Wednesday, April 09, 2008

What’s Self-Interest Anyway?

Tibor R. Machan

There was a quote from one Donna Wall, a Roanoke Rapids, N. C. teacher, in The New York Times the other day which went like this "I'm glad they're interested in something other than their own self-interest and partying." The paper reported that Ms. Wall was commenting “on the rising interest in politics among young people.”

Isn’t it odd that concern for politics is classified as something “other than their own self-interest” by this teacher? One would think, would one not, that politics for citizens in a free country clearly concern one’s self-interest. Would it not be in one’s self-interest to live in a country that promotes justice, protects one’s rights, is governed by people who are competent, indeed enthusiastic, about these matters?

I bet that Ms. Wall misspoke herself. She probably meant to say that she is glad her students aren’t interested in trivial pursuits rather than important issues that in fact matter to them far more than partying. Yet by divorcing the political from what is in one’s self-interest, she is betraying a warped conception of both, politics and self-interest.

Socrates once said to Crito, very wisely, that "Just follow my old recipe, my friend: do yourselves concern yourselves with your own true self-interest; then you will oblige me, and mine and yourself too." What might Socrates, as rendered by his pupil Plato, have meant when he recommended “true self-interest”? It certainly looks like he didn’t think badly of the idea.

Trouble is that in modern intellectual history the human self in the interest of which Socrates advised on should labor is not viewed as it was in ancient Greece. For Socrates, Plato and Aristotle the human self was something honorable, something that had the potential to be morally excellent. So serving the interest of such a being would itself amount to doing something valuable, even admirable.

One important way to serve a human being’s self-interest is, at least for the ancient Greek thinkers, to make sure that the community in which one lives is a just community, a good one, a community that’s fitting for human survival and flourishing. Accordingly, it is very definitely to one’s self-interest to be involved in politics, the discipline by way of which the justice of a community, its institutions, would be secured.

When under the influence of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes the human self became thought of as a collection of impulses or desires, driven by the passions rather than by reason, things changed dramatically. Desires were seen as short sighted, imprudent, and concerned only with achieving short lived satisfaction. Or, at best, desires aimed only for raw pleasure. So self-interest itself became something unreasonable, something focused on short term satisfaction.

So Ms. Hall was using the concept of self-interest in its modern and highly impoverished sense. Concern for politics for her amounts to something unselfish, not related to one’s best interest but to something else entirely, the public interest.

But the public interest is very difficult to identify. Does it refer to everyone’s benefit in society, the self-interest of all of the citizenry? Is it something more or less? Arguably millions see the public interest to be their own, so they send lobbyists to centers of political power so they induce politicians and bureaucrats to “bring home the bacon.”

The American founders solved the confusion by identifying a limited task of government that amounted to the public interest, namely, the protection if every citizen’s basic, unalienable rights. But surely that public interest is at the same time the interest of each and every citizen, his or her self-interest, actually. So for the Founders there cannot be any conflict between self and public interest—just exactly how Socrates taught.

Ms. Hall needs to learn a bit so her teaching become more sensible and not confuse her students.

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