Does Everyone Always Act in Their Self-Interest?
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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