There are no typos in this title.
I’m guessing this doesn’t sit very comfortably with you. This is probably because the term “self-interest” brings up images of Wall Street fat cats and people who reserve seats on crowded trains for their handbags. Everyday we are bombarded with headlines like: “Syrian War: US – intervention driven by self-interest“ or anti-discrimination movements defending themselves against being labelled “self-interested” or just my tutor asking me every week whether war comes from benevolence or self-interest as though self-interest is synonymous with selfishness.
Let me tell you that it’s not.
Three definitions need clearing up: “selfishness”, “selflessness” and “self-interest”.
Selfishness refers to a person caring only about themselves and nobody else (often at the expense of somebody else).
Selflessness refers to a person caring solely for other people and not themselves.
Now, self-interest sits in the middle but is neither. Self-interest is about caring for yourself along with others. It is about looking out for yourself and your needs. It is the basic and fundamental element that drives us to do things, form relationships with others and shape the person we are. This can be as simple as going to the fridge when you’re hungry. The act of eating is you taking care of your empty stomach, and that’s self-interest. More complexly, self-interest is what motivates you to participate in activities such as surfing (because it excites you) or donating to charity (because it moves you) or running for presidency (because injustices anger you). Your hopes, dreams and ambitions are all self-interest.
Adam Smith first described self-interest in economic terms, “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.” Smith implies that self-interest is an essential component to a capitalist economy, because it is the only factor that motivates people to actually do anything that may benefit other people. The failure of a purely socialist market in being productive and efficient is the result of no incentive because self-interest is suppressed.
John Locke defends ‘self-interest’ from a ‘natural law’ view that humans have the right to be self-interested as we are free agents not bound to any other duties than to tend for ourselves. Indeed, this can be applied to all living creatures.
People often laud selflessness as a wonderful attribute that everyone should strive to have, but that is silly. It is a naive and simple view of the world. If everyone was selfless, nobody would get anything done. In order to help other people productively, a person has to learn how to help them self first. Otherwise, this person will burn out. The saying is not “Love thy neighbor”, it is “Love thy neighbor AS thyself.”
It is important we understand what these terms mean before blindly defaming people or situations, before we do things under the belief that we are selfless and making a difference when we are really just wasting resources.
In the words of Rabbi Hillel, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” If you want to achieve anything for the world, you have to know what you stand for and know what drives you. You have to be interested in yourself.
You have to be self-interested.