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Does Everyone Always Act in Their Self-Interest?

2017 April 5
by Ian Welsh

The statement that people always act in their self interest is one of the two main axioms at the heart of the modern democratic-capitalist order.

Let’s take a pure form denial by counter-example.

Kamikazee pilots. They volunteer to die for their country by crashing their planes into ships, then do so.

Death is rarely in someone’s interest unless life is worse. This appears to be altruism, or loyalty, or honor or something other than self-interest.

The counter-argument is, “If they do such a thing, it has to be in their perceived self-interest; that Kamikazee pilot couldn’t prefer to die than not be a Kamikazee pilot, therefore it was in his self-interest to die.” Various special explanations may be given, such as social coercion, benefit to his family, identification with Japan so extreme that he made Japan’s self interest his own self-interest, but they all boil down to

“If you do it, you must perceive it as being in your self-interest, and if you perceive it as being in your self-interest, it is.”

Self-interest, so defined, means that you can do something which makes you poorer, less healthy, less happy, and less wealthy–something which makes you worse off in every way, and say, in your defense: “But it was in my self-interest.”

Have you ever done something without thinking, then realized, “Oh shit”?

Have you ever done something you knew would get you in trouble, but you felt it was moral?

Have you ever done something to help someone else at cost to yourself, and told neither them, nor anyone else?

Have you ever… but why bother. In each case, the counter-argument will be something like, “But you did it because you wanted to! You feel you’re a better person now! That’s your reward and your self-interest!”

But it explains nothing.

It means “People don’t do things without a reason,” but even that is only true in the sense that all “events have a cause.” We often do things by habit. We often do things that–even as we do them–we know we will regret, because we cannot control ourselves. We often do things under coercion or fear, and only a fool pretends these are choices in any sense that matters (“Well, I can be beaten or tortured or raped, or do as the big man with a gun says).”

I mean, yes, it’s in your self-interest to do what the gangsters tell you to do.

Sort of. And it’s in your interest to have a shitty job at less-than-minimum wage when the other option is starvation.

But are these most usefully explained as actions in self-interest? Does self-interest mean anything when it explains everything? I think it’s a rare person who refuses to admit to having done things against their own self-interest, and even to having known it as they were doing it.

People have many reasons for doing what they do. Self-interest, if it is so nebulous a concept as to mean “whatever you do is in your self-interest” is actually so nebulous as to have no explanatory power.

If you want to get people to do something due to fear, say so: “We’ll scare them into doing it.”

If you want them to do it due to patriotism, say that. If you intend to coerce them, say that: “If they don’t, we’ll throw them in jail.” If you want them to do it because it’s the kind thing to do, say “We’ll appeal to their kindness.”

Now it’s true that there are lots of category errors. You can think you’re appealing to kindness and really be appealing to self-image, or to social ties (“People will despise me if I don’t and like me if I do,” etc.). You can appeal to reciprocity. You can even appeal to pure altruism or pure tribalism.

And you can admit that there may be a mix of motives, including self-interest, without boiling everything down to self-interest.

The writer Robert A. Heinlein was much affected by the following scene: A woman became trapped in train tracks as a train was barreling down on her. Her husband stayed to help, but a bum also rushed forward to try to help. Neither man fled, and the train killed all three of them.

Only the most specious of explanations can state that the bum was acting in self-interest. He gave up everything for a woman he did not know. Only the happenstance that a future famous author was watching means his sacrifice is remembered, and even so, his name was not known.

Our concepts of human nature predict our policies. Self-interest as a foundation stone of human nature means that we create our societies around self-interest. And that does not work. Doctors who are not paid based on how many tests or procedures they order, order less tests and procedures and that amounts to better care as tests and procedures (especially surgical procedures) are not risk-free–and because cheaper alternatives often give better results.

When you engineer society to emphasize one thing, when you say it is how everyone acts, people hear, “This is how we should act.”

“Greed is good.”

“There is no such thing as society.”

And self-interest is a human motivation. It’s not the only one, but it is powerful. Make it so that treating patients badly will make doctors richer and many of them will do so. This is why, for most of history, it was regarded as scandalous for doctors to have financial interests in, say, how many surgeries their patients had. The Romans and Greeks forbade payment entirely (gifts were given at Saturnalia, in Rome, but that was well-separated from the actual service).

Absent self-interest, people act on other motives and those other motives often get them to do more of the right thing. This is true, by the way, in almost every field.

Assume everyone is motivated by self-interest, and you will work, hard, to make it so, as well as give social allowance for greed and selfishness, two traits almost every society in history has understood as bad ones.

We all need some self-interest, and in moderation it is not a vice. Raising it to the ur-human motivations, the source of all other motivations, however, and it becomes monstrous.

It’s also bullshit.


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61 Responses
  1. April 5, 2017

    No, but they think they do. the problem is they do not recognize what their actual interest is. So they fall for Oscar Meyer bologna as opposed to the real thing.

    ( H-1B Visa Overhaul Could Actually Benefit Big Tech Companies – Bloomberg https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-04-04/u-s-visa-revamp-poised-to-benefit-big-u-s-tech-punish-outsourcers Surprise!)

  2. V. Arnold permalink
    April 5, 2017

    Does Everyone Always Act in Their Self-Interest?
    Out side of this blog that’s a meaningless question (and I’m not so sure it has any meaning here).

    John Cleese said it best:
    UK comedian, John Cleese, on being asked during an interview “is it true that as you say, you have lost your sense of humour?
    Cleese: Yes.
    Interviewer: Why
    Cleese: because humour is found at the interface of islands of insanity floating in a sea of sanity. When you have reversed this, when you have a sea of insanity with a few islands of sanity, you are being asked to laugh at sanity. And this you cannot do.

    The USian’s are just plain bat-shit-crazy and have been so for many decades…
    The last humanist to address the real U.S., was Martin Luther King; April 4th, 1967: and they killed him for it…
    That was 50 years ago.
    Later will be greater…

  3. Dave permalink
    April 5, 2017

    What if the bum had succeeded in helping the man save his wife? Might have paid off handsomely. Perhaps he just made a bad bet.

  4. Charlie permalink
    April 5, 2017

    The thing about altruism, at least from multiple occurrences of putting my life at risk for others (too many to list), is that the process of going against one’s self-interest is automatic. We’re wired for altruism and cooperation, and it’s trained right out of us.

    Even stopping a slip and fall creates an “Oh shit” moment, and resulting embarrassment along with “why did I do that?”. I never did understand why that’s the quickest reaction with the least thought. Still don’t.

  5. trhys permalink
    April 5, 2017

    re:
    The writer Robert A. Heinlein was much affected by the following scene. A woman became trapped in train tracks as a train was barreling down on her. Her husband stayed to help, but a bum also rushed forward to try to help. Neither man fled, and the train killed all three of them.”

    Joseph Campbell, in his wonderful series w/Bill Moyers of some 30 years ago, addressed this very issue. He recounts a similar incident in which spontaneously risks his own life in the aid of a stranger. His answer references Schopenhauer to the effect that “… this is the breakthrough of a metaphysical realization that you and the other are one… and that our true reality is in the unity with all life…”.

    A three-minute clip of this discussion:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_CGb-p_0gvY

  6. Joscha permalink
    April 5, 2017

    It is hard to understand for most humans that it is not logical to act in one’s self interest either. Both actions in others interest and in your own need specific axioms, because minds are not naturally inclined to do anything at all. Even if the human can turn off their altruistic urges, they don’t necessarily find the way to the kind of disidentification that lets them experience the utter facetiousness of self-interest.

    The ability to align with a perceived vector of absolute Goodness, i.e. a projected intersubjective (or at least transsubjective) system of meaning, allows for the human ability to be programmed for cooperating synchronously in arbitrarily large groups.

    However, this also opens the door to all kinds of mind viruses that try to extract more from the host than necessary to ensure the functioning of the shared ecosystem. If you refuse to do your dishes, you may be extracting more negentropy from the shared household than the household needs to remain stable. If you do everybody’s else’s dishes all the time, chances are that somebody parasitizes on you, and you would be better off outside the shared system. Thus, there needs to be a check against “dramatic goodness”, which is usually extracted via imposing an existential debt, i.e. suggesting to the host that its very existence requires it to pay up. (I suggest we call it “existential privilege”.)

  7. Tom permalink
    April 5, 2017

    I am an EMT. I’m paid shit, and put up with shit, often literal shit.

    I’ve stared down assholes holding guns to my face, been shot at, one of my partners was stabbed, another ran over while helping extricate a patient, and got beat on.

    I love this job even though I would get paid more working for Sam’s Club with my brother even though I work overtime. Still 18 days off on average each month is sweet and allows me to enjoy life.

  8. The Stephen Miller Band permalink
    April 5, 2017

    This appears to be altruism, or loyalty, or honor or something other than self-interest.

    One could argue that altruism, loyalty and honor are also examples of self-interest if the social system in which you live & operate holds you in higher esteem and therefore you attain higher social status, and thus a power of sorts, as a result of engaging in these behaviors as is the case with Kamikazee pilots.

    The argument then becomes, if ultimately everything we do is a form of self-interest no matter how much we desperately argue to the contrary, what forms of self-interested behavior are most beneficial to the social evolution of the human species because not all forms of self-interest are created equally meaning not all behavior, because all behavior is motivated by self-interest, has the same effect on human social evolution.

  9. Linda Amick permalink
    April 5, 2017

    In Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate there is a chapter on the GOOD.
    Turns out the goodness aspect of human beings lies in mindless kindness acts which are ubiquitous and consistent throughout human existence.

    Helping/aiding without thought. It defines us. Setting free an insect trapped inside the house. Picking up a paper dropped by a stranger.
    These are just example to share the idea.

    The whole Act in Self Interest meme destroys goodness. It makes the world into a selfish place.

    I hate it.

  10. brian permalink
    April 5, 2017

    I applaud this article.

  11. realitychecker permalink
    April 5, 2017

    After dedicating the best part of my life’s energies to the complex task of correctly assessing risk in all its manifestations, I submit that what looks like choices made to depart from self-interest may best be explained as miscalculations as to the actual risks involved in those choices.

    In my experience, I have observed that the vast majority of people have no idea how to correctly assess risk in complex situations.

  12. Orin T permalink
    April 5, 2017

    Reminds me of the old hack: cut off your nose to spit your face.

  13. The Stephen Miller Band permalink
    April 5, 2017

    To all the people who believe they are acting more or less magnanimously and not out of self-interest, I contend you’re being naive and delusional and you have no idea of the context in which you make your claim.

    We live and behave within a system and that system is only possible by virtue of our collective tacit approval and support. All the little acts you perform that you believe are not out of self-interest when actually they are indeed motivated by self-interest pale in comparison to your tacit support of a system which is destroying the planet and its ability to support complex life or life in general.

    The following is an excellent article concerning what is described as hot versus cold evil. Cold evil, evil all of us contribute to every day to varying degrees just by surviving in the system, is much more insidious and perniciously evil than hot evil. It’s impersonal and banal, but it’s holistic and comprehensive. It’s ubiquitous and it scales entirely. And we all play our part in it to varying degrees.

    In light of that, the greatest act of selflessness you can perform is to kill yourself deep in the wilderness and let the animals feed on your remains and allow your body to turn to fertilizer that nurtures sustainable, not destructive, life.

    Cold Evil: Technology and Modern Ethics

  14. April 5, 2017

    Back in college in the 80’s, I took a philosophy class on self-interest vs. altruism. I could dig up a reading list, but the only book that was or became popular on either side of the argument was Atlas Shrugged.

    Which, I contend, is one of the major failings of US politics today. We have a generation of political leaders who grew up believing that fantasy book was an actual implementable governing philosophy. Success is all due to your merit, and let’s ignore all the benefits you got from when/where you were born and who your parents were. Right?

  15. April 5, 2017

    Gah. The ‘sarcasm’ tag on that last paragraph got deleted.

  16. V. Arnold permalink
    April 5, 2017

    Linda Amick
    April 5, 2017

    I hate it.

    Ya, ya, I agree.
    We act in the moment, not by some diktat, attributed by the psycho-babel of the masses.
    Stop the madness of faux understanding of human’s natural tendencies.
    We are how we act; not predictable in all circumstances. But we are as we are, in all the myriad circumstances facing us, in the dynamic process of living and interaction with our fellow humans…

  17. The Stephen Miller Band permalink
    April 5, 2017

    Something that is sorely lacking today despite the ubiquity of information is reading. People hardly read anymore and I believe it’s precisely because of the ubiquity of information and how it’s distributed.

    Twitter is a great example. It rewards vacuous, misleading, unsupported statements with its 140 character limit, but it’s not just Twitter. All social media is this way. It precludes, nay eviscerates, reading and hence alters the way we think & act.

    There is no need for clarification and elaboration anymore — such concepts are anathema to modern informed man. As an example, how many people have read or will read the link I’ve provided above? I would guess very few if any. Maybe two or three people at most, and even those people won’t read the entirety of the article, especially the question & answer discussion subsequent to it.

    It’s ironic considering within that question & discussion section you will find Kimball discussing the deleterious effect highly capitalized telecommunications technologies have on our culture and hence the effect they have on engendering the new & improved system in which we live, communicate and behave.

    Someone from the audience asked Kimbrell the following question.

    Would you contrast the centralized, capital-intensive energy technologies, which you’ve already criticized, with the equally centralized and highly capitalized telecommunications technologies? Do you find any qualitative distinctions, from an ethical standpoint?

    Kimbrell answered as follows, and I have say, I agree with him. He is explaining The Social Fact that I have introduced in earlier comments to other blog posts.

    No, I don’t. There are of course obvious examples of totalitarian technologies. A nuclear power plant requires a military and scientific elite, massive bureaucracies to regulate safety and to distribute the energy created, centralized control of energy, etc. We cannot take responsibility for this kind of megatechnology nor can it be truly responsive to us. Imagine the reaction if we now called the local power company and said: “We are in a room full of ardent environmentalists. Please make sure that none of the energy you are providing us comes from non-sustainable sources.” I’m sure the reaction would be uncontrollable laughter. Current nuclear or even fossil-fuel energy cannot be responsive to our ethics or wishes. That is why it is totalitarian. Solar power by contrast does have the capability of being a democratic technology that we can take responsibility for, and it can be used on an individual or community basis.

    David Korten, my co-speaker today, and I have discussed telecommunication technologies, and we agree that they present a more complicated picture. At first glance they seem to be more democratic; after all, don’t they empower us? My belief is that this aspect of current telecommunications is mostly an illusion; however here are those who believe that computers do empower us in our work. Manuel Castells, for example, has written a three-volume, very compelling argument on the subject. His view is that people are able to take advantage of telecommunications in ways that will improve the future of radical politics, the future of revolt against the system, and that certain telecommunications technologies carry the seeds to countervail the system itself. I recommend that you read his book, although I profoundly disagree with it because I have found that in each of the areas he speaks of—including the feminist, environmental, and gay movements—when people partake in the system, they inevitably begin to ask for things that are available within the system: Give us the right to equal opportunity within the system; let us sit at the table. So what you have is an osmosis. The system has an amazing way of taking these movements, bringing them in, making them feel to some extent enfranchised. It would seem that the very use of communications technologies requires a buy-in to these systems. What’s lost is the original radical critique.

    Personally, I think that the corporations and the whole technological system are the ultimate gainers in the growth of telecommunication. They are truly able to harness it and use it to homogenize the world’s cultures through television and the Internet. Vandana Shiva has called it the monoculturing of the mind. Additionally, corporations and the military arms of the government are able to harness new computer technologies for their marketing and intelligence purposes, which has almost fatally undermined our rights to privacy. Yes, there is a certain amount of empowerment that trickles down to us. We do gain some benefits, but no one can convince me that the massive telecommunications that exist in the world are not helping the corporations, helping this whole system grow, far more than they’re helping us get our word out.

  18. April 5, 2017

    It seems like a neat trick to be able to redraw any act as a selfish one. Those who do so think they’ve stumbled onto an unbeatable argument, and they have: all circular reasoning is unbeatable.

    Watch, and I’ll do it, too:

    All acts are altruistic. Even when you think you’re being selfish, you are doing it for the greater good.

    Think you’re avoiding traffic for selfish reasons? No, you’re programmed to want more space because getting some of us off onto other roads is better for everyone.

    Or: think you want to marry her for selfish reasons? No, the species wants certain mixes of genetic materials, and your marriage is determined by outside forces (good of the species) that only feel like inside forces (love, sexual attraction).

    To all the people who believe they are acting more or less selfishly and not out of altruism, I contend you’re being naive and delusional and you have no idea of the context in which you make your claim. FTFY

  19. Mel permalink
    April 5, 2017

    “It seems like a neat trick to be able to redraw any act as a selfish one.”

    “There is no language without deceit.”: a quip by Italo Calvino in Invisible Cities.

    In fact, language would be hardly any use at all if we couldn’t count on using it to frame any thing that we might need to say now or in the future. It needs to keep all possibilities open.

  20. Willy permalink
    April 5, 2017

    I belong to that “Nextdoor” social networking site for neighborhood neighbors. One day a newbie wanted a referral for a plumber and they got back all manner of “my guy is great” responses. But I noticed nobody gave out specifics, such as what job they did for how much. I tried one of the referred plumbers anyways but they turned out to be crap. So I asked people to give out specifics, to give the rest of us more to work with, so we could better determine value. All I got back was “I dunno, but my guy’s really great.” This is a well educated neighborhood. In private, I asked friends on that network why this was happening, and the answers came back ranging from “it’s passive aggression” to “people make emotional decisions first then rationalize later”. Part of me is beginning to think that if we really were made to be living in small cave clans, then we modern folks are fucked. But the other part of me is still hopeful that simple cause-effect reasoning can be… taught(?), maybe by appealing to the other’s self-interest?

  21. The Stephen Miller Band permalink
    April 5, 2017

    It seems like a neat trick to be able to redraw any act as a selfish one.

    It seems like an even neater trick to label someone, or everyone since we all are, motivated by self-interest as selfish. The two are not the same, although somewhat related. I can be motivated by self-interested without being selfish. For example, I may want to help the person struck by a vehicle because it hurts me to see someone suffer and because I would want someone to do the same for me if it were me. I am acting out of self-interest but I am not being selfish because my self-interest benefits SOMEONE or OTHERS and not just ME.

    That being said, I have never experienced so many selfless people who are 180 degrees contrary to self-interest than I have on The Net. The love and unwavering, magnanimous selflessness on The Net is overwhelming. It takes my breath away and so, therefore, when I surf it I must keep my canister of oxygen at the ready lest I suffocate.

  22. Rob Bush permalink
    April 5, 2017

    Robert Heinlein also famously said (as the character Lazarus Long), “Beware of altruism. It is based on self-deception, the root of all evil.”

  23. BlizzardOfOz permalink
    April 5, 2017

    @A Clark,

    You describe a kind of tautology, but who argues like that, specifically? (I could imagine some particularly autistic Enlightenment writer approximating it – Jeremy Bentham maybe?) The idea can have real content, though:

    * Some economic models take “everyone acts with rational self-interest” as an axiom. (I believe this is what Ian had in mind to critique in the OP.)
    * Ayn Rand made a forceful attack on altruism. It’s not that she was necessarily opposed to it, just to holding it up as the highest ideal. In her conception “selfishness”, in the sense of striving for self-actualization, might actually benefit society more (albeit indirectly) than a life dedicated to altruism.
    * As often happens with ideas, this one has been taken up by men of action in a twisted and self-serving way. It becomes “greed is good”, which may have been true for an Andrew Carnegie, but for a Kenneth Lay or Lloyd Blankfein, not so much.

  24. BlizzardOfOz permalink
    April 5, 2017

    @Stirling, so the #Resistance is opposed to H1-B reform? Sounds about right. If an outsourcing firm can fill a $100K programming job with an Indian that it pays $60K and rents for $80K, then everyone wins, right? But DRUMPF has to side with the privileged American over the poor Indian. Probably because he’s a raciss.

  25. Chris permalink
    April 5, 2017

    There is a concept that captures these contradictions–the idea of bounded self-interest.

    This basically means that we generally gravitate toward things that bring immediate advantage, but we have a imperfect grasp of the long term costs of our actions as well have a natural tendency to not value distant rewards.

    This cognitive error arises from hard-wired cognitive biases (e.g., in-group bias, selective perception, confirmation bias). The general thrust of these biases is to favor our “group.” This accounts for loyalty and altruism. After all, notice how these qualities tend to come easier when directed toward one’s group–e.g., Christians can easily be kind to their own, and uncritically deferential to their acknowledged leaders, and at the same time be suspicious and hostile toward any non-Christians no matter how moral, kind, or reasonable. Same with politics, neighbors, and college football. We all have these biases, no matter what our politics, race, gender, nationality, whatever.

    On the other hand, loyalty and altruism produce reputational rewards that might benefit the person later (or his/her survivors). Virtue, as they say, is its own reward.

  26. subgenius permalink
    April 5, 2017

    Rationalization and all other higher-(normal)-conscious thought processes have already been shown to be post-hoc stories built by the apparent consciousness to explain subconscious decisions/randomness/whatever is really going on…

    Addendum….

    The brain is not what people think it is…

  27. subgenius permalink
    April 5, 2017

    Consciousness, too, is not what people think it is…

  28. Rob Knight permalink
    April 5, 2017

    The reason that self-interest-is-what-I-say-it-is works (sometimes) is because it’s a good defence against someone else trying to tell you what your self-interest is. There’s little harm in someone else regarding one’s behaviour as altruistic (most people don’t hate altruism). Other cases are trickier – some people say that a woman’s self-interest is best served by marrying and having children, or… well, you can fill in the rest. The assertion that even if other people think you’re letting yourself down, it doesn’t matter because the only meaningful measure of self-interest is your own is a good way out of this situation.

    The hard problem here is that if we abandon this concept of self-interest, we legitimise the idea of external entities (people, organisations, religions) deciding what counts as legitimate self-interest, and history suggests that these entities probably won’t have your self-defined self-interest at heart.

  29. Webstir permalink
    April 5, 2017

    This whole discussion seems moot to me w/o discussing the issue from an evolutionary biology perspective. I mean, at root, why would we pursue any particular form of social/economic order unless it provides positive adaptive potential?

    Basically, Ian’s post is a recapitulation of the argument between Darwin (competition drives adaptive outcomes) and Kropotkin (mutual aid drives adaptive outcomes). Obviously, Capitalism, rationalized through Darwin’s theories won the propaganda war. But without the ability to acknowledge the shades of grey existing between the two theories, we do injustice to the human condition. There has never been an example of a purely capitalist, or purely socialist political system. Reality always intervenes to produce a compromise between pure self-interested competition, and pure disinterested altruism.

    As I’ve yet to hear any mention of Kropotkin in this thread, I’ll toss in a link to an article on him by Stephen J. Gould: https://www.marxists.org/subject/science/essays/kropotkin.htm

  30. Tom W Harris permalink
    April 5, 2017

    Psstt…Stirling: It’s ” Oscar Mayer.” (I”m from Milwaukee, so I know these things. 😉

  31. April 5, 2017

    talk to my headphone.

  32. Tom W Harris permalink
    April 5, 2017

    Technology rox, except when it doesn’t.

  33. Ché Pasa permalink
    April 6, 2017

    @Webtir

    +1 for Darwin-Kropotkin reference.

    This argument has been under way for a very long time. The fundamental error is in the assumption that one acts solely out of self-interest when it is self-evidently and empirically not true. But it is useful, very useful, for the interests of the Overclass.

    So long as that’s the case, Kropotkin’s and other’s counter arguments will be dismissed.

  34. Webstir permalink
    April 6, 2017

    @Che Pasa:
    Yes, I’ve read some pretty interesting stuff on social darwinism’s influence on the shape of Western economic policy. It was the perfect rationalization at the perfect time for the rising robber barons and their shills.

  35. Some Guy permalink
    April 6, 2017

    The economic notion of ‘rational self interest’ has been investigated (academically) and found entirely without merit so many times that it is not really worth serious discussion, other than in the same category of missionary outreach in which you might take time to debate climate change with a denier. See Che Pasa above, who is on point.

    The trick of the economist or rational moralist is to start with the tautologically true notion of self-interest (if you did something, it must be because you decided it was in your interest to do it) and then build their framework around this, and then somewhere along the line, without mentioning it, jump to explanations based on the notion that all acts are self-interested in the sense of being purely selfish.

  36. The Stephen Miller Band permalink
    April 6, 2017

    Got it. Thanks for setting us straight.

    Because Ayn Rand and The Chicago School adherents & those who conceived Social Darwinism believe, and developed an ideology around that belief, that humans act out solely of self-interest, humans therefore must not act solely out of self-interest because some influential people we hate believe they do.

    Talk about denial ( as in climate change denial), there are so many versions of it and it doesn’t just apply to climate change.

    Self-interest doesn’t have to be a bad thing and it often isn’t. It’s not necessarily selfish, although it can be. Donald Trump is an example of someone who acts out of self-interest, as we all do, and he’s selfish. Mother Theresa is at the opposite end of that spectrum — her self-interest led to a life of austerity & sacrifice in the extreme and she was the opposite of selfish.

    Can any of you have a discussion without turning it political and/or ideological? Without resorting to so-called “Authorities” on the topic like Marx, Rand and Kropotkin?

    Think for yourselves. Let it flow. Close the text books. Exercise your mind. Chew it yourself rather than having it predigested. It’ll keep your teeth strong, otherwise they might fall out.

  37. different clue permalink
    April 6, 2017

    Can people who are not smart enough to know what a “self” even is, and are neither smart nor honest enough to acknowledge what the inner content of their OWN “self” really is, how can they even know what actions would be in their self-interest or not? And if they don’t understand how their individual actions change the local situation-matrix right around them which will change the content of their own personal condition and situation within that local situation-matrix, how can they even know how their actions will affect their self interest? If they are not even smart or honest enough to even know what that self-interest even is?

    A commenter at Colonel Lang’s Sic Semper Tyrannis blog recently offered a comment linking to and offering a copy-pasted piece from a recent Seymour Hersh article about the few-years-ago action of one of the most Stupid and Evil people leaking their own personal brain-sewage into the Situation Matrix of our time. And here the copy-pasted comment is:

    Clonal Antibody said…
    Col. Lang,

    I came across this today – Hillary Clinton Approved Delivering Libya’s Sarin Gas to Syrian Rebels: Seymour Hersh – Your comments would be appreciated.

    The great investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, in two previous articles in the London Review of Books («Whose Sarin?» and «The Red Line and the Rat Line») has reported that the Obama Administration falsely blamed the government of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad for the sarin gas attack that Obama was trying to use as an excuse to invade Syria; and Hersh pointed to a report from British intelligence saying that the sarin that was used didn’t come from Assad’s stockpiles.
    Hersh also said that a secret agreement in 2012 was reached between the Obama Administration and the leaders of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, to set up a sarin gas attack and blame it on Assad so that the US could invade and overthrow Assad. «By the terms of the agreement, funding came from Turkey, as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar; the CIA, with the support of MI6, was responsible for getting arms from Gaddafi’s arsenals into Syria».
    .
    .
    .
    However, now, for the first time, Hersh has implicated Hillary Clinton directly in this «rat line». In an interview with Alternet.org,

    There is of course much more to the article, including some of the US/Saudi/Syrian history.

    And here is the link to the article itself.
    http://www.globalresearch.ca/hillary-clinton-approved-delivering-libyas-sarin-gas-to-syrian-rebels-seymour-hersh/5522647

  38. realitychecker permalink
    April 6, 2017

    “It is a trick question”—Mona Lisa Vito 🙂

  39. Willy permalink
    April 6, 2017

    The primary weakness in any given society or organization regardless of altruistic intent, are those loopholes (any weaknesses) which the socialized sociopath (temperament most incorrigibly driven towards power and control indifferent to all else) will always try to find and exploit for purely self-interest advantage.

  40. Some Guy permalink
    April 6, 2017

    The notion of self-interest is controversial because of the tension between personal and group requirements for evolution, but also because of the different role played by self interest in commerce vs. in government/military/religious matters.

    In the military/government/religion spheres, self-interest is a vice, to be tamed and controlled as needed to serve a higher purpose. But in commerce, as per Adam Smith, the pursuit of personal profit is essential to the effective functioning of markets. This does not mean that commerce is free from morality as some have claimed, it is still necessary to follow the Lockean proviso, in that you do not make anyone worse off in your pursuit of profit (ruling out force and fraud), but the role of self-interest is different and much more tolerated, even encouraged in the right context.

    This is all explained in Jane Jacobs’ ‘Systems of Survival’, which in turn points back to Plato’s ‘Republic’ where his fundamental rule was that the commercial folks didn’t mix with the city’s guardians because their pursuit of self-interest would corrupt the denial of self-interest required to be a good guardian of the city.

    Plato believed that people’s morality would gradually decline over time, such that most people in the polis would eventually not be able to manage the denial of self-interest required to sustain society and eventually a tyrant would be needed to take charge for a while before the whole thing collapsed and the cycle would turn again (as eventually some group containing the ability to put group interest ahead of self-interest would rise out of the soup of anarchy and take over by virtue of their superior ethics, which would in turn decline over time).

    And here we are, 2000+ years later, following on the path Plato laid down for us, unable even to remember his wisdom, let alone re-discover if for ourselves, with self-interest so unchecked in our ideology that our host feels compelled to write a post explaining that there is more to the world than just self-interest.

  41. Peter permalink
    April 6, 2017

    @DC

    Sy Hersh made a number of claims about the Ghouta attacks none of which have been verified as more than rumors. According to the reports I’ve seen Libya had mustard gas weapons but no operational Sarin weapons for anyone to send down the rat line. .

    It’s time to face the reality that Sy Hersh is a nut and Assad is a madman, he won’t escape the consequences of his bloody actions this time. That Putin allowed the ridiculous story, about a IS chem weapons factory being hit, to be broadcast is beyond troubling.

  42. different clue permalink
    April 6, 2017

    @Peter,

    I have seen no verification of any of the claims about “Assad diddit” at Ghouta other than mere MSM-catapulted rumors to that effect.

  43. Tom permalink
    April 6, 2017

    @ different clue

    Ghouta Attacks were confirmed to have been Sarin launched by the Regime by the UN’s own inspectors. It is a fact and not debatable.

    Now this latest attack on Khan Shaykoun and the double tap on the Hospitals and White Helmets has pissed even Trump off and now he is no longer contemplating working with Assad and talking Regime Change as well as delegating the options to Mattis on how to stop the attacks, alongside telling Putin that this shit stops.

    US ships off Syria have been told to be ready to take out Assad’s Airbases.

    So crunch time.

  44. Peter permalink
    April 6, 2017

    @DC

    There was a large quantity of Sarin used in these attacks and an earlier attack, The OPCW found the samples they took from these sites matched with the Sarin stockpile surrendered by the Assad regime in the Russian deal. Assad was shown to be the only source for Sarin in this region, no other source of or capability to produce Sarin has been shown by anyone. When the Ghouta attacks happened I thought it was unreasonable to blame Assad and was sure one of the many alternate theories would lead to evidence of another party’s guilt. That never happened and it doesn’t seem anyone bothered to pursue these BS claims. They were just rumors to stall any action and deflect attention from the now obvious culprit.

    Getting back to the topic of this post, what was Assad’s self interest that he acted on by gassing his citizens again?

  45. Tom permalink
    April 6, 2017

    http://insider.foxnews.com/2017/04/06/us-launches-airstrikes-syria-bashar-al-assad-air-bases-after-chemical-attack

    Trump has begun military operations against the Assad Regime.

  46. The Stephen Miller Band permalink
    April 6, 2017

    Tom & Peter, you two are fucking nuts. I don’t believe for one minute you give a flying fuck about Assad using gas on his own people, if the claims about the latest attacks are even true.

    The self-interest of those who are manipulating Trump, via appealing to his ego, into attacking Assad, and therefore Russia, directly in Syria are warmongering profiteers who want a gas pipeline through Syria and are illogically prepared to turn it to rubble, and maybe the world too, in the process.

    The time to do what Trump did tonight, not that I’m condoning any of it, was in 2013, not now. Too much has happened since and the stakes are a million times greater. Curtis LeMay would have loved Trump. If LeMay had a a Trump instead of Kennedy, the last fifty years wouldn’t have happened unless it did and we’re in an alternate universe.

    The last several weeks I have been experiencing an incredibly powerful yet inexplicable foreboding that has rocked me to my core on a number of occasions. Now I understand why. I believe our time is short because our self-interest isn’t nearly as powerful and effective as THEIR self-interest.

    God, if there is one and I don’t believe there is, help us all. Hope that you’re as close to Ground Zero as possible — you’ll go in an instant with no consciousness of your total annihilation without a trace and no suffering.

  47. April 6, 2017

    enjoyable discussion led by ian’s contribution today, and looking forward to checking out the various links.

    my own thoughts often start with the definitions, as so often ideas get clarified quite quickly there. so the idea of “self” – it is apparent to me that we are all linked, so “self” could be narrowly defined as just “our meat bodies with a brain” or could be expanded to include others, the entire planet, or everything that exists.

    “interest” is captivating as i notice i do things far too regularly that end up leading to learning experiences for myself – so is that my gain, event though others gain financially or in other ways moreso than myself?

    and accurately identifying risks associated with self-interested decisions, as mentioned above, surely plays a role and is linked to our inherent or learned biases.

    I’m also reminded of psychology around groups vs. individuals – the behavior of individuals is difficult to predict whereas for groups it is much easier (or perhaps said differently, with a higher chance of being correct).

    on a simple level, I notice the self-interested joy I personally experience when giving to others. For myself, I am quite confident that this joy is what drives what could be perceived as “altruism” and that when I dive deeply enough on most motivations, I find that perceived self interest is at the root of them. That said, there are regularly shadows involved that lead to the resultant outcome (ie. unanticipated consequences) are clearly NOT in my self interest at all…in my view, this explains a lot of ambiguous looking or indecipherable behavior.

  48. Peter permalink
    April 6, 2017

    I think that Steve can avoid swallowing his tongue now that more information about these cruise missile strikes is coming out. The Russian military was contacted and warned where and when the strikes were aimed and scheduled. Most importantly the Russians apparently agreed to not inform the Syrians about the strikes as they moved their personnel out of harms way.

    This agreement may be why I haven’t read anything about the Russians using their sophisticated air defense systems to counter the CM attack. One way to view this situation is that Putin has given tacit support for this action because he is furious about Assad’s gas attack.

    If we survive the night we may learn what comes next.

  49. Tom permalink
    April 6, 2017

    @The Stephen Miller Band

    I recall you several threads ago willing to risk nuclear war.

    That said, Putin agreed to allow the strikes, Syria is not a vital piece of territory for him unlike the Ex-USSR states. If push comes to shove, he’ll back down, as it is, Syria is a quagmire for Putin as Assad just doesn’t know when to fucking quit and is utterly incompetent as fuck. Putin would have been better off splitting Turkey from NATO and backing Erdogan in his intervention in Syria and letting Erdogan run things which would have achieved his goals and proved more profitable.

    Instead Putin made the classic mistake of backing corrupt dictators instead of the people. Backing corrupt governments never work as they lack legitimacy and can’t function, becoming a black hole sucking in every last cent to keep them propped up.

  50. Tom permalink
    April 7, 2017

    April 6 1917: US enters World War I
    April 6 2017: US deliberately hits Assad military targets for the first time

    History Rhyming again.

    Also initial reports show 14 Su-22s definitely destroyed and thus two SyAAF Squadrons removed from the equation. Airbase is totally destroyed along with the long ranged artillery based there, so IS has now launched a massive offensive in that sector of undetermined size.

    FSA is also increasing its attacks which they were already doing in the wake of the Khan Shayloun massacre with everyone basically agreeing with HTS to just kill the Assad Terrorists first, then argue about post-Assad arrangements.

  51. Barry permalink
    April 7, 2017

    One of my profs was a visiting German Marxist, and he commented that we Americans are far more individualistic than Europeans — that our locus of identity was the individual. This was the first time I understood that different people might have a different locus of identity.

    So where is the self in self-interest if you identify as part of a group?

  52. Fred Grosso permalink
    April 7, 2017

    Does propaganda play any part in this?

  53. RWood permalink
    April 7, 2017

    This is relevant:
    “the point is not what one aims to do, it is what one does; the point is not the inner motive, but the field of action; not what your road is paved with, but whether it leads to hell”
    http://coreyrobin.com/2017/04/05/eichmann-in-jerusalem-is-a-better-guide-to-trump-time-than-is-origins-of-totalitarianism/
    Corey Robin asserts Arendt’s ethic, and Ian’s.
    Thank you for this forum.

  54. different clue permalink
    April 7, 2017

    @Peter,

    The jihadi interest in gassing those people was to created some good television for manipulating Trump into attacking the anti-jihadi government of the Syrian Arab Republic.
    And it worked.

    So I predict: the jihadis will gas some more people again, just like this time, and just like they gassed all those people at Ghouta. They will do it because it worked, and they will do it again because they have discovered that it will work.

    We are witnessing the Clintification of Donald Trump. Mommy Wokest would be so pleased and proud. Trump is just a piece of Clintonite shit now.

  55. Peter permalink
    April 8, 2017

    @DC

    Stereotyping the Syrian rebels and their Muslim volunteers is a typical lazy western dodge to further simplistic anti-imperialist dogma. You use the same us vs. them that the imperialists use to cover the fact that you are an apologist for a bloody sectarian despot.

    I’m sure many of the rebels want to be recognized as Jihadists which is an honorable sacrifice to make in their culture and this includes groups such as Hezbollah and the Iranian groups who fight under the flag of Jihad.

    Until you or anyone else besides Sy Hersh produced some verifiable evidence that anyone in this region has or had the ability to make Sarin gas you are creating fables and spreading rumors.

  56. different clue permalink
    April 9, 2017

    Here is the most recent post at Sic Semper Tyrannis by guest poster David Habakkuk. It is titled: REVISITING THE STORY OF THE ‘FALSE FLAG’ AT GHOUTA ON 21 AUGUST 2013, HOW IT WAS EXPOSED, AND HOW IT WAS CREATED.[1]

    Here is the link.
    http://turcopolier.typepad.com/sic_semper_tyrannis/2017/04/sentence-first-verdict-afterwards.html

    The way to bring peace to Syria is to exterminate every single piece of Sunni Salafi Cannibal Liver Eating Jihad scum which infests that country. Let not one survive. Every CLEJ member which is permitted to excape alive is a threat and a menace to any hope of a human future.

  57. Peter permalink
    April 10, 2017

    @DC

    The folks at SST drink a lot of KoolAid and use rumors as facts but Trump’s decisive action has left them chasing a fait accompli that has them sputtering old and useless propaganda.

    I have to say I think you are bent for adopting the demented idea of peace through genocide

  58. Webstir permalink
    April 10, 2017

    Wow! This thread certainly took a turn to the Middle East. Here DC and Peter, get back on track with this relevant link:
    https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/10/business/dealbook/11-andrew-sorkin-harvard-business-school.html?_r=0

    DC, what do I keep saying about Ivy Leaguers? And I’ll add … I’m pretty sure an MBA from Wharton will get you to the same greedy self-interest rationalizations.

  59. April 11, 2017

    One of the key discoveries so far of Complexity Theory is that co-operative processes in general seem far more likely to survive than isolated, rampantly selfish entities. This moves successful evolution away from the original ‘principle of natural selection’; which was rather reductionist in that it placed the key stress on individual survival; to a more holistic, symbiotic view of adaptability, wherein survival is a group or team effort.

    Recent ground breaking research at the Max Planck Institute used the Ultimatum Game with chimpanzees, the result, reported in Science, is a telling outcome. “A number of researchers in the field of human evolution think that a sense of fairness—and a willingness to punish the unfair even at some cost to oneself—is humanity’s “killer app”.

    George Prices’s story on altruism is highly relevant at a time when greed as the basis of society has lost much of its appeal http://nyti.ms/yGeCiF

    Let’s stop claiming to dominate nature and the world; let’s stop making possession a superior end. Let’s put our cherished deviancies, such as the manufacture of desire and its bulimic satisfaction, back in their place. Humanity’s progress must be situated on the side of being rather than of having.

    …and for our so called leaders;

    Let us dream: A politician takes the side of talking to us about the world as it is, as it risks becoming; he or she forecasts not sweat and tears, but difficult tomorrows; she or he proposes that we talk about it, as responsible citizens, and allows us to perceive robust paths along which to advance, with a smile, towards the era of less … A less that will consequently take on the character of better. Robert Lion, France, circa 2007

  60. different clue permalink
    April 11, 2017

    @Peter,

    “Genocide” is trying to exterminate a group of people who are only part of the culturethnic group because they were born that way.

    Exterminating all those individuals who have freely chosen to be Cannibal Liver Eating Jihadis is not genocide. It is politicide, because it is the extermination of people who have freely chosen to make a political choice . . . in this case the choice of joining the Cannibal Liver Eating Jihad in Syria. In fact, since the jihadis are all criminals against humanity, killing them all would best be called criminocide. And when you consider that the CLEJ wants to enslave or expel or exterminate all the non-sunni minority grouploads of people in Syria . . . which action would fit the most narrowly tailored definition of genocide . . . . exterminating the CLEJ would be preVENTing genocide.

    Just as exterminating every freely self-chosen member of Boko Haram in Nigeria would help prevent the genocide which the Boko Haramists are waging in Nigeria at this very moment.

  61. Webstir permalink
    April 12, 2017

    Link to relevant video posted on the Antidote du Jour over at NC titled “Altruism in horses – Shetland pony defends little [unrelated] foal against stallion:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aQJtVxpFx3I

    That video, paired with this little gem also posted at NC today: http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2017/04/land-disappeared-economic-theory.html
    serve to reinforce my conviction that modern economic theories are all nothing more than post-hoc rationalizations that benefit the wealthy.
    Same as it ever was …

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