Self Interest

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

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One general challenge is getting people to act properly. What counts as proper behavior is, of course, a rather contentious matter. However, it seems reasonable to believe that at the most basic level harming others is not proper behavior.

It can be argued that self interest will motivate people to act properly. The stock argument (which is based on Hobbes, Locke, and Smith) is that a rational person will realize that behaving badly is not in his self interest because the consequences to himself will be negative.

Naturally, a person might be tempted to act badly if she thinks she can avoid these consequences, which is why it is rather important to make sure that these consequences are rather difficult to avoid. In addition to this concern, there are also other concerns about self-interest as a regulating factor on bad behavior.

First, for self-interest to be a regulating factor, a person’s self interest must coincide with acting correctly. If a person’s self-interest (or what he believed is his self-interest) goes against acting correctly, then he will be inclined to act incorrectly. Not surprisingly, various philosophers have tried to argue that what is truly in a person’s self interest is to act correctly. While there are some good arguments (such as those presented by Socrates) for this view, there are also good arguments that this is not the case. Naturally, from a purely practical standpoint the trick is to get people to believe that their self-interest coincides with not acting badly.

Second, even if it is assumed that it is in a person’s interest to act correctly this will not motivate a person to act correctly unless a person knows what is in her self-interest. While it is tempting to assume that a person automatically knows what is in her self interest, this need not be the case. After all, a person can think that something is in her best interest, yet be mistaken about this. A person might be misled by his emotions, confused or wrong about the facts (to give but a few examples).

Third, even if it is assumed that a person knows what is in her self-interest and that it is in her self-interest to act correctly, there is still the question of whether the person will chose to act in accord with her self-interest or not. To use a simple example, a person might know that exercising is in her self-interest, but be unable to stick with exercising. Roughly put, a person might have knowledge but lack the will or motivation to act on this knowledge.

Thus, self-interest can play a role in regulating behavior-provided that it in accord with correct behavior, the person has knowledge and the will to act on this knowledge.

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35 Comments.

  1. Funny how everything focuses on the individual, and it seems that certain Philosophers have gone to great lengths to claim some validation using the concept of “self interest”–as if they are trying just a bit too hard. But, that seems unavoidable, because the individual is the atom of all social issues.

  2. Ralph Sabella

    What is the proper way to act I don’t believe is a constant for a person, nor for a person at different times. But I can see where it doesn’t make a difference, i.e. one just acts accordingly, assuming he or she has their self-interest to deal with. Unless someone is totally asocial and otherwise self-interest-proof, self-interest will be a factor in their actions and will tend to regulate them. As you pointed out, one, at times, will act contrary to their self-interest with guilt as a consequence.

  3. The general statement is true but irrelevant. One problem is that the “band-width” of “self”, “interest” and “knowledge” allows pretty much anything to have play-time as a descriptive|predictive (select one) explanation.

    There are other problems.

  4. To know what is in my self-interest, I’d have to know myself or who I am or what a self is. Since what a self is is a matter of discussion among philosophers, it is difficult to speak of self-interest with precision. Many people confuse the self with their assets, while others identify the self with reason, but the self, whatever it is, seems much more than reason. My self does seem to make contradictory demands and for that reason alone, I find it not useful to speak of self-interest.

  5. I think this is a really simplistic argument, because self-interest is only one factor that governs decision-making. It has been argued that even actions that appear to be selfless altruism are motivated by feeling good … but this is a very indirect way to act self-interestedly.

    What if, in a limited field of possibility, a person is faced with a decision where no viable option exists to act either rightly or self-interestedly?

  6. Most ideas about individual self-interest fail to take into account that we are social creatures that are part of a tribe. The individual may be the atom of a society. But a society is not just a helter-skelter bag of individuals. A society has its own form and collective consciousness. Just as much as individuals affect a society, the cumulative effect of their actions (i.e. a society) affects the individual. It’s the back-feeding mechanism by which any cohesive system works. And why reductionist, Dawkinsian, atom-centric views are flawed.

    Altruistic human beings are not acting irrationally once you consider them part of a tribe. And they are still acting in a “selfish” (and hence life-affirming) manner. They are acting in the interest of the group. They are not defending their own life. But they are still defending life, the life of the tribe. As social beings, we can’t help but be good. It’s in our DNA so to say. We feel that by acting in certain manners we are acting in the interest of the greater good, even if means risking our own lives. Again, it’s still self-iterest if the self is thought of as a part of greater self. That is to say, as parts of a society.

    But a big question is: what in today’s interconnected world constitutes a tribe? Quite a messy question, as illustrated by the previous piracy thread.

  7. Perhaps one of my earliest philosophical ideas was that giving was better than taking, in that giving generated a mutual value beyond the value of that which is given, while taking incurred a mutual cost that detracts from the value of that which is taken. However, over the years, I’ve had to consider how much of that was an emotional mechanism, affected both by biological and cultural influences.

    While we can identify benefits to cooperation and collaboration (something that I’m particularly fond of), I have to admit that the benefits of cooperation are dependent upon the environment–though I have trouble imagining an environment where cooperation would be the lesser choice.

    Altruism is likely just an illusion generated from mechanisms that are supported by biology and influenced by cultural.

    I personally am fascinated by the work surrounding the hormone oxytocin. Lovers wallow in it, mother’s bond with it, and psychopaths lack it. Whether evolved or created, such hormones exist because of the benefit they provide. But, the fact that we are dependent upon hormones to reinforce social behavior shows us how little we actually understand, at a conscious and rational level, about the benefit of cooperation.

    So, we still wrestle with the connection between self interest and the mutual benefit of cooperation.

  8. Ripis,

    What are the other problems?

  9. Amos,

    True-the vagueness of the self does make it rather difficult to define self-interest. To sort it out, we would need to figure out what the self might be and whether or not it actually has interests.

  10. Andreas,

    Hume has a somewhat similar view. He argued that humans are social and that we (to steal from Bill Clinton) feel the pain of others. He even argued that experience plainly shows that people are often motivated by sympathy and concern for others.

    Modern tribes seem to be quite variable. To use an example, people of the United States often see themselves as one tribe, but then also divide into Democrats and Republicans when it comes to politics (with some serious hate between the two tribes). The same can be applied throughout the world. As such, we have fractured tribal selfs. Or something like that.

  11. Re Amos June 10th:

    I do not think this discussion is intended to embrace the philosophical problems interesting as they are, concerning Self. It is just about you as a human being in the world a subject to all the genetic instincts drives and inhibitions you have together with memory of lifelong experiences which also shape your patterns of behaviour and responses to life. You say “I’d have to know myself or who I am” Surely you know who you are and how you will probably behave in most situations confronting you in life. I say most here because we can for instance, never be sure how bravely or cowardly we might act in certain circumstances.
    My belief is that it is not possible to lay down Moral dictates which cover all people and all circumstances for all of the time. Different times, different people, different cultures, different circumstances, surely all prevail against this.
    Brad Hooker writing in the the latest edition of The Philosophers’ Magazine outlines David Parfitt’s latest moral theory “Everyone ought to follow the rules whose universal acceptance everyone could rationally will.” I ask myself what on earth does that mean, or entail. For a start Everyone?? what all humans on earth Men Women and children?
    Survival is paramount in all organisms. When this is severely threatened in the Human Being all the sophisticated Arm-chair musings about morality and proper behaviour can vanish in an instant. Of course the vanishing point varies from one Human to another considerably.
    I suppose to be fair I should read Parfitt’s latest book ‘On What Matters’ but I am currently reading Squire and Kandel’s ‘Memory’, which I am sure will be for me at least, far more beneficial to understanding this strange place that nature has decreed for me.

  12. Hello Don: Actually, although I’m 64, I discover aspects of my self which surprise me, maybe because I change or maybe because as I get older, aspects of my self, which never came to the surface of consciousness before, emerge. I often feel like a stranger to my self: of course, the “I” which feels a stranger to the self is part of the self, which complicates things more.

  13. “When [life] is severely threatened in the Human Being all the sophisticated Arm-chair musings about morality and proper behaviour can vanish in an instant.”
    Don Bird

    This is true. The musing ceases. But it does not imply that we loose what would be considered ethical behavior at the vanishing point. There are some powerful altruistic instincts in most people. For example, our instinct to save children, even those that are not our own, seems very strong. Again, I emphasize that humans have to be seen as social beings with innate and universal moral qualities. Which is why, as a strong agnostic, I get tired of having to argue that you can be good without religion and answering “but where does right and wrong come from”. Right and wrong are not necessarily divine nor purely human inventions. In my view ethics naturally evolve from our social biology. The more ethical societies do win in the end…

  14. Re Andreas B Olsson June 13th:

    I think I am basically in agreement with what you say. Especially with certain innate behaviour patterns which can be construed from a moral viewpoint. This is why I cannot accept certain man made rules of life which dictate that such and such behaviour is moral and approved. How we behave is due to the evolution of our social biology bearing in mind that survival of the species is paramount. Legal systems have also evolved to control antisocial behaviour.

    At my so called vanishing point I do not think one’s so called ethical behaviour is denied one just desperately reaches out for survival. I am reminded here of Orwell’s 1984 when Winston Smith on the point of facing his greatest fear, hungry rats which will be released on his face screams “don’t do it to me, do it to Julia” Julia being the love of his life. Such behaviour can be seen in those who in desperation steal or lie or even kill. The excuse has been made, ‘we were only obeying orders’ well yes they were, because if they did not they would suffer the agonies which they were ordered to inflict on others. One never knows until one is in the position how one will respond. As I said moral dictates are OK when one is warm, well fed, and in one’s comfortable arm-chair but on the ‘shop floor’ of life, things are so often very different.

  15. Don,
    “This is why I cannot accept certain man made rules of life which dictate that such and such behavior is moral and approved.” Not to beat a dead horse, but I refer back to discussion on the Piracy topic…I would say that the rules are not completely man-made, they are more influenced by the survival of societies that live by those rules. Other rules made by other societies that failed are no longer in play. Of course this is all further complicated by the dynamics of a constantly changing world, so failed rules from the past can become relevant to the present, etc.

    Agree about the ‘obeying orders’ bit. And to your point that “one never knows”…One thing my father related to me about WWII (he fought in the Pacific) was how bravery was often unpredictable. Not so much that those who appeared brave might show weakness or vice versa, but the complete unpredictability of action in times of absolute chaos produced results you would never have predicted in the “comfort of an arm chair”, as you put it.

  16. The observation that this stresses the individual is quite apropos. We are not merely individuals, but social creatures, or as Aristotle put it, political animals. We are quite susceptible to the opinions of others, but we are also susceptible to our own opinion–particularly our own opinion of what others might think of us according to our own idealized standards. Normal people (not sociopaths, of course) want to think of themselves as good, and in the order of bad things, going through life with an opinion of oneself as a bad person might constitute a fate worse than death. People have withstood torture worse than Winston Smith’s and withstood it, probably because they realized they could not live with themselves if they betrayed their principles.

    So, the question is, could you live with yourself as a bad person? Of course, there are no end of ideological or religious justifications–but are you sure you could buy into them? If not, wouldn’t it have been better if you had died?

  17. Re: Mark
    Two points occur to me here.
    1/ I can’t remember just now if it were explicitly stated in 1984, but the ultimate in torture varies from person to person. Thus for Winston Smith confrontation by rats was intolerable. In this case it does not make sense to speak of others enduring worse torture. It seems everybody has a different breaking point, just find it and they capitulate. You may remember Smith had undergone the most extreme pain before he was introduced to the rats, which finally broke him.

    2/ It never occurs to me to think as to whether I am a good person or a bad one. I suppose you would have to ask those who know me. Additionally I am not sure what the characteristics of good people and bad are. Adolph Hitler was pretty awful but he did have some good points, a love of animals, children, the family group, often hospitable, and sometimes very cross with Joseph Goebbels for the latter’s frequent unfaithfulness to his wife of whom Hitler was very fond. Of course all that was eclipsed by the terrible evil he inspired. Again in this connection I am not convinced that those whom we call bad people actually would call themselves bad. Here I am thinking of those followers of Hitler who performed the most terrible crimes against humanity. I am not convinced they all thought of themselves as bad. The same goes for those we consider good I do not think they spend any time contemplating how good they are. They just do what they do. Yes I guess they have satisfaction out of helping others but that is not quite the same.
    I think we are too close to ourselves to judge if we are good or bad leave it to others less biased to comment.

  18. “The stock argument (which is based on Hobbes, Locke, and Smith) is that a rational person will realize that behaving badly is not in his self interest because the consequences to himself will be negative.” – But what if the person doesn’t consider the consequences negative?

  19. Or better still what if the consequences are in themselves not negative but positive?

  20. I,

    In that case, the person would have little reason to behave well (at least in regards to this factor).

  21. Self interest is the driving force of our existance. Everything that we do is driven by self interest – god or bad. All you need to do is look at Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs. Self interest is the foundation upon which each need is based. If you could look deeply into the psyche of Mother Teresa you would see that she sacrificed and did what she did not for the love of her fellow man or her dedication to God as she deluded herself into believing. She did it because it made her feel “good.” She did it because it gave meaning to her life. Ergo – self interest. By the same token, Ted Bundy tortured and murdered his victims because it made him “feel good.” Again – self interest.

    Donald Trump has stepped on and crushed his competition becase it fulfilled a need. In this case, more profits – more prestige – yep again self interest.

    As a species, we must learn and apply the basic principals of self interest.

    1. If the action you take benefits you and the consequences of those actions are worth the risk – do it.

    2. No one will help or support you unless it meets their self interest need. Play to this need to get what you want.

    3. The “haves” of this world understand self interest and use it to their advantage.

    4. The “have nots” suffer from the belief that all the world is good and benevolent and people sacrifice and are generous to the sole benefit of others

  22. Re Charles Paul June 29th.
    I have tried most of my life to argue myself out of this viewpoint but I must confess never with overwhelming success. What ever situation one considers, somehow the response to it it can be thought of as action which at bottom, can be seen to be, what best pleases the agent.

    It is however difficult to see how the soldier who throws himself on top of the hand grenade to protect his comrades is benefiting himself. Again in cases of altruism self sacrifice is seen in the animal world in order that the offspring might survive.

    Kant argued that moral worth was to be found in doing one’s duty. The rich man who helped the poor was praiseworthy but it was not until he too was poor and continued to help others also poor that he was doing his duty through thick and thin and accordingly was acting morally. The underlying theme here seems to be that one must not get enjoyment in doing one’s duty.
    This always seems to me to be against the course of human nature.

    I think at bottom it has something to do with the fact that The Evolutionary necessity to survive, is essential to all organic life and the fittest organisms mostly win through.
    I wish I could genuinely see people as nice, self sacrificing, and compassionate, without thinking they are somehow, perhaps even without realising it, just pleasing themselves.

  23. Don: Haven’t you ever done something that you didn’t want to do because it would make someone else happy or because you felt it was the right thing to do, something which every bone in your body rejected as tiresome, boring or unnecessarily time-consuming, giving up in the process activities or pursuits which you genuinely enjoy? That happens to me often, and I suspect that it also happens to you and to any other normal adult.

  24. Amos:
    The answer is yes. I am certainly not averse to making others happy assuming it is in my power so to do. How ever in your example if I did not do the action you have specified I could feel worse than had I done it. Pangs of conscience maybe and the thought I have deprived someone a certain degree of happiness; assuming of course that other party Is in fact made happy. So my argument is that I select for myself the lesser of two evils: to say nothing of the feeling of what a fine fellow I am to have gone to all that inconvenience and trouble to help someone. So you see I end up feeling much better all round than had I not done the action. There is also always the thought that the party made happy is now now beholden to me, their benefactor.
    This for me is something in the nature of a thought experiment. I am not quite so cold and calculating as it may suggest.

  25. See Twain’s “What is Man?”:

    O.M. The impulse which moves a person to do things—the only impulse that ever moves a person to do a thing.

    Y.M. The ONLY one! Is there but one?

    O.M. That is all. There is only one.

    Y.M. Well, certainly that is a strange enough doctrine. What is the sole impulse that ever moves a person to do a thing?

    O.M. The impulse to CONTENT HIS OWN SPIRIT—the NECESSITY of contenting his own spirit and WINNING ITS APPROVAL.

    Y.M. Oh, come, that won’t do!

    O.M. Why won’t it?

    Y.M. Because it puts him in the attitude of always looking out for his own comfort and advantage; whereas an unselfish man often does a thing solely for another person’s good when it is a positive disadvantage to himself.

    O.M. It is a mistake. The act must do HIM good, FIRST; otherwise he will not do it. He may THINK he is doing it solely for the other person’s sake, but it is not so; he is contenting his own spirit first—the other’s person’s benefit has to always take SECOND place.

  26. Don: Actually, when I do something which I don’t want to do, generally because it is too time-consuming or too money-consuming, because I think that it is the right thing to do or the
    virtuous thing to do, afterwards, I feel like a fool and despise myself for being so innocent. Of course, that is not the case if my good deeds are publically recognized or celebrated, but generally, no one celebrates my good deeds or good deeds in general.

  27. Amos:
    I am getting worried about myself, sitting here trying to remember any good deeds I have ever done. Nothing is coming readily to mind. I am consoling myself by thinking perhaps it is for others to judge my actions.

  28. Charles,

    As Socrates noted, a great deal hinges on what is truly in a person’s self interest. You seem to be taking it in a very self focused sense: what is in my self interest is what benefits me. However, even this view is consistent with being altruistic. What truly benefits a person could be doing what is morally correct and might involve acting contrary to some of his own needs (for example, sacrificing his money, life, or other goods to do what is right).

    Since I cannot see into the psyche of other people, I cannot say what Teresa’s motivations might have really been. You must have some special powers to be able so see such hidden truths. :)

    While the idea that people are egoists is appealing (and well argued by Hobbes and others), there seem to be equally good (or better arguments) against this by Socrates, Hume, and others.

  29. As a professor I often do things because they are right (or generous), but not required or even pleasant. For example, waiting an extra hour for a student who was late to a final because of a personal problem brings me no joy, yet I have done that out of sympathy. It would have been in my self-interest (construed selfishly) to simply go home after the final and have dinner.

    Also, in my personal life I, like most folks, have also done things out of obligation, sympathy or kindness that made me rather unhappy-but I would not have done things differently. If I were a better man, I would always enjoy doing what is right. But, though I cannot always enjoy it or even always do it, I do try to aim towards being that better man.

    This might, perhaps, explain my modest salary, my 9 year old truck, and my regrettable lack of bling.

  30. Don,

    You comment on my blogs after suffering through my words. Good deeds. :)

  31. While I like the idea of doing good for others, there are certain ideas about the concept of altruism that leave me be a bit unsettled. This often includes the very public forms of altruism, especially ideas that associate altruism with socialism.

    I feel that admitting that there is always some degree of self interest in some form or another–however vague–is important to revealing and understanding the more subtle aspects of work that is done for the public good.

    In particular, I am very concerned with the way that attributing an act with the status of altruistic may veil the motivations behind that act.

    One of the problems I see here I often examine by comparing two different ways in which people choose gifts. While there are many variations, the simplest comparison is this: sometimes people choose a gift according to what they, the giver, think a person should have, while at other times people choose a gift based on their understanding of what the receiver would like to have. The problem with giving according to what you think a person should have is that this can be thinking that is motivated by opinions, perhaps negative opinions, about the receiver; and therefore, that act of giving can be a selfish act of trying to change that person, however subtly. And, even if changing that person is justified, the attempt to change that person is still based on a personal desire.

    Even still, selecting a gift based on the understanding of what the receiver would want is limited to how deeply one can have an empathic understanding of another. In addition to the epistemological issues with empathy, people can be selective about their view of others. So, while the act of giving may be directed at the receivers desires, the understanding of those desires may have already been diminished by a selfish choice to maintain a less then true idea of a person.

    I just don’t see a way of utterly removing self interest from any deed. The best I can suggest is that altruistic acts be either preformed with complete Zen detachment or to follow the Christian advice: “let not the right hand know what the left is doing” (or some combination thereof). It may very well be that any sense of satisfaction gained from giving (or improvement in public status) implies that a selfish interest was the motivation for the giving.

    Outside of that, when I gush with emotion about the kindness that I wish upon others, I prefer to be honest about how my desires influence that behavior. I really don’t see how hiding that self interest can detract from the enrichment of my enthusiasm for others.

  32. Tesserid states inter alia:- “I just don’t see a way of utterly removing self interest from any deed.” 

    I personally feel confident that this is in fact the case; how to dispute it I cannot think. So far as gifts go I like to know that it is exactly what the recipient wants. It there be any doubt I prefer to ask rather than present something which is not quite right or completely wrong. Quite frequently I have been asked by people what I think about the surprise gift they have bought for their spouse. So often it is not really the thing to set him/her aflame with gratitude. I have never had the heart to tell them this. Again I have been told that if the recipient does not like it they can take it back to the shop and change for another colour or some such thing. Why not find out in the first place, rather than putting someone to all the trouble of visiting the shop to make an exchange, for something they did not really want in any case, and the shop probably does not have the colour they would prefer etc?
    Returning to the subject of good deeds and my own peculiar habits in life. It seems to me that in any situation one finds oneself one should do what seems best all round. Sometimes this will be to one’s own benefit at the expense of others and sometimes to the benefit of others at one’s own expense.
    Mike Labossiere states
    “For example, waiting an extra hour for a student who was late to a final because of a personal problem brings me no joy, yet I have done that out of sympathy. It would have been in my self-interest (construed selfishly) to simply go home after the final and have dinner.”
    I would say in the circumstances it was the best thing to do. Greater happiness was generated in the student than was the case if Mike had just gone home to dinner, which could easily have wrecked that student’s future. Perhaps you can call this good, but to me it is the obvious thing to do in the circumstances. I suppose this is a utilitarian approach act in such a way that the greatest happiness is generated. I would still leave it to others to decide if they judge my actions good or bad it is not for me to say, and perhaps rejoice, in the thought of what a good man I am.
    In the final analysis however, I cannot get away from the feeling that I am most likely just acting, maybe subconsciously, out of self interest, whatever I do.

  33. Don,

    I sympathize with your merciful restraint regarding questions about gifts. It seems to fit right in with this point that rather than give them the advice that they asked for you instead recognized that the most honest answer was not what they truly wanted.

    Though I can’t remember a specific example, I believe I’ve been in the same situation. Since I value creativity and enthusiasm, as can be expressed through gift giving, I would also be the type to suggest some further exploration of that creativity. And, like you, I typically suggest, as subtly as possible, that there might be additional questions to be asked about what the recipient would want. So, maybe such advice is really giving to both giver and receiver–a double altruism. Oops, there I go waving my own flag.

  34. Whilst I agree that “It can be argued that self interest will motivate people to act properly.” – in reality unfortautely this only applies to “good” people.

    You could hardly argue that Col. Gaddafi is acting properly, although he is certainly acting in his own self interes.

    Oli Hille
    Author
    http://www.LifestyleBook.com

  35. Most talks about interest will miss the point because most people do not ask what interest is. Most people do not ask what is the purpose of interest, who is expressing interest and/or how or what people do when they express interest. This is obvious, for example, from asking what interest has a person who threw himself in front of a grenade to protect his fellow soldiers.
    John Dewey encourages us to define interest from the etiological stand point, according to which to have an interest is to be in the mist of others (object or problems) and to seek to extricate self.
    Now, a person who is striving, extricating self is seeking the best possible. Therefore, to achieve his or her object, he or she does what is most appropriate if he or she knows how, not what seems expedient. Determining what is presently and ultimately expedient is what is difficult for most people.
    Determining and/or differentiating what seems expedient or presently necessary from what is ultimately expedient is where the difficulties lie in defining and understanding interest.

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