Free market economics and libertarianism are often linked, rightly wrongly, with egoism, selfishness, and greed. In Leviathan (1651), perhaps the first great modern political text, Thomas Hobbes writes that “No man gives but with the intention of good to himself, because gift is voluntary; and all voluntary acts are the object to every man in his own pleasure.” That is, even giving is self-directed, a way of serving our own interests or pleasing ourselves. Ayn Rand famously extolled the virtue of selfishness, writing “Selfishness does not mean only to do things for oneself. One may do things, affecting others, for his own pleasure and benefit. This is not immoral, but the highest of morality.” To put oneself first, she argues, represents moral excellence. And economist Walter Williams has professed his adoration for avarice, publishing an essay entitled simply, “I Love Greed.” Williams argues that it is the greed of Texas ranchers and Idaho potato farmers that keeps New Yorkers supplied with beef and potatoes. Made to depend on love and kindness, they would go hungry. Far from abjuring greed as a vice, such writers suggest, we should seek to perfect its role as the principal motivator of our activity.
To really understand greed, however, we need to dig deeper. One of its profoundest portraits in world literature is to be found in Leo Tolstoy’s novella, Master and Man (1895). Tolstoy himself had seen greed from both sides. Born into an aristocratic and wealthy Russian family, he lost both parents in his first decade of life. As a young man, he left university and ran up heavy gambling debts before serving in the Crimean War. After a tour of Europe, he returned to his estate and founded schools to educate the children of peasants. Marrying, he and his wife Sophia had thirteen children, eight of whom survived to adulthood. Sonya, as she was known, also served as his secretary and editor, copying out in longhand seven drafts of his massive War and Peace. In the early 1890s, Tolstoy sought to renounce his wealth and the copyrights to his literary works, which Sonya regarded as the wrong thing to do, in part because they had such a large family to support. By the time Tolstoy composed Master and Man, he had grown weary of arguing over money, and tensions within the family were high.
The protagonist of Master and Man is Vasili Andreevich Brekunov, a supremely greedy human being. A provincial merchant, the story opens as he is making hasty preparations to purchase a grove, a transaction from which he expects to profit handsomely. The kind of man who trims the ends of church tapers in order to resell them, he prepares by collecting 700 rubles of his own money, as well as 2,300 in church money he has in his possession. As he and his peasant Nikita, whose past bouts of drunkenness make him easy to exploit, prepare to set off, his eyes fall on his “unloved wife” and his young son, “whom he always thought of as his heir.” As soon as they leave the village, they venture into a blizzard in which nothing can be seen. As they drive, Vasili takes little interest in the peasant, except when Nikita’s need for a horse comes up. Vasili offers to sell him a horse for 15 rubles that is only worth 7, knowing all the while that he would charge him 25, preventing Nikita from drawing any income for half a year. Vasili, it is clear, is nothing so much as a profit maximizer.
Out in the blizzard, Vasili and Nikita repeatedly lose their way, discovering that most of the time they are only moving in circles. At last, Vasili agrees to hunker down for the night, hoping that dawn will bring an improvement in the weather. Vasili wraps himself up in the sledge, leaving Nikita to dig a hole for himself in the snow. As he lays there, Vasili has no wish to sleep and instead thinks of the “one thing that constituted the sole aim, meaning, pleasure, and pride of his life—of how much money he had made and might still make, of how much other people he knew had made and possessed, and of how those others had made and were making it, and how he, like them, might still make much more.” From the deal for the grove alone, he expects to make ten thousand rubles. He calculates how he will sell the oaks for sledge runners and the rest for firewood, gleefully considering the possibility that he might make as much as twelve thousand. He will grease the surveyors palm with perhaps a hundred and fifty rubles to inflate the size of the glade, getting the whole thing for eight thousand. Whatever it takes to maximize profit.
Vasili lays there thinking of what a great man he is becoming, relishing how others will envy his success.
- ‘In my father’s time what was our house like? Just a rich peasant’s house: just an oat mill and an inn—that was the whole property. But what have I done in these fifteen years? A shop, two taverns, a flour-mill, a grain store, two farms leased out, and a house with an iron-roofed barn,’ he thought proudly. ‘Not as it was in father’s time! Who is talked of in the whole district now? Brekhunov! And why? Because I stick to business. I take trouble, not like others who lie abed or waste their time on foolishness while I don’t sleep of nights. Blizzard or no blizzard, I start out. So business gets done. They think money-making is a joke. No, take pains and rack your brains! You get overtaken out of doors at night, like this, or keep awake night after night till the thoughts whirling in your head make the pillow turn,’ he meditated with pride. ‘They think people get on through luck. After all, the Mironovs are now millionaires. And why?’ The thought that he might himself become a millionaire like Moronov, who began with nothing, so excited Vasili Andreevich that he felt the need of talking to somebody. But there was no one to talk to….
Vasili is a man in thrall of greed. He spends all his time thinking how he can get more money. What matters to him most is not his wife, his son, or even his own safety, but the art of the deal, his excellence at taking advantage of others and extracting more from them than he will be asked to give. Whether it is tens of thousands or rubles for a grove or just tens of rubles for a horse, Vasili is determined always to get the better of everyone. He sees people not as persons but as profit maximization opportunities. Each time he secures himself the better end of a bargain, he feels enlarged and looks down on others from an even higher vantage. He sees himself in terms of his property, which causes him to see even his son as nothing more than his heir, an extension of his own net worth. Vasili is the center of his own universe, a supreme egoist. Later, when he begins to think he might die out in the blizzard, he turns his deal-making talents to Saint Nicholas himself, promising that if he escapes this predicament, he will offer a thanksgiving service and some tapers. But no such deal is forthcoming.
Adam Smith, in contrast, was no fan of greed, selfishness, and egoism. He did, of course acknowledge that something in the way of enlightened self-interest plays a vital role in human affairs, famously writing, “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.” Some mistakenly conclude from this that Smith was both a psychological and moral egoist, implying both that regard for self is the only possible motivator of human conduct and that it should always hold sway in our decision making. Yet Smith is a far richer, more nuanced, and nobler thinker than such a simplistic conclusion would suggest. In fact, Smith regards greed, selfishness, and egoism with disdain and holds that we should do so, as well. To gain an appreciation for Smith’s doubts, we must turn from the 1776 Wealth of Nations to his 1759 The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which he regarded as his greatest work and continued to revisit and revise throughout his life.
But before turning explicitly to Smith’s views on selfishness, we should acknowledge some general features of moral reasoning, which Smith himself helped to elucidate. First, our intellectual and cultural interests incline us to see something things clearly and to ignore or at least pay less attention to others. In this sense, the very act of attending to something can be a kind of moral act. What do we attend to most regularly and closely—the performance of the financial markets and new opportunities to advance our career and wealth, or the unfolding life stories of our family and friends and the opportunities such relationships provide to contribute to the welfare of others? Likewise, these same intellectual and cultural interests incline us to see things in certain ways, tending to interpret them in some ways and not in others. For example, upon learning that someone has given a large gift in treasure, talent, or time to someone in need, a psychological egoist such as Hobbes would ask what he or she hoped to gain from it, while Smith might instead regard it as a noble instance of the virtue of generosity.
Our understanding in such matters is partly shaped by quantitative metrics, such as how much money changed hands, or how many hours of time were devoted to volunteer activities. Economists have not been alone in their passion to understand human affairs in terms of metrics, and in fact this tendency has pervaded the social sciences broadly. But our perceptions and understanding are shaped in different and equally or even more important ways by symbols, analogies, and convictions. Hobbes, for example, sees the origins of human society in a “state of nature,” devoid of social passion, in which each looks out only for himself, and life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” For him, law is all about restraint, the need to prevent the “war of each against all” from resulting in mutual annihilation. Smith, by contrast, grounds his moral theory in a very different account, one in which “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” For Smith, social passions are essential features of human nature.
“Were we to ask whether a particular choice is right or good, we would need to ask, right for whom or good for what?”
As opposed to those espousing ethics of egoism, selfishness, and greed, Smith’s view of morality is a fundamentally relational one. The former locate the referent of all moral questions in the self. I simply need to ask the question, is the proposed course of action good for me, or perhaps more to the point, best for me? Whatever most promotes my own selfishness desires and interests represents the best choice. For Smith, however, moral life is a good bit more complex. Were we to ask whether a particular choice is right or good, we would need to ask, right for whom or good for what? In some cases, the referent might by a single person, A or B. But in other circumstances, it might be groups of people, such as families, businesses, communities, and even whole nations. Such rights and goods are defined and hence must be evaluated largely in relation to others. Each of us, to the extent that we truly understand the full context of the moral life, makes decisions with respect to larger wholes of which we are parts.
For Hobbes, the state is a fragile thing, always about to be pulled apart by the divergent passions of its members and sustainable only by coercion. Without the threat of punishment, people would give full rein to their selfish passions, and communities would quickly disintegrate. To keep them together, every individual must keep a lid on a part of himself, in effect granting expression to only part of his or her nature. Smith, by contrast, operates on the assumption that human beings are naturally cooperative and even collaborative creatures. It is in our nature to work together, as in the division of labor, which he highlights at the opening of The Wealth of Nations as “the greatest improvement in the productive powers of labor.” For Hobbes, men must be coercively bound together to avoid their natural tendency to oppose and perhaps even kill each other, while for Smith collaboration represents the key to the full realization of our powers. For Hobbes, without law, police, judges, jails, and other technologies of punishment, social life would not be possible, while for Smith, social life is the starting point from which other goods flow. For Smith, there neither was nor ever could be a solitary state of nature.
Consider a human being in distress. For Hobbes, there is nothing remarkable about this, since life itself is an exercise in suspicion, jealousy, envy, and greed. To fail to live in fear is to move forward in life imprudently. By contrast, Smith regards distress as an unnatural state and locates equanimity in the company of others. When we share a source of anxiety with a friend, “we are immediately put in mind of the light in which he will view of situation, and we begin to view it ourselves in the same light; for the effect of sympathy is instantaneous.” To compose ourselves, we need “society and conversation,” and if we are ever cut off from them, as we would be in the state of nature, we are apt to find ourselves, like “men of retirement and speculation, brooding at home over either grief or resentment, though they may often have more humanity, more generosity, and a nicer sense of honor” than others. The company of others reminds us that we are not alone, that we are bound to others in relationship, and that we are parts of larger wholes whose needs and missions we are called upon to serve. Only when we see ourselves in such contexts can we really gain our proper moral bearings.
For Hobbes, generosity is unnatural, except insofar as it offers the opportunity to advance self-interest, which is to say that apparent generosity is just a ruse. Scratch a so-called altruist and watch an egoist bleed. As Smith sees it, however, generosity is not only possible but very real and highly necessary. Such a contrast plays out in Tolstoy’s novella. At first, Vasili is ready to sacrifice everything for the deal, happily leaving the sledge, the horse, and Nikita behind in order to save himself. But when his escape into the blizzard merely returns him to them, he undergoes a transformation. It is only when he is lost that he truly discovers his position and path in life. Suddenly, without even knowing exactly why, he begins tending to the freezing Nikita, covering him with his warm coats and even lying down on top of him to keep him warm. For the first time, he begins thinking to himself in the first person plural, saying “There, and you say you are dying. Lie still and get warm, that’s our way….” This new Vasili can only reflect on his former self with bafflement:
- His money, his shop, his house, the buying and selling, and Mironov’s millions—it was hard for him to understand why that man, called Vasili Brekhunov, had troubled himself with all those things with which he had been troubled. ‘Well, it was because he did not know what the real thing was,’ he thought.
For more on these topics, see
- Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes. 1909 edition, with an essay by W. G. Pogson Smith. Online Library of Liberty.
- Division of Labor, by Michael Munger. Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.
- “‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’ Reading Guide,”. AdamSmithWorks
- “Tolstoy, Smith, and the Perils of Loneliness,” by Richard Gunderman. AdamSmithWorks, October 20, 2021
- Kevin McKenna on Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet Union, and In the First Circle. EconTalk podcast episode.
To Hobbes, such a transformation would seem impossible, an awkward and highly artificial deus ex machina. No one can cease being an egoist, nor should anyone want to. To Smith, however, the idea that someone might sacrifice himself for someone else, because he sees him as a human being the same as himself, is a distinct possibility. From Smith’s psychological vantage point, Vasili’s dislocation could produce a relocation—he could cease seeing himself as a solitary individual and instead realize that he is part of something larger, in which he is linked with Nikita. Viewed in this context, Vasili discovers in himself the capacity to think and act in relationship, and even to lay down his life to save someone he only recently despised. Greed, in short, can give way to love. Vasili dies in the effort to save Nikita, but it is also through his act of sacrifice that, for the first time, he really comes to life. His egoist life had left him utterly alone, trapped in a prison of his own making. Realizing in desperation that he could not continue to amass and hoard his wealth beyond this life, a new relational possibility emerged, a meaning in life that could transcend even his own death. Smith, I think, would approve.