Assessments of Benjamin Franklin have often been implicit assessments of civil society, whose double character of facilitating market transactions and promoting more expansive forms of public reflection have fueled competing accounts of Franklin. This essay explores Franklin's reliance on the conception of self-interest as a way of managing conflicting beliefs about the world. Taking Franklin as an influential early proponent of “interest-thinking”—the view that a self automatically or naturally possesses interests that fit an economic model, even if the interests are not solely economic in nature—the essay examines the failure of interest-thinking to capture the most important features of conviction or belief (religious or not). To the extent that secular civil society relies on interest-thinking to manage conflicting beliefs, secularism as we know it may be limited and compromised.
Franklin's writings offer a particular, wryly humorous way of wearing interests that is important to understand, however. The historical emergence of an interest-bearing self was facilitated, especially in America, by the fact that the doctrine of self-interest circulated not only (maybe even not primarily) as an abstract theory of the human but in satirical, self-ironic writings such as Franklin's. Franklin's satires of religious hypocrisy and public posing were an important way in which the interest-bearing self was absorbed into American public culture.