Skip to comments.Self-Interest, Part 1
Posted on 03/12/2003 6:31:52 PM PST by dcwusmc
Asked on camera by John Stossel Who has done more good for humanity, Michael Milken or Mother Teresa? philosopher David Kelley unhesitatingly answered, Michael Milken. Kelley is surely correct. But Ive spoken to many people who are horrified by this answer. Mother Teresas name is synonymous with good deeds and humanitarian concern. In contrast, Michael Milken was a businessman, a financier. To comfort others, Mother Teresa sacrificed herself. Michael Milken did what he did only to make money for himself.
Self-interested motives are so frowned onand other-regarding motives so admired that the typical pundit, politician, and pedestrian believes that motives are all that matter. Mother Teresa is admired because of her motives, not because of her results. Michael Milken and other business people are famousor, in many circles, infamous largely because of the personal fortunes theyve accumulated rather than because of the huge benefits their goods and services bestow on millions of people around the world.
One response to those who judge a person exclusively by his motives was made famous by Adam Smith. It says: Look, almost everyone is naturally self-interested. Whether or not this fact is regrettable, it is unalterably true. So lets deal with reality. As it happens, a free market encourages self-interested people to act in ways that benefit others. So we need not spend much time lamenting peoples self-interest.
Being a great admirer of Adam Smith, I find this line of argument compelling. But having now taught for 20 years, Ive learned that it leaves a sour taste in the mouths of many students. But wouldnt it be great if we all were like Mother Teresa? students earnestly ask.
No, it would not be great. It would be catastrophically bad.
Self-interest is not merely an unchanging fact of reality that, as regrettable as it might be in the abstract, turns out to be okay in a free-market society. Instead, self-interest is necessary to make a large economy work. If each of us cared as much for strangers as we care for ourselves and our loved ones, our lives would certainly be poor and short, and possibly also solitary, nasty, and brutish. At least two reasons justify my claim that self-interest is a benefit to humankindthat our world would be worse, not better, if selfinterest were not part of our mental makeup.
This month Ill address the first reason. Ill address the second reason next month. While its difficult to imagine the supposed ideal of universal lovea world in which no one distinguishes the welfare of strangers from that of himself and his loved ones try to conjure in your mind this imaginary scenario.
One thing to notice is that, with everyone caring deeply about everyone else, our world would be a tyranny of busybodies. I often scold myself for caving into my weak- nessesfor sleeping too late, for spending too little time with my young son, for eating too many potato chips, for buying that new necktie that I dont really need, and so on. I then try to govern myself by leveling selfimposed penalties for these failures. In other words, because I care deeply about myself, I interfere in my own life in order to improve my lifes prospects.
Caring for Strangers
If I cared equally as much about some stranger in Santa Fe or Santiago, would I resist interfering in his life to govern his choices in ways that, to me, seem best? Sir, you shouldnt watch so much TV; your time would be better spent reading Tolstoy or Mr. Jones, you should put that extra $100 into your savings rather than spend it on tickets for a football game. Remember, were imagining that I care as much about this stranger as I care about myself; he means the world to me. I truly yearn for him to have a happy and good life; I desire this outcome every bit as much as I desire to have such a life for myself and every bit as much as I desire that my son enjoy such a life. It would pain me terribly to see this beloved stranger make choices that seem to me to be unwise for him.
The problem is, while I might care as much about this stranger as I care about myself, I do not know this stranger as well as I know myself. I dont know his abilities, his history, his likes, his dislikes, his fears, his pleasures, his circumstances. After all, hes a stranger. Because he knows his situation better than anyone else, he is best positioned to make decisions for himself. My trying to do so, even if I care passionately about his wellbeing, would substitute the judgment and discretion of an ignorant party (me) for that of an informed party (him).
One happy consequence of self-interest is that it aligns concern with knowledge. Each of us knows most about himself, and each of us is concerned mostly about himself. That person to whom each of us directs the bulk of his lifes energy and interest is that person whom each of us knows most about. In short, its good that I care mostly about myself because Im the person who knows most about myself. Likewise, its good that I dont care as much about you as you care about you because I dont know as much about you as you know about you. And you surely dont want me to disturb you with my well-meaning but ill-informed attempts to govern your life. That would be harassment, not helpfulness.
Self-interest doesnt strip people of their concern for others, but it does confine that concern to appropriate realms. I care not only about myself; I care also, very deeply, about my family. This concern is appropriate because I know a great deal about my son, my wife, my parents, and my siblings. I care also about my friends, although not with the same intensity that I care about my family. I know my friends pretty wellmuch better than I know strangers, but not as well as I know my family.
Self-interest not only prompts each of us to care for himself and his loved ones, but alsoand importantlyit helps to keep each of us from attempting to meddle in the affairs of those whom we know too little.
Ideas on Liberty February 2003
"Self-interest doesnt strip people of their concern for others, but it does confine that concern to appropriate realms. "
Wouldn't it be great if our politicians could understand that sentence?
Don't most people realize that everyone has a different idea of what brings them happiness? It is for that reason that healthy families, who "truly yearn" for one another "to have a happy and good life" do not harass one another as the author implies people would. While I agree with the gyst of the article, I think his example is so weak as to detract from it.
I do really hate to disillusion you, but your statement is incorrect. Except perhaps as within a family. Strangers are all too willing to harrass, intimidate and even imprison or kill to ensure that their views are followed to the letter. It's all done in the name of do-goodism and it's the rankest of evils.
To that issue, I cannot square the first paragraph. In Gods eyes, I have to believe the author is sadly wrong on the first paragraph.
Glad you feel that way. I want breakfast in bed and I want it NOW!!
As it happens, a free market encourages self-interested people to act in ways that benefit others. So we need not spend much time lamenting peoples self-interest.A very broad, naive question has been presented by the students. Conversely, a very narrow response comes from the prof. If this is actually how he answers those who seek to learn, could it not be argued that *he* has served his self-interest satisfactorily, to the detriment of his students?
...I find this line of argument compelling. But having now taught for 20 years, Ive learned that it leaves a sour taste in the mouths of many students. "But wouldnt it be great if we all were like Mother Teresa?" students earnestly ask.
No, it would not be great. It would be catastrophically bad.
Look at the point beyond the end of the first paragraph:
"Mother Teresa's name is synonymous with good deeds and humanitarian concern. In contrast, Michael Milken was a businessman, a financier. To comfort others, Mother Teresa sacrificed herself. Michael Milken did what he did only to make money for himself." [end 1st]
--- "Self-interested motives are so frowned onand other-regarding motives so admired that the typical pundit, politician, and pedestrian believes that motives are all that matter."
-- "Mother Teresa is admired because of her motives, not because of her results."
--- "Michael Milken and other business people are famous -- because of the huge benefits their goods and services bestow on millions of people around the world."
Thus, we should change our views on ~motives~ in regard to law & society... 'Good' motives [in particular those enforced by government decrees], can do more harm in the actuality of their enforcements than any possible results derived.
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