In this classic commercial, Fred the Baker is torn between a devil, who urges him to get a decent night’s sleep, and his guardian angel, who advises him get up at a presumably ungodly hour to make fresh doughnuts for “all the nice folks.”
The conceit, that Fred is robbing himself of beauty rest for love of us, was one Adam Smith long ago taught us to scoff at.
Near the beginning of his Wealth of Nations, Smith disabuses us of the notion that we may expect to receive the much-needed help of our brethren “from their benevolence only.” “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.”
Smith’s point is not simply that, if we want the “good offices” of others, we must appeal to their “self-love” rather than their “charity.” He also argues that it is self-regard that “encourages every man to apply himself to a particular occupation, and to cultivate and bring to perfection whatever talent or genius he may possess”—to the (unintended) advantage of his fellows.
As John Mueller points out, Smith’s praise of selfishness is based on a half-truth. While it is true that self-love is essential to the habits of personal development and mutual exchange that make the world turn, it is mistaken to assume that self-love is inherently contrary to benevolence.
As St. Thomas Aquinas notes in his treatise on charity, the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself implies that salutary self-love is the foundation of altruism. The order of charity demands that we care for ourselves and cultivate our own gifts, so as to be in a position to help others.
Benevolence is willing the good of others. While goodwill ought to be universal, however, beneficence—the good works we do for one another—are a finite resource that must be distributed according to the guidance of a charitable prudence.
If the baker were not benevolent, he would get up at the crack of dawn to rob a bank, or lace our pastries with addictive chemicals. To the extent that merchants seduce us into consuming “goods” that are not in fact necessary or beneficial, as Thomas Jefferson suspected they habitually do, one can argue that they have indeed fallen from objective moral standards.
As for those who labor to provide genuine “good offices” at a fair price, thereby supporting themselves and their families, and providing their fellow citizens with the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of their talents and enterprise: their self-love is in fact a vital manifestation of well-ordered charity.
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