Doing business: selfishly or generously?
by Ken Myers
“Adam Smith’s classical statement focuses the issue [of self interest and profit] sharply: ‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, 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 their own necessities but of their advantages.’ Thus the baker bakes a good loaf of bread because that is the way to ensure profit, and thereby to do good business. The baker intends his own good and in the process creates a good also for the other: namely, a good loaf of bread. The good both of the product and of the other (the potential consumer) is thus instrumentalized to the baker’s own self-interest; but Smith’s point is that both the baker and his customer are better off for that self-interest. In short, it is to the baker’s self-love and not to his humanity that we should address ourselves, if we wish the good that the baker has to offer us.”
“A baker trying to live out his Christianity in his life as a business person, to imbue the reality of his economic life with the Gospel . . . [would] attempt to order profit differently from the way suggested by Smith. He would seek first to make a loaf of bread that was intrinsically good — in terms of its taste and health-producing qualities and the like — and he would seek to do this from the beginning for the sake of being of service to others in society, of enhancing their health and well-being. To be sure, he would recognize profit as a necessary condition of his continuing ability to provide this service to others. He would recognize that he was realizing his own good in the service to others. But that is just the point: his legitimate concern for profit, and his own self-interest, would be integrated from the beginning and all along the way into the intention of service.
“In contrast, say, to a Buddhist understanding, an authentic Gospel spirituality does not entail an elimination of the self and its interests, in the self’s mutual relation with others. The intention of the Gospel finally is that there be mutual enhancement in each such relation. But the Gospel requires nonetheless that a normative distinction be made with respect to primacy within that relation: a self that first (ontologically, not temporally) serves the other, and thereby finds itself, is not identical with the self that first seeks itself, and thereby serves the other. A selfishness become mutual is not yet mutual generosity.”
—from David L. Schindler, Heart of the World, Center of the Church: Communio Ecclesiology, Liberalism, and Liberation (Eerdmans, 1996)