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. (Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 2 vols. [Indianapolis: The Liberty Fund, 1981], 456.)In response to this reaction,
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.
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.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:
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.
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.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.
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.
[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. . . .Furthermore, the theory is unverifiable, and the facts can be equally explained by an opposite theory:
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.
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?So which is it?
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.
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.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.
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?
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.