Front Page Titles (by Subject) Vicious Motivations & Commercial Society - Literature of Liberty, Winter 1981, vol. 4, No. 4
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Vicious Motivations & Commercial Society - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Winter 1981, vol. 4, No. 4 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Vicious Motivations & Commercial Society
“Envy and Commercial Society: Mandeville and Smith on Private Vices, Public Benefits.” Political Theory 5(November 1981):551–569.
In the 18th century suspicions mounted about the morally and socially dangerous consequences that the emergent commercial society might promote. Would the pursuit of wealth and private self-interest dissipate the individual's concern for others and for the cultivation of benevolence and public-spiritedness? Could a society that depended upon self-interest be morally justified? Commercial society faces a difficulty if the criterion for evaluating the good society is how well any society nurtures virtuous citizens who set limits to their desires and who can act for the public good. Both Mandeville and Adam Smith addressed this problem and both came away with their moral suspicions reinforced.
Commercial society is morally problematic since it ties its promise of material prosperity to increasing an insatiable awareness of individual self-interest and vanity (in the sense of ever striving to materially impress others). This moral problem was most provocatively formulated by Bernard Mandeville (1670–1733) in his Fable of the Bees as “Private Vices, Public Benefits.” Mandeville insisted on an ineradicable tension in commercial society which depended on private vice (in the form of self-interest, vanity, pride, and envy as morally vicious but economically beneficial prods) to produce material survival and progress. He represented as unavoidable the dilemma of both disapproving of the socially disruptive vices of envy and pride and yet approving of the socially indispensable economic productivity spurred on by those very vices.
Mandeville's critics and the defenders of commercial society needed to demonstrate that economic activity could spring from motivations that, if not explicitly moral, were at least morally neutral. Adam Smith took up the challenge, but both his works, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and The Wealth of Nations (1776), reveal his ambiguous attitude toward commercial society. Smith tried to find a middle position between Francis Hutcheson's claims for the importance of benevolence as a human motivation and Mandeville's claim on the inevitability of a sadly necessary vice. Smith asserted that the pursuit of wealth need not come at the expense of virtue. First, Smith argued, the self-interest necessary to economic life need not dominate all other aspects of life. Second, many forms of self-interest are either virtuous or morally neutral. Third, merchants and others need to adopt decent moral standards in order to do business.
While Smith's analysis of self-interest in the Wealth of Nations stresses the innocent desire for profit to better one's material condition, a more sophisticated and morally troubling analysis runs through The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In his analysis of admiration of the rich and vanity (the desire to live better than others) Smith reveals disruptive forces that pit self-regard against the interests of others. The socially disruptive motivation of envy threatens the stability of commercial society.
Horne concludes by sketching what motivations and moral criteria commercial society needed to justify itself, once it had jettisoned older notions of virtue. It, in effect, replaced virtue with freedom as the moral standard of social organization. Mandeville's role in this shift was to undercut the emphasis on motivation and, by consequence, to debunk the possibility of virtue. This may have led Smith to investigate the relationship between commerce and liberty. Horne believes that the moral problems of commercial society cannot be completely dissolved by appeals to freedom and prosperity.