What is the relation between self-interest and success? We know from Adam Smith the important role self-interest plays in creating success, both for the individual and for the economy as a whole. However, while Smith invokes self-interest as central to the genius of capitalism, he also argues for necessary constraints on self-interest. Even in the Wealth of Nations, he writes: “Every man, as long as he does not violate the laws of justice, is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest in his own way, and to bring both his industry and capital into competition with those of any other man.” In The Theory of Moral Sentiment, Smith further qualifies the bounds of self-interest by saying that “one individual must never prefer himself so much even to any other individual, as to hurt or injure that other, in order to benefit himself, [even] though the benefit to the one [might] be much greater than the hurt or injury to the other.” Thus, we begin to see that beyond the invisible hand—which impels those who seek success to at least act as if they care about others—there is also the invisible, “impartial spectator” in terms of which Smith enjoins us to judge our actions. As he puts it, if one were to act so that “the impartial spectator may enter into the principle of his conduct . . . he must . . . humble the arrogance of his self-love and bring it down to something to which other men can go along with.” Smith is therefore no ethical egoist who holds that ethical normativity is based on self-interest.[*] Instead, ethics is founded upon on a more objective and common moral law, which his metaphor of the impartial spectator is meant to help us recognize.[†]
It is thus important to see that Adam Smith, the father of modern capitalism, does not simply argue that we are more likely have success if our actions exhibit concern for others (the invisible hand argument)—true as that may be. Nor does he hold that we should we limit our self-interest merely out of a concern for violating the law, or fear of disapproval (punishment, reputation, etc.). Rather, we ought to constrain our own self-interested endeavors in light of a sense of duty and virtue that arise from beyond any desire to succeed. While human nature endows us with “a desire of being approved of,” we also have “a desire of being what ought to be approved of” (emphasis added). Regarding these two desires, Smith notes: “The first could only have prompted [us] to the affectation of virtue, and to the concealment of vice. The second was necessary in order to inspire [us] with a real love of virtue, and with the real abhorrence of vice.”
One way to articulate Smith’s belief in the necessary limits on the pursuit of self-interested ends is to distinguish selfishness from moral self-interest. To keep it simple for our purposes here, we could say that moral self-interest would include acting on self-interest only within the boundaries provided by our moral sense and moral obligations that are essential to being an ethical person.[‡] Selfishness would be the blameworthy and unjustified pursuit of self-interest, which disregards such ethical boundaries in a myriad of ways. This disregard is precisely what Smith warns of in the passages we cited. I have argued elsewhere that a failure to distinguish selfishness from morally justified self-interest (as then morally justified self-interest from a genuine concern for others) lends unwarranted support to both psychological egoism (the claim that every action is motivationally based on self-interest) and ethical egoism (the claim that self-interest is the normative foundation for ethical action). Smith’s approach is one of many ways to show that ethics cannot be based simply on self-interest. Many other moral philosophers have warned us of the problems of such ethical egoism. As Immanuel Kant would say, we must not let self-interest become legislative. But while there are many good arguments against self-interest as a basis for ethics, what else can we say about the possible relation between limiting self-interest and success?
We of course expect to hear about the importance of constraining self-interest from moral philosophers—though it is perhaps a bit more surprising to hear the argument from someone like Adam Smith, if only because many people only know him as an economist. However, more recently there is an interesting and powerful account—based entirely on a descriptive analysis—of the relation between limited self-interest and success in business. This is the approach is taken by Adam Grant of the Wharton School of Business in his book Give and Take. He distinguishes between givers, takers, and matchers, and argues (based on numerous studies) that givers are the most successful across many industries. The terms giver, taker, and matcher each represent a different “reciprocity style.” Givers often put the needs and interests of others above their own. Takers almost always put themselves first in their interactions with others. Matchers strive to keep an equal balance of giving and getting. While many people are givers in their close relationships, we often become matchers, and unfortunately even takers in work contexts. What would these different ways of being look like in that context? Typical takers “tilt reciprocity in their own favor, putting their own interests ahead of others’ needs. . . . To prove their competence they self-promote and make sure they get plenty of credit for their efforts.” On the other hand, “if you are a giver at work, you simply strive to be generous in sharing your time, energy, knowledge, skills, ideas, and connections with other people who can benefit from them.” Givers don’t have to engage in heroic or extreme self-sacrifice. “It just involves a focus on acting in the interests of others, such as by giving help, providing mentoring, sharing credit, or making connections for others.”
Based on many studies, and illustrated by an interesting discussion of givers and takers from many different industries, Grant argues that “givers dominate the bottom and the top. Across occupations, if you examine the link between reciprocity styles and success, the givers are more likely to become champs—not only chumps”. We may often think that those who succeed must be takers, but Grant shows that while takers rise quickly, they also fall quickly—often due to matchers who bring them down in various ways. “Over time, treating peers and subordinates poorly jeopardizes their relationships and reputations. After all, most people are matchers: their core values emphasize fairness, equality, and reciprocity. When takers violate these principles, matchers in their networks . . . want to see justice served.”
Part of his purpose in Give and Take is to describe what makes the difference between successful and unsuccessful givers. Let us briefly highlight part of his argument here. Grant defines successful givers as being (what he calls) otherish rather than being completely selfless. As he writes, “Most people assume that self-interest and other interest are opposite ends of one continuum. Yet in my studies of what drives people at work, I’ve consistently found that self-interest and other interest are completely independent motivations: you can have both of them at the same time.” How does this relate to being both a giver and being successful? He continues, “if takers are selfish and failed givers are selfless, successful givers are otherish. They care about benefitting others, but they also have ambitious goals for advancing their own interests. . . . Being otherish means being willing to give more than you receive, but still keeping your own interests in sight. . . . Matchers expect something back from each person they help. Otherish givers help with no strings attached; they’re just careful not to overextend themselves along the way.” In the end, Grant writes, “givers are every bit as ambitious as takers and matchers,” but they go about advancing their interests in a very different manner than takers. First, they differ in the effect of their efforts to be successful. As he writes: “Givers succeed in a way that creates a ripple effect, enhancing the success of people around them. . . . Giver success creates value instead of just claiming it.” I would add, however, that it is important to remember that there is a big difference between the motivations of an otherish giver who retains a strong sense of his or her interests, and the taker acting as a giver who is always focused on getting what’s best for him or herself in every interaction, always with an eye out for how he or she will come out on top. For takers, supposed concern for others is really just a concern for oneself.[**]
Again, while Grant does not explicitly speak in terms of the ethical limits on self-interest, there is little doubt that he is making this point in a slightly different way, since it is the very sort of takers he describes who often act with few limitations on self-interest.[††] He provides an impressive array of evidence that we will be more successful by acting with limits on self-interest than by always putting ourselves first. Thus, not only should we limit our pursuit of self-interest—from an ethical perspective—as Adam Smith and many other moral philosophers argue. It turns out there is good evidence we will also more likely do better by being the type of person who genuinely cares about others (as long as we do so in the right way).[‡‡]
[*] We find a more contemporary version of ethical egoism in the writings of Ayn Rand, who holds that “the actor must always be the beneficiary of his action and that man must act for his own rational self-interest.” See Ayn Rand, “Why Selfishness,” in The Ayn Rand Reader (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), 82.[†] Of course, Smith holds that we “find” these common, objective “general rules of morality” through our particular experiences of approval and disapproval, which engages our sympathy, and so on. (See Smith, Wealth of Nations, 159-161).
[‡] Obviously, there is much debate about how exactly to draw this line between selfishness and morally justified self-interest. Also, it is much easier to do so when we are talking about negative duties not to harm others (murder, fraud, etc.) than when discussing positive duties to help others.
[**] For a discussion of the difference between retaining a sense of one’s self and one’s interest, while yet acting out of a genuine concern for others, see my essay Self-Interest, Ethical Egoism, and the Restored Gospel, BYU Studies Quarterly, 2013, especially 169-174.
[††] To do justice to this point, we would need to say more about the relation between being a giver and an ethical person, since giving is only one aspect of being ethical. However, the genuine regard for others that is characteristic of what he calls givers is essential to being ethical as we have defined it here. Furthermore, we should note that according to Grant, there are degrees of takers. As he writes, “Garden variety takers aren’t cruel or cutthroat; they’re just cautious and self-protective.” (Grant, 4)
[‡‡] To do justice to the point we are trying to make here, we would need to examine the relation between being ethical and being a giver—as defined by Grant. For instance, just because an action is altruistic does not make it moral. As Kant and others have pointed out, we can do wrong even from altruistic motives.
 Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, vol. 1 (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1981), 186. Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), 138.
 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 83.
 Smith, 117.
 See Kant Ethical Philosophy, Ed. Mary Gregor (Cambridge University Press, 1996, p 200).
 Adam M. Grant, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success (New York: Penguin Books, 2013), 4.
 Grant, 7.
 Grant, 5.
 Grant, 7.
 Grant, 33.
 Grant, 137.
 Grant, 157-8.
 Grant, 10.