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I should note here that the following was copied in from a post on Rortybomb. I appreciate any mention of and promotion of Smith’s Moral Sentiments.

Guest Post: What Would Adam Smith Think of the Idea of “Job Creators”?

This is a guest post from friend-of-the-blog John Paul Rollert, who is a doctoral student at the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.  His essay, “Does the Top Really Support the Bottom? – Adam Smith and the Problem of the Commercial Pyramid,” from which this is adapted, was recently published by The Business and Society Review.  You can catch his blogging at the Huffington Post and Harvard Business Review.

Thankfully, says Smith, human beings have a natural propensity to negotiate or, as he describes it, to truck, barter, and exchange. “Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want” is not only the manner in which we acquire most things in this world, but it is the building block for an economically advanced society. Thus, Smith declares in his most famous passage:

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.

People who read this passage and nothing else of Smith tend to regard it as an affirmation of the virtue and efficacy of selfishness over and against the relative impotence of altruism. But that isn’t its significance for Smith. Yes, our personal interests act as a sharper spur to action than the interests of others, but the same may be said for the cocker spaniel. The difference is not that we have selfish interests, but that only by understanding the interests of others are we able to fulfill our own.Indeed, the passage attests to the human capacity for empathy, the focus of Smith’s other great work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. It is because of our natural tendency to stand in the shoes of others and see the world through their eyes that we can appeal to their interests. The commercial effect of this practice is that we individually learn how to make the kinds of exchanges that, in the aggregate, lead to the wealth of a nation.

via Rortybomb.

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