I Reject Your Notion of “Self-Interest”


-Hannah Mead, MCPP intern, 2008

One awesome thing about the blogosphere is how courteous bloggers are. I’m not talking about posts or comments — these can of course get nasty. But the proliferation of such kind behavior as citing HTs, putting (pdf) after a link and giving spoiler warnings is pretty universal. And it’s pretty nice.

Do bloggers do this simply because they want more readers and so want to be as reader-friendly as possible? Maybe, but I doubt this is the sum of it. Because of peer pressure? Probably not, since that pressure would simply be in the form of losing readership. Do they include these courtesies because they consider readers to be part of their own community and so extend kindness to them? Perhaps — it’s either this or the last option: Because they themselves have suffered the intense frustrating of unknowingly clicking on a pdf link and waiting forever for Acrobat to open, and so want to spare everyone that pain?

I think the last two are the most plausible — which means bloggers are not acting in what some people would claim is their self-interest, since the poster does not stand to personally benefit from these courtesies.  Though some consider this to be irrational action, I think it’s perfectly reasonable. After all, “It’s nice to be nice.”

This brings me to the ultimate point: The concept of self-interest is of limited usefulness — it either dismisses genuine altruism or inherently encompasses all human action. Nice people are either irrational, manipulative, guilty or simply caring. I reject the first two outright. And though many have insisted that my altruism is motivated by a sense of guilt, I know that it’s not. Which leaves the last option. Most people like to do some nice things for themselves and some things for others — this is, I am sometimes told, in their “self-interest” since they like to do so. Which would mean self-interest is completely tautological: Anything I do is by definition in my self-interest. So where does that get us?

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2 thoughts on “I Reject Your Notion of “Self-Interest”

  1. Hmm – some of this needs clarification.

    But first, check this out:

    ‘Benevolence, as defined by David Kelley in his book Unrugged Individualism (which details the selfish basis of benevolence) is a “commitment to achieving the values derivable from life with other people in society, by treating them as potential trading partners, recognizing their humanity, independence and individuality, and the harmony between their interests and ours”. Benevolence is thus clearly rationally selfish. It is not a sacrifice of one’s interests to those of others. Rather it reaffirms a positive view of human beings and recognizes the potential of humans.’ http://www.objectivistcenter.org/cth–1230-Benevolence_and_SelfInterest.aspx

    Here’s where clarification is needed: “The concept of self-interest is of limited usefulness.” I think you mean to say that the notion that humans are motivated SOLELY by self-interest, the so-called “rational actor” model – is insufficient to explain many forms of human behavior. It does fully explain some forms – choosing brand X vs. brand Y in the grocery store, for example. Many on the left go so far in seeking to dismiss the rational actor model that they even reject it’s value in explaining these kinds of actions.

    In my view, pure rational actor-ism is as much a form of determinism as is Marxist materialism, the view that all human behavior can be expplained by understanding the means of production in a particular society. Both theories provide useful “lenses” for understanding human action, but pushed too far both distort rather than clarify. (My apologies to real scholars for butchering some of these concepts).

    Here’s the bottom line: Man is a complicated mixture of motivations. One subfield of the rational actor mode, public choice theory, uses it to explain the actions of politicians and bureaucrats. But even the person most identified with that theory, James Buchanan, wrote, “Each political actor, regardless of his role, combines both of these elements (pursuit of the ‘general interest’ and their own ‘pecuniary interest’) in his behavior pattern . . .”

    The rational actor model has come in for it’s share of criticism in academia. One of the tools used to challenge it is voting – why do people vote? It’s irrational, at least at the presidential levelm becuase your single vote will never matter. But even one of the theory’s critics has said this: “(I)t would be absurd to give up the extraordinarily useful insights into political behavior the theory has given us.” (Jane Mansbridge)

  2. Humans are complex and have many motives for the things they do. A simplistic rational actor explanation is no more satisfactory than a simplistic Marxist materialism one – “Washington and Jefferson were only promoting the interests of their class.” Being motivated by goodwill does not mean that a person person can’t also be motivated by self-interest – and isn’t capable of stupendous feats of rationalization. I think we’re seeing some of that in comments defending the government school establishment over on the SFE site.

    In a more fleshed-out article I’m writing on this I cite the one exception where the preumption of goodwill is not granted, which is “illegitimate viewpoints” – groups or individuals who announce a desire that harm visit some subset of humanity such as blacks, Jews, infidels, etc. I’ve given some thought too to corruption – pols who break the rules for personal gain. Are we required to accord them the presumption?

    I think we are, at least in matters outside the scope of their corrupt activities. For example, a person can think that Kwame deserves to go to jail and get thrown out of office without also having to think that he wants bad things to happen to the people of Detroit.

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