neither writer gives any evidence of taking himself to be advocating any such thing. It must be possible, then, for motivation by selflove to be moral, if a vibrant, prosperous nation is to result from and to propagate further commerce and trade. If the cost of morality is penury and a life of dreadful unhappiness, then while such a life may recommend itself to one consumed with the monkish virtues, it is far from clear that it would recommend itself to the rest of us. I am interested here in Hume and in one possible way of construing his remarks on self-love in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals.3 But first a few words on Mandeville are necessary, since it is he who sets the terms of the debate over the compatibility of moral and economic motivation. In The Fable of the Bees,4 Mandeville praises vice (or the pursuit of selfinterest ) in the cause of national prosperity and castigates virtue as threatening to undermine prosperity. Employing an egoistic account of man's passions and motivation, he argues that individual pursuit of self-interest or vice produces public benefits. Pride, avarice, and the pursuit of enjoyment, luxury, and the fine things of life create economic activity, jobs, and economic and social opportunities, and these in turn benefit society. His point is that growth of (i) mutually beneficial economic activity, (ii) increases in general...



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Conclusion.[author unknown] - 1926 - Archives de Philosophie 4 (3):112.

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