Skip to main content

I'm continuing my reporting on the next installment from Conservative Estimate, the recently founded website that is devoted to demolishing Conservatism.

Today Mr. George traces the historical origin of the modern notion of Self-interest as a principle of human behavior, shows who people tend to confuse the principle of Self-interest with the idea of “enlightened self-interest,” and demonstrates that Self-interest cannot be the generator of all other human motivations.

I invite you to cross border indicated by curvy orange flourishes . . .

First, Mr. George locates the blossoming of the principle of Self-interest in modern times to a single comment in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations:

[Smith] remarked that there seemed to be an “invisible hand” guiding all this chaotic activity toward a positive overall outcome.[1] (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.

In response to this reaction,
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.

Next Mr. George shows how the Myth of Self-interest is often confused with the principle of “enlightened self-interest”—an association that give the Myth a position aura that is entirely undeserved. First he explains what “enlightened self-interest” is:
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.

But then Mr. George points out that Conservatives do not mean what Tocqueville means when they try to conflate the Myth of Self-interest with the principle of enlightened self.-interest.
[T]his 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.
Finally, Mr. George shows why it cannot possibly be the case that all, or even most, human motivations can be reduced to self-interest. First he notes that many people find comfort in trying to reduce all motives 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. . . .

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.

Furthermore, the theory is unverifiable, and the facts can be equally explained by an opposite theory:
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.

So which is it?
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?

Wouldn’t we really rather live in a world in which benevolence has a prominent role rather than no role? Maybe Conservatives don’t want this. Their support for the Myth of Self-interest could indicate their antipathy to benevolence. But, what is more likely, their thinking is just so confused that they don’t see the contradiction between living according to the Myth and living according to benevolence. And therefore they can’t see that their “principles” cause them to live immoral lives.

You can read the whole post here.

Tomorrow Mr. George proposes to address the question of why Self-interest absolutely cannot be the fundamental principle of any society.

I'll be reporting back each day as a new installment appears.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

  •  Self-interest (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    stevie avebury, radarlady

    Enlightened self-interest stands opposed to Ayn Rand's "rational self-interest." Seemingly selfless acts can actually be in your self-interest. Education, for example. Even if you don't have any children in school, an educational system in in your self-interest because the economy in which you live benefits from an educated populace.

    People like Ayn Rand have elevated the invisible hand to a god-like entity. Smith never said that the invisible hand always produces desirable results, but that's the mantra from the right. We joke about Somalia, but that's what you get from the invisible hand.

    The wolfpack eats venison. The lone wolf eats mice.

    by A Citizen on Thu Nov 15, 2012 at 04:59:11 AM PST

  •  Papa John's: Myth self-interest/enlightened self (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    -interest. If I understand the concepts correctly, that the stance of PJ CEO about Obamacare would be an example of the myth of self-interest. OTOH, if he and other CEOs started saying, "it is really expensive for us to provide employer subsidized healthcare. We need single payer so that healthcare costs will never interfere w/ our bottom line again," would be enlightened self-interest.

  •  Unenlightened self-interest (0+ / 0-)

    is what we're seeing.

    I thought about it and convinced myself it's okay to help myself to as much as I can, no matter who or how many people I hurt.

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site