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How Virtuous Capitalism Reins in Selfishness

December 4, 2020 6 min read
By Dr. Karel Sovak Dean, Gary Tharaldson School of Business, University of Mary
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A major critique of capitalism focuses on the self-interested actions of business owners. However, there is also a self-interest in consumerism, and much of the blame placed on capitalism for the decline of a culture is due to a lack of consumer restraint within the market. Thus, it is important to distinguish between self-interest and selfishness, which Dr. Art Lindsey did in an article entitled, "C.S. Lewis on Greed, Selfishness and Self-Interest." While self-interest calls on one's actions to bring about the most in terms of personal benefit, selfishness is an inclination toward a concern exclusively for one's self without regard to others.

Let's explore this distinction more deeply. Adam Smith wrote about self-interest in relation to providing sympathy for another due to a death in their family. It is certainly not selfish for me to grieve for my friend, feeling sad for their loss and caring for their well-being. However, I will derive a personal benefit from showing my sympathy and listening to how that person feels - so, in a way, it is in my self-interest to do so. This does not come at the expense of the other due to their loss: I am not selfishly taking away the grief from my friend. In this same way, we can look at the person possessing "excess" or "luxury" not as a bad thing per se, as such a determination is more dependent on the action behind that excess. Self-interest is a reflection of its action. We must ask, for instance, what the intentions of our actions are. If it is our intent to prevent someone else from having something, that act would be rendered a selfish and therefore not virtuous.

In his poem, The Fable of the Bees, Mandeville notes that a bee hive grows not based on the morals of each bee, but rather on the accumulation of the drive of each bee for the hive. A bee on its own (selfish interest) would not be able to provide what the collective of the hive can do. However, it is not through the charity of the bee that the hive grows, but rather through their actions in which their "private vices" become "public benefits." With Mandeville's failure to distinguish between self-interest and selfishness ("private vices") in mind, his image helps to show how private interest need not detract from others, but may in fact provide "public benefits."

Simple accumulation of wealth for the sake of accumulating wealth may not be the best for oneself - as such accumulation has been seen time and again to be an empty pursuit - much less for others. Nevertheless, wealth-acquisition need not be only a matter of selfishness, and substantial good can be done with wealth managed prudently. Acquiring profit in order that the business can be sustained, on the other hand, and so that employees can flourish and consumers can meet their needs with continued products and services is what virtuous capitalism is all about. It is worth noting that just as the capitalist needs to be prudent and just, so do consumers.

The flourishing of all will not come through selfishness. We can look out for ourselves (self-interest) and care for others: the two are not mutually exclusive. We can also genuinely care for others for their own sake and not just for our own. This reality, known as 'relational trust,' is a pushing of mutual benefits over exclusionary detriments. A workplace culture is the sum total of people involved in one's work. Just as capitalism is part of that culture, so should be the virtues (including a striving for mutual benefits), informing both production and consumption.

While self-interest calls on one's actions to bring about the most in terms of personal benefit, selfishness is an inclination toward a concern exclusively for one's self without regard to others.

The Bible offers perspectives on economic life. In the Gospel of Matthew (20:28), for instance, we see that the Son of Man carried a quality philosophy in his messages by professing "he came not to be served, but to serve." This can help Christians to answer questions like "what can economic life do for people?; what can economics do to people?; how can I participate in economic life?" Virtuous capitalism is properly directed to serving the needs of others and assisting in human flourishing.

It is critical that those who work in business roles (and those fortunate enough to teach others about business) understand the positives of a "good-good-good" model while helping them to understand their role in upholding human dignity. In order to understand the "good-good-good" model, consider the perspective offered by Ryan Bourne of the Cato Institute: "The moral basis for billionaires in a market economy is that most obtain wealth by providing products, services or investments we want and need." This is the essence of the first "good" in the model noted above: making products and providing services that are good for consumers. The second "good" arises when the business provides for the welfare good of its employees, including a living wage. Lastly, the third "good" is constituted by businesses doing good with the profits (abundance) created by the subjects of their work. This model makes clear how business can be true service to others.


We can look to an earlier passage in Matthew (13:1-58) to see Jesus' parable of the sower of seeds to further consider how businesses can be a force for good. The purpose of that parable is that we need fertile soil upon which the seeds we cast can thrive and produce "some hundred-fold." This parable provides us with a general principle for reflection and discernment, and ought to be applied to all aspects of our lives. In the world of business, we have to ask, "Is our business that fertile soil?"

In order for a business to provide such fertile soul in which all can thrive, it must focus on the virtues - in particular, prudence, justice, courage, and temperance. However, the virtues are not limited to these four, but rather touch on all aspects of life and thus include patience, generosity, empathy, and compassion. The essence of these virtues is magnanimity and both fundamental and fraternal humility.

To be magnanimous means to acknowledge that we were created for greatness, and that it is our role in life to provide for and help to fulfill that greatness in others. The magnanimous person serves with the gifts God has given each of us to meet the needs of others brought into our lives, and does so with joy and selflessness. In order to serve in that manner, we must also have the fundamental humility of knowing ourselves, along with the fraternal humility of wanting to serve others. Magnanimity and humility are not only the mark of a virtuous individual, but also of a virtuous organization. Pope Francis offers the following reflection on service and virtue: "We received a gift so that we might become a gift. Gifts are not bought, traded, or sold; they are received and given away. If we hold on to them, if we make ourselves the center and not the gift we have received, we become bureaucrats, not shepherds. We turn the gift into a job and its gratuitousness vanishes. We end up serving ourselves and using the Church. Thanks to the gift we have received, our lives are directed to service."

Living a selfless life, designed to bring out the best version of another and allow for their flourishing, is essential as we move forward into this twenty-first century. As Lindsey pointed out, "It is not in our self-interest to be selfish."

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