THe Myth of Self-interest 1

THe Myth of Self-interest 1

For the past several days we have tried to show that the fundamental Conservative fear of scarcity is a myth. There is no rational reason to fear shortages of essential commodities, or to fear the reversion of people to savagery in the face of scarcity. Since this fear is an essential support of the Conservative world view, that fact that it is not rooted in reality means that Conservatism is not founded in reality. It is not the "conservative entertainment complex" that is responsible for the Republicans tendency to live in a bubble world cut off from the real world. It is one of their fundamental premises that cuts them off from reality, and then they produce their "entertainment" to conform with and propagate that mistaken premise. Republicans were not "lied to" by their self-generated media; they were shown an accurate reflection of their unreal world view. And eventually, living your life on the basis of a delusion fails. Reality bites.

At the end of yesterday's installment we said that the Myth of Scarcity, though certainly untrue and full of negative consequences, was only the gateway to another Myth, a Myth even more pernicious and far-reaching in its consequences: The Myth of Self-interest. Today we begin our first installment tackling the nature, the consequences, and the utter falsity of that Myth.

Is all human action based on Self-interest?

The Myth of Self-interest is a belief that has done, and continues to do, great damage to society, to interpersonal relationships, and to human progress. It’s a simple idea, and a persuasive one because it allows people to justify some less-than-honorable desires. It goes like this: Everyone acts out of self-interest, but the combination of all these self-interested actions results in the best possible outcome.

You can see why this belief is so attractive. It lets people imagine that they don’t have to devote much, or any, attention to the needs and desires of others. Indeed, for some people it has become more or less a doctrine of faith. They actually believe that they—and everyone else—have no other responsibility but to act for their own self-interest. Some other power—history, or fate, or God, or something they just don’t think about—is responsible for working it all out for the best. It’s sometimes used as an excuse for not having a conscience, or as a refutation of the whole idea of personal responsibility to others.

The consequence of believing this is that people are not responsible for their own actions, since someone or something else has relieved them of that responsibility. So they don’t actually have the right to imagine that anything they choose to do or not to do is any reflection on them. And the same would be true for others. And as a result, they don’t have any right to pass judgment on anybody else for anything. After all, whatever anybody else does is just as much out of self-interest as whatever they do.

Almost no one except self-centered adolescents without real life experience can live with this consequence. How many people do you know who can resist judging others, even if they espouse the Myth of Self-Interest? Yet if they judge others, they are contradicting the Myth they say they believe.

This alone shows that this belief cannot possibly be true: no one can really live according to it without contradicting himself.

Self-interest not really different from selfishness

There is no real difference between self-interest and selfishness. The only distinction is that the Myth allows people to believe that the disgrace that attaches to selfishness doesn’t apply to self-interest. And that lets them admit to being self-interested while at the same time denying they are selfish.

This deception and self-deception enter into many different fields of experience—wherever selfishness can successfully be transformed by the Myth into the appearance of virtue.

In politics, for instance, the Myth takes the form of the theory of governance based on a battle of competing interests. Each political unit—whether it is the nation-state, or the states within a federation, or the counties within a state, or the municipalities within a county, or the neighborhoods within a municipality, or the individuals within the neighborhood—acts on the basis of its own self-interest, fights with other units for the outcome it wants, and, according to the Myth, the greater good arises once the dust of the battle has cleared.

In economics, the Myth takes the form of free market theory. Markets are composed of huge numbers of individuals, interest groups, corporations, and other actors, each trying to maximize their own private interests. Somehow, out of the conflict of all these competing interests, the best possible outcome for all is supposed to arise.

Just on the basis of these two examples, however, it is easy to see the most significant effect of the Myth does not depend on whether it is true. In fact, it is clearly false. The result of this sort of mindless conflict over selfish aims much more often benefits the few rather than the many, and much more often produces invidious victories, ignominious defeats, or unresolved stalemates rather than benefits to the general welfare.

The most significant effect of the Myth is that it frees up the conscience. Believers no longer need to apologize for being avaricious, combative, ruthless, intolerant, offensive, mean, or generally anti-social, because, after all, the theory requires them to battle for their selfish desires.

People who maintain that they actually believe the Myth and who try to justify selfish behavior by insisting on some theory of self-interest are really just trying to keep their consciences from bothering them. Indeed, the volubility of their arguing is usually an accurate indicator of how much they have done to make their consciences bother them.

Self-interest incompatible with morality

The Myth of Self-interest is, in fact, completely incompatible with just about any decent system of morality that one could imagine. It is simply an abdication of responsibility for one’s actions toward others to adopt the position that the only law you need to pay attention to is the law of following your own interest. And it is utterly inhumane to insist that you are part of some vast but unidentifiable “system” of the universe that will adjust everyone’s selfish ends in order to come up with the best possible overall result. To believe this is to reject the notion that we are responsible for our choices.

Decent morality does not allow people to treat others badly just to attain some personal goal of their own. Decent morality does not allow people to pursue their selfish desires with total disregard for the welfare of others, or to focus on oneself which ignoring the needs of others.

Of course, not even those who believe this Myth are usually crass enough to state it in its most blatant form. For that, you have to look to literature. You will find the purest statement of this Myth and all its corollaries in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, where the whole force of the Myth of Self-interest—including its adumbrations into atheism, anti-social self-worship, and the cult of the amoral superman—is expressed by the character of John Galt.⁠ (Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged [New York: Plume, 1999].)

Most believers choose, however, to pretend that their attraction to the principle of Self-interest is somehow compatible with decent morality. They argue on the one hand that following Self-interest leads to the best results for the whole, but they deny on the other hand that they would follow it exclusively if it leads to inhumane treatment of others. And they are quick espouse compassion for the less fortunate, even to practice some forms of charity.

But none of this can expiate the mistake of believing in this Myth. First of all, to profess belief in Self-interest while refusing to follow out its consequences is simply to be philosophically inconsistent. Second, no amount of decent behavior can compensate for accepting a falsehood as the cornerstone of your thinking. You will continue to act badly and many occasions because you still believe in something that can’t possibly be true.

Consequently, believing the Myth of Self-interest is just an attempt to act selfishly without getting a reputation for selfishness.

What's next

Having seen that Self-interest is just a smokescreen for the vice of selfishness, tomorrow we will begin to show the history of how this Myth took hold from an offhand remark by Adam Smith, how it became confused with "enlightened self-interest," and how it cannot possible be the case that all human motivation reduces to the principle of Self-interest.

Until tomorrow, then.

3 comments (Add your own)

1. phillydoug wrote:
Mr. George,
I came to your site via Daily Kos. This is imporatnt, excellent work you're doing.
Exposing the myths of conservatism is crucial; a question I have had for a long time is how to change the basic premises of the political conversation (which includes the hegemony of these myths), as currently propounded in mass media. If I come up with something, I'll let you know. I'm interested to hear your thoughts.

14 November 2012 @ 8:17 AM

2. MrSpock wrote:
I too came here from DailyKos. I have more comments in that diary which is linked at the bottom, but I'll repost my first critique :

I respectfully disagree
Fist off you are attacking a straw man by conflating a macro economic system with personal morality. You can both be for an economic system based on individual self interest and advocate for personal morality. In fact the two go hand-in-hand in that part of a person’s self interest is their morality.

A self interest based system benefits greatly from morality. If I don’t like what you are doing I can boycott you. If I can get enough people to share my view then your own self will force you to change. If on the other hand I am a lone lunatic then you can safely ignore me.

Second, I pose this question: What would an economic system based on assuming everyone was moral look like? Well for one it would be fragile because it would require that people “do the right thing”. What happens in such a system when the inevitable human selfishness shows up?

Even more troubling is what is the definition of “do the right thing” and who gets to make it? You could make a strong case that if I sacrifice my personal resources to help others less fortunate that I am acting nobly. But what if that sacrifice does not just affect me, but my family…or my community…or my state…or my country. For example it would be noble for me to forgo a movie night out and donate the money to help feed the homeless. But how noble is it to deny my children that same luxury? How noble would it be to say that no one could buy a luxury item until everyone was fed…on the entire planet.

Third, who is better at determining what I want than me. I’d much prefer to be able to buy the flavor of ice cream that I like, than to have to rely on someone else’s ability to guess what I like. That is at the heart of the self interest argument. It is simply the best and most efficient way we have to determine the correct aggregate demand. Let everyone vote for what they want, let them be selfish if you will, and total the results.

14 November 2012 @ 11:19 AM

3. Lawrence wrote:
A brief response to MrSpock. As I see it, the greatest danger of self-interest is those who hide behind the philosophy as a justification for being unscrupulous. All too often, those in a position of power or influence are ruthlessly unscrupulous and escape punishment or even negative consequences due to their status. Clearly, this works against the greater good, does it not? To be sure, we are all concerned about our well-being or self interest, however, to aggrandize that as a philosophy may, IMO, lead to a dangerous outcome. I think this is the thrust of Mr. George's argument.

26 December 2012 @ 3:32 PM

Add a New Comment


Comment Guidelines: No HTML is allowed. Off-topic or inappropriate comments will be edited or deleted. Thanks.