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Adam Smith made a distinction between self-interest and selfishness — and he knew that too much of the latter would lead a nation to ruin.

It has been over a month since Greg Smith’s letter of resignation sent Goldman Sachs into full PR panic mode. Since then, the firm has completed its great “muppet” sweep, Mr. Smith has secured a blockbuster book deal, and Lloyd Blankfein has found himself fighting off stories of a growing power struggle at the top of Goldman high command.

All of this makes for good copy, but it risks obscuring the enduring moral dilemma at the heart of the original letter. Namely, when it comes to doing business, can we make a meaningful distinction between self-interest and selfishness? Or, apropos of Mr. Smith, should a place like Goldman ever hold itself to a higher standard than “How much money did we make off the client?”

Another Smith certainly thought so: Adam Smith, the founding father of modern economics. He first made his name as a moral philosopher with The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a careful diagnosis of the concern we have for others, the attention we show ourselves, and how the tension between the two underwrites a common code of ethics.

One of the principal villains of Smith’s work was Bernard Mandeville, an occasional philosopher who impishly elided fine-grained distinctions. His scandalous work,The Fable of the Bees, was an allegorical poem involving a thriving beehive that bore more than passing resemblance to 18th-century England. Accounting for the affluence and ease the bees enjoyed, Mandeville made two contentions sufficient to give any high-minded economist heartburn.

First, he claimed there was no essential difference, morally speaking, between the con man and the merchant. Both were driven by selfish instincts to get the better of their fellow man (or bee), and to that end, both trucked in deceit. Yes, the con man broke the law, but the merchant hid behind it.

Mandeville’s second claim was even more scabrous: So be it. Vice, not virtue, kept the wheels of commerce turning, with the benefits shared by all:

Thus Vice nurs’d Ingenuity,

Which join’d with Time and Industry,

Had carry’d Life’s Conveniences,

It’s real Pleasures, Comforts, Ease,

To such a Height, the very Poor

Liv’d better than the Rich before,

And nothing could be added more.

If these lines sound a little bit like “greed is good,” then you get Mandeville’s point. Human beings are selfish, and thank goodness for it. Otherwise, we might end up like the bees, who are nearly wiped out after a spell of virtue saps their ambition, spoils their economy, and exposes them to outside attack.

When he stepped forward to challenge these views, Smith knew that he had to provide a compelling distinction between pursuits that are self-interested and those that are merely selfish. He granted Mandeville that there was “a certain remote affinity” between them insofar as both are motivated by a concern for personal well-being, but he appealed to common sense in saying that that we don’t view all human desires equally. My interest in having a clean shirt is not only legitimate, it’s laudable, whereas my longing for a panda skin sportcoat is not only illegitimate, it’s an outrage.

Fair enough. But how exactly do we make these distinctions? Smith says we come by them naturally, by engaging others and discovering where our desires echo, overlap, and, finally, are at odds with one another. This process, iterative and ongoing, defines our moral sentiments, the felt necessities of right and wrong that shape and restrain our actions. It also defines for us what Smith called “a fair and deliberate exchange,” the very type of interaction at the heart of a commercial enterprise.

When he turned his attention to economics, Smith did not think of himself as devising a system that was antagonistic or even alien to the one he had already developed. A free market provided individuals a space to engage each other in the pursuit of their own private interests, but that realm was not free from moral sentiments, nor should it be. Engaging in business was no less a part of human interaction than raising children or making friends, and the idea that a commercial sphere dominated by the grossest behavior would not contaminate the rest of society was not only silly, it was dangerously naive.

This was Smith’s greatest difference with Mandeville: He did not believe that a nation in which people pursued their interests irrespective of one another would be affluent. It wouldn’t even be stable. Riven by “hostile factions,” society would seethe with conflict, for people with different interests would view each other with “contempt and derision.” In such an environment, Smith observed, “[t]ruth and fair dealing are almost totally disregarded,” for the interests of others have no moral claim on us.

Is Goldman Sachs such an environment? Greg Smith says so, but only the people who work there know whether the culture is as “toxic and destructive” as his letter claims. Yet to the degree that clients are viewed with contempt and derision, especially by leadership, Adam Smith would say that we should hardly be surprised, as the other Mr. Smith seems to be, by “how callously people talk about ripping their clients off.” This is to be expected. The line between selfishness and self-interest, in business as in all human pursuits, appears only when we feel that the interests of others occasionally require us to restrain our own. When we stop caring, that line disappears, and with it some very worthy things — personal integrity, self-respect, professional pride — that money can’t buy.

John Paul Rollert is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Cross-Posted From The Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal Blog

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

President Trump boards Air Force One for his return flight home from Florida on July 31, 2020

Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian

Reprinted with permission from Alternet

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