The Myth of Self-interest 2

The Myth of Self-interest 2

Yesterday I tried to show (1) that Self-interest cannot possibly be at the root of human behavior, (2) that Self-interest is just another name for selfishness, and (3) that Self-interest is not compatible with decent morality.

Today I will discuss (1) the historical origin of the modern Conservative notion of Self-interest as the fundamental motivator of human beings, (2) the tendency to confuse the principle of Self-interest with “enlightened self-interest,” and (3) the fact that Self-interest cannot be the underlying motivator of human beings.

The Myth of Self-interest and Adam Smith

The popularity of this Myth can be traced back to an insufficiently careful remark by Adam Smith—a remark that he almost certainly would have taken back if he could have.

In The Wealth of Nations, Smith analyzed a lot of complex stock data ranging over many years, and came to the conclusion that something like progress had emerged out of the many warring factions of entrepreneurs, investors, holding companies, insurance corporations, and individuals all vying to maximize their personal profits. In a fateful phrase, he remarked that there seemed to be an “invisible hand” guiding all this chaotic activity toward a positive overall outcome.⁠ (Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 2 vols. [Indianapolis: The Liberty Fund, 1981], 456.)

Smith, himself a reasonable and decent man, came to regret this statement. When he made it, he simply had not reckoned that people would turn his observation to selfish purposes. It turned out that many people were just waiting for someone to give them an excuse to act selfishly. The “invisible hand” was just what they were looking for.

Now they could discount the effects of all their aggressive and self-centered tendencies. They were, after all, only cogs in the divine plan, only instruments of God’s will. And he could turn even their short-sighted, self-interested, inconsiderate actions to good purpose. With this excuse in hand, they no longer needed to feel guilty at all about being selfish.

When he realized what he had done, Smith turned his energies to revising his first best-seller, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in such a way as to counteract, he hoped, the mistaken belief that so many had drawn from The Wealth of Nations. In his revisions of the earlier book, he harped on one point especially: that society is held together, promoted, and advanced by benevolence—that is, good will—and not by self-interest.

It was, unfortunately, too late. He had opened the lid of Pandora’s box, and almost no one was even interested in trying to close it again.

This Myth not to be confused with “enlightened self-interest”

One reason why Self-interest has come to be regarded as having positive aspects is that it was given a positive spin once the Myth of Self-interest had taken hold. With regard to American attitudes, this usage came to the fore in Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

Tocqueville recounts that Americans often take some pains to convince others that their altruistic actions are actually based on an expanded conception of Self-interest, a notion Tocqueville calls “self-interest rightly understood” or “enlightened self-interest.”⁠ (Alexis de Tocqueville, “How the Americans Combat Individualism by the Doctrine of Self-Interest Rightly Understood,” in Democracy in America [New York: HarperCollins, 1988], 256-58.)

The concept is easy to grasp, as Tocqueville points out, which contributes to its popularity as a moral theory. Essentially, it is a way of explaining any action that looks selfless by appealing to a roundabout sort of self-interest.

If someone were to go out of his way to help an elderly woman across the street, for instance, he or she might be met by witnesses complimenting him for his generosity. According the principle of enlightened self-interest, the good samaritan would turn away the compliments with some sort of explanation such as, “Not at all. I just know that by helping out a fellow human being today, I increase the store of examples that might lead others to help me at some time in the future.”

Another example, of a sort that has become increasingly rare, would be that of a person who advocates higher tax rates for his own income range during periods of economic stress or times of war. Rather than ascribing this choice to superior civic virtue, a person who relies on the theory of enlightened self-interest would describe his motivation in terms of delayed benefit to himself: “We all benefit from promoting the general welfare. By paying more taxes today, I contribute to the infrastructure and social resilience that I will need for my future success.”

This principle may be easy to grasp, and very helpful for encouraging people with weak moral compasses to engage in altruistic behavior. But it is hardly what it pretends to be. That is to say, it is hardly self-interest at all.

This is because enlightened self-interest has two stages: first, a good done for someone else; second, a good returned to the giver of the first benefit. But the first stage is an actual favor given away. The second stage is only a hoped-for return. This hope is not at all what self-interest actually demands. If this were really a matter of self-interest, the first benefit would not be given until the return benefit was guaranteed in some way.

When this is pointed out to those who explain their actions on the basis of enlightened self-interest, they often reply that, even if they never receive the return, they would give the first benefit anyway, because “it’s the right thing to do.” They don’t seem to recognize this response as an admission that they don’t really believe in enlightened self-interest. In fact, it indicates that they are actually virtuous people: after all, they would do the “right thing” even without any return. It turns out that “enlightened self-interest” is not really self-interest at all, but merely a form of modesty.

Now this is not at all what people who advocate the Myth of Self-interest mean when they use it to support their actions. They use it to excuse their selfishness by appealing to some universal and impersonal law that absolves them from their responsibilities to others. Nevertheless, they will often try to steal the positive aura that attaches to “enlightened self-interest” in order to hide the immorality of their stance. A thoughtful person should always be on the lookout for that move, because it is always deceptive. “Enlightened self-interest” and The Myth of Self-interest are as far apart as virtue and vice.

All motivations not reducible to Self-interest

Those who believe the Myth of Self-interest often try to justify it by reducing all appearances of altruism to selfish motivations. No matter what sort of selfless act someone does, they think that it is possible to construct a story that accounts for it in terms of self-interest.

For example: A plane splashes down in icy waters on a frigid winter night. A man on a bridge sees the plane goes down, instantly throws off his coat and shoes, and plunges into the water, saving person after person from drowning.

Now, why did he do this? Could it be that he wasn’t motivated by self-interest—namely, protecting his own life by letting the victims sink or swim on their own—but by altruism—namely, placing his safety and even his life in jeopardy for the sake of others?

Die-hard adherents of the Myth of Self-Interest can always find a selfish explanation. “He obviously had a great desire for adulation, and by becoming a hero, he satisfies that desire and receives the praise that he really wanted.” In fact, it’s not too difficult to think up selfish motivations for almost any seeming altruistic behavior. Give it a try. You’ll find that you can write some pretty good stories about how selfish everyone really is.

A consequence of holding to this reduction of all motives to self-interest is that you have to relinquish any faith you have in the goodness of human beings in order to believe it. If it were true that everyone were motivated solely by self-interest, then you could never count on the good will of anyone—not your spouse, not your relatives, not your best friends, not your pastor. No one, no matter how close you may be with them, does anything to benefit you. If it seems that way, it’s only because you haven’t understood the benefit that accrues to them. You don’t really have any friends, nor are you really a friend to anyone else, because good will—which is concern for someone else for their own sake and not for any benefit that may accrue to oneself—doesn’t really exist.

Is this the sort of world you want to live in? If not, if you prefer to believe that there is such a thing as good will, what can be said against the Myth of Self-interest so that you don’t have to accept it?

What can be said against it is that, in fact, it is impossible to say that all human action is rooted selfishness. Here’s why.

The adherent of the Myth of Self-interest believes that there is some self-centered motivation for all human actions. This motivation is obvious in clearly selfish actions, such as cutting into a line. But it’s not so obvious in regard to actions that seem to be motivated by concern for others—like the actions of the man mentioned above who jumps into an icy river so save people after a plane crash.

To account for this lack of obviousness, the theory of self-interest asserts that the actor had some hidden motive (perhaps even hidden from himself) that was in fact self-interested—like his desire to be considered a hero. The apparent altruism was, therefore, only an illusion. It was either a self-deception, or an outright lie.

One problem with this explanation is that it cannot possibly be verified or tested in any way. We, as outside observers, can never know whether the motivation was selfish or altruistic. Whether the actor is lying about his motivations or trying to be as honest as he can, who can say that he really understands all the factors that go into prompting him to act? Can anyone ever know whether a given action was prompted by selfishness or good will, even if it was his own action?

And even more, the theory of self-interested motives can be opposed by another theory that contradicts it directly and is just as incapable of proof. Instead of saying that all behavior is motivated by selfishness, it could just as easily be said that all behavior is motivated by altruism, and that all apparent selfish motivation is an illusion, a self-deception, or a lie. For example: one person in a committed relationship asks the other for “space,” and goes off somewhere without the other partner. The apparent selfishness of this action could very well be an illusion. The separating partner might be dealing with serious inner conflicts, and his motive might actually be a desire to spare the other some difficult times.

One can be just as ingenious in writing stories about how unselfish everyone really is.

The two theories are completely contrary, can generate explanations for every behavior, and cannot be falsified, tested, or verified. There is no reason at all to prefer one to the other.

Thus neither self-interest nor benevolence can be the objective basis of human motivation. 

So what should we believe? There are only two options here: either there is something good, benevolent, and altruistic in people, or there is not. The ethical systems of the world break down along this line.

You have to choose. If you choose to believe that there is such a thing as good will, that people can be motivated by concern for others, then their apparent altruistic actions may actually be altruistic. If you choose to believe, on the other hand, in the Myth of Self-interest, then the appearance of benevolence is just an illusion, just a disguised form of selfishness.

If you choose the latter, then living with others becomes (and ought to be, according to this belief) an exercise in using one’s own self-interest to conquer the self-interest of others—a battle of wills, a constant defense against deception, a continual struggle for supremacy in the realm of selfishness.

If you choose the former, then living with others becomes a question of how to maximize the opportunities for the benevolence in people to emerge, rather than the selfishness.

Which world do you want to live in? Which world provides more scope for compassion, communication, love, and creativity?


In the next installment, we will see why Self-interest cannot be the fundamental principle of any social group.

Until tomorrow, then.

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