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”.
Great quote. Ultimately, any complex social institution requires basic human traits to be promoted if it is to survive.