A Philosopher's Blog

Self Interest

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on May 31, 2010
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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8 Responses

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  1. freddiek said, on May 31, 2010 at 9:44 am

    “. . .the trick is to get people to believe that their self-interest coincides with not acting badly”
    Would that involve “sleight of the invisible hand”? And who controls the white glove and the wand and wears the funky black top hat?–each man, his government, or God?

    “A person might be misled by his emotions, confused or wrong about the facts (to give but a few examples)” Or a poor, well-meaning schmuck might simply be misled/lied to by some unscrupulous s**ts who are just greedy. It’s in these interactions between real human beings that Smith’s unseen control would appear to lose its grip. Perhaps the hand could use some regulatory ‘grip assist’.

    And then there’s always ‘possibly unintentional’ failure to avoid harming others— because it is not in your self interest(or your shareholders’ self interest. . .) to consider the consequences of your actions.

    A “rational” person. . . Not even the best of ‘us’ are rational all the time. The worst of ‘them’ are never rational.

  2. ajmacdonaldjr said, on May 31, 2010 at 10:30 am

    As Winston Smith said, after his visit to the Ministry of Love: “I love Big Brother”.

  3. magus71 said, on May 31, 2010 at 11:45 am

    Admittedly, the problem is getting people to know what is best for them.

    I will also admit that self-interest is not the only regulator, but surely it is powerful enough so we ought not remove it–ie bailing out failed businesses. Eventually we will have to pay the Piper, and his costs go up the longer we put off writing him a check.

    There is also the consideration of immediate gain to long-term gain. For instance, in the Afghan military, the officers eat first, and will take food and drinks right out of the hands of their soldiers and eat it themselves, all the while laughing. In the American military, leaders eat last–or not at all if there’s not enough food for the Soldiers. In the case of the Afghan officer, he is gaining something: food and a full belly. Of course, when it comes to actual military operations his troops will do what Afghan troops are best at: Fail to show up, run away in a fight or defect. The US leader sacrifices immediate gain for the long-term benefit of increasing his troops’ morale and making an example of himself. Thus, it is still in his self-interest to sacrifice. Afterall, his own life or career may depend heavily on what his troops do.

    We must remember, too, that motivations for what people and societies do are mixed. It’s not all self-interest or all a sense of duty or morality. There are people who will give up everything for something they believe is greater than themselves. Those people represent both the best and most evil people in history.

    • freddiek said, on May 31, 2010 at 1:27 pm

      “There are people who will give up everything for something they believe is greater than themselves. Those people represent both the best and most evil people in history.”

      Tru dat, bro. Life be a biyatch. The line between the hero/man of honor and the thoughtless true believer is sometimes invisible.

      note: Don’t forget those people who are willing to give up nothing for something that is undeniably greater than themselves. And those who will sacrifice everything for some harebrained doctrine.

      • T. J. Babson said, on May 31, 2010 at 5:10 pm

        “Tru dat, bro. Life be a biyatch. The line between the hero/man of honor and the thoughtless true believer is sometimes invisible.”

        I disagree–the line may as well be da-glo orange–the hero is always on the side that advances human freedom.

        • freddiek said, on May 31, 2010 at 7:32 pm

          Perhaps I should have made the link between “thoughtless true-believer” and “those who will sacrifice everything for some harebrained doctrine” more definitive. See, that “thoughtless, true-believer” often knows, without a shadow of doubt, that he’s on the side of “human freedom” and all that’s holy.

          For him there’s no line. Just fuzz.

          • T. J. Babson said, on June 1, 2010 at 10:03 am

            Let’s not get all Orwellian. There are perfectly objective criteria for measuring human freedom.

            One place to start is the “Economic Freedom” Index:

            Hong Kong tops an annual index from the Fraser Institute, a Canadian think-tank, which ranks 141 countries according to the degree to which their policies support economic freedom. Countries that promote trade (both internal and external), free competition and strong legal protection for private property score well. America comes sixth in the survey, just behind Chile but ahead of the big continental European countries. Germany is ranked one place above Japan, the other main export-led economy in the rich world. The big emerging economies do fairly poorly. China is just above Russia in 82nd place. Brazil is outside the top 100. Zimbabwe has the dubious distinction of coming bottom of the think-tank’s list.

            http://www.economist.com/markets/indicators/displayStory.cfm?story_id=14460313

            • freddiek said, on June 1, 2010 at 9:55 pm

              Economic Freedom and Human Freedom.Yes, that is a place to ‘start’ as you say, but only just.

              There are a few other “freedoms” outlined in our Bill of Rights. We could rank countries, for example, according to the degree to which they honor freedom of speech— or religion—or right or assembly—or freedom of the press. And those are all from one amendment. Think tanks could devote their so-called “non-partisan” intellectual powers to developing “objective criteria” and systematically applying those criteria
              to the creation of a worldwide ranking of countries in each area.

              And then we’ll have more objective criteria. Bring to me a member of Al Qaeda who might apply those criteria objectively (objectively by our definition) to his own life and actions. In my opinion, whatever the findings of the world’s most-thoughtful-think-tanks,that “thoughtless true believer” will remain convinced he’s on the side of “human freedom and all that’s holy” and good.

              I still don’t see a distinct line.


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