The Myth of Self-interest 3

The Myth of Self-interest 3

Yesterday we saw that Self-interest is not to be confused with “enlightened self-interest,” and that it cannot be the fundamental principle of human action. Today we’re going to look at the question of whether Self-interest can be the fundamental principle of any group activity.


Self-interest simply cannot be the first principle of people living or working together. Any social activity, from the workings of the smallest interest group to the maintenance of entire nations, requires cooperation first and foremost. Only through cooperation can goals and aims be assessed, plans devised, sequential operations coordinated, tasks distributed, and progress evaluated.

There is no way that any of this could be achieved if self-interest were the first principle of human action. Every act that looked like cooperation would in fact be a disguised sort of selfishness; every apparent agreement would be broken as soon as one of the parties decided it was no longer in his self-interest. Even the relative stability that actually exists in human affairs is inexplicable if the root of all interactions is self-interest.

Why then has self-interest been accepted by so many as the governing principle of society? How can such an impossibility come to seem so obvious to so many people?

Let’s return for a moment to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” In looking over a mass of data on market-driven activities in Great Britain, Smith imagined that there was some force tending toward a positive end, a force that canceled out the negative effects of self-seeking motivations, and despite the individual abuses resulting from unchecked greed, amoral profit-seeking, and even immoral fraud and theft.

What, indeed, was this unidentified force? Was it God? If so, it would be a God who plays with people’s lives, sacrificing their personal happiness and individual justice for the sake of the large scale system. Is this anyone’s idea of what God should be like?

Or was the force some inexorable power wielded by fate or by history or by economics or by something else over which human beings have no control? If so, then we need to abandon all our delusions about self-determination. And those who continue to believe in God need to ask themselves whether their ideas about Him are compatible with the callousness that would be required of a Creator who would set such implacable masters over humankind.

In fact, the idea of the “invisible hand” is not only suspect because the source of its power cannot be identified. It is even easier to understand that one could only entertain such a notion in the context of a very large number of human interactions. Nothing like the force of an “invisible hand” is thought to operate on individual human actions. The individual grifter or con-artist is morally culpable for his actions, which are not counterbalanced by some unidentified power. Only in the detail-effacing conglomeration of large numbers, where one can simply fail to observe the harm done to numerous individuals, can the notion of the “invisible hand” look even scarcely plausible.

There is no magic that arises from large numbers. Self-interest does not transform itself from a vice into a virtue just because we lose the trees for the forest. If is does harm at the individual level, it also does harm at the societal level.

This is the reason that Smith tried to undo the damage caused by his “invisible hand” remark. Self-interest cannot possibly be the basis of society. On the contrary, it is good will that makes all societal constructs hold together. Contracts, investments, return on investments, public works, elections, the law itself, and so on—all owe whatever efficacy they have to good will, and its corollary, cooperation.

Wherever self-interest appears, whether on the individual or the collective scale, it throws a monkey wrench into the smooth workings of society.


On Monday, we will see that those who believe in the Myth of Self-interest live miserable lives—whether they know it or not.

Until Monday, then. Enjoy the weekend!

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