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I'm continuing my reporting on the next installment from Conservative Estimate, the recently founded website that is devoted to demolishing Conservatism. Today, Alfred George begins his attack on the conservative Myth of Self-interest, showing that Self-interest is not a powerful motivator to excellence, as Conservatives believe, but merely a front for the vice of selfishness.

It is but a little step over the intertwining orange strokes . . .

At the end of yesterday's installment, Mr. George said that the Conservative Myth of Scarcity, was just the predicate for an even more pernicious and far-reaching Myth: The Myth of Self-interest. Today he begins to attack this next Conservative myth, showing first that it cannot be the case, as many like to think, that all human action is based on Self-interest. Then he shows that Self-interest is just a front for selfishness. And finally he demonstrates that Self-interest is not compatible with morality.

Mr. George begins by defining the Myth of Self-interest.

Everyone acts out of self-interest, but the combination of all these self-interested actions results in the best possible outcome.
And then he goes on to characterize its appeal.
You can see why this belief is so attractive. It lets people imagine that they don’t have to devote much, or any, attention to the needs and desires of others. Indeed, for some people it has become more or less a doctrine of faith. They actually believe that they—and everyone else—have no other responsibility but to act for their own self-interest. Some other power—history, or fate, or God, or something they just don’t think about—is responsible for working it all out for the best. It’s sometimes used as an excuse for not having a conscience, or as a refutation of the whole idea of personal responsibility to others.
Why is Self-interest not the basis of all human action? Because if you really believed this you would have to admit that you have no right to judge others, since they are only acting out of Self-interest, just like yourself.
Almost no one except self-centered adolescents without real life experience can live with this consequence. How many people do you know who can resist judging others, even if they espouse the Myth of Self-Interest? Yet if they judge others, they are contradicting the Myth they say they believe.

This alone shows that this belief cannot possibly be true: no one can really live according to it without contradicting himself.

Next Mr. George shows that Self-interest is not really different from selfishness.
There is no real difference between self-interest and selfishness. The only distinction is that the Myth allows people to believe that the disgrace that attaches to selfishness doesn’t apply to self-interest. And that lets them admit to being self-interested while at the same time denying they are selfish. . . .

The most significant effect of the Myth is that it frees up the conscience. Believers no longer need to apologize for being avaricious, combative, ruthless, intolerant, offensive, mean, or generally anti-social, because, after all, the theory requires them to battle for their selfish desires.

People who maintain that they actually believe the Myth and who try to justify selfish behavior by insisting on some theory of self-interest are really just trying to keep their consciences from bothering them. Indeed, the volubility of their arguing is usually an accurate indicator of how much they have done to make their consciences bother them.

An finally, Mr. George shows that the Myth of Self-interest is simply immoral.
The Myth of Self-interest is, in fact, completely incompatible with just about any decent system of morality that one could imagine. It is simply an abdication of responsibility for one’s actions toward others to adopt the position that the only law you need to pay attention to is the law of following your own interest. And it is utterly inhumane to insist that you are part of some vast but unidentifiable “system” of the universe that will adjust everyone’s selfish ends in order to come up with the best possible overall result. To believe this is to reject the notion that we are responsible for our choices.
You can read today's whole post here.

Tomorrow, Mr. George will begin to relate the history of the Myth of Self-interest, to show how it has become confused with the the notion of "enlightened self-interest," and how it fails utterly as an explanation of all human behavior.

I'll be reporting back each day as a new installment appears.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Basic Economics (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    CherryTheTart, bluedust, greengemini

    The GOOPERs and the Randroids have forgotten a basic tenet of economics that there are many dimensions to self-interest.

    These people like children who believe we don't need farms because milk comes from the refrigerator.

    How many self-made Galts depend on land grant universities to turn out qualified employees, depend on the interstate highway system to transport goods, rely on the TVA to provide power, travel on aircraft built with government subsidies from government subsidized airports use computer technology developed with government subsidies.

    Another example is foreign aid. The GOOEPRs were strongly opposed to it since the 1980s. Yet do they even know how the USA has benefited from graduates of engineering schools in India started in the 1950s and 1960s with substantial US foreign aid?

  •  self interest works for markets. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    VClib
    •  Agreed but with limitations (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      greengemini

      That assumes that there actually are choices in those markets and the the market can support more than a few providers. That individuals are free and able to make to make informed choices. And finally that the markets can absorb failures of entities in that market.

      Without those constraints then a pure self interest based system does not work. My biggest economic complaint with the GOP is that they go with the pure self interest argument of capitalism without acknowledging its limitations.

  •  basic quote. (4+ / 0-)

    The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.
    -- John Kenneth Galbraith

    We have no desire to offend you -- unless you are a twit!

    by ScrewySquirrel on Wed Nov 14, 2012 at 04:41:17 AM PST

  •  It is not possible for people to act out of (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    greengemini

    self-interest, when they do not know where self-interest lies. Some people, apparently instinct-driven, are self-centered, but not self-aware.  They do not know themselves, as Socrates counseled. They "know not what they do," as Jesus observed and advised that they should be forgiven.
    How do such people come to be? Since they are found all around the globe and in all population, one suspects either inheritance or some common pre-natal or peri-natal insult which affects their cognitive functions or severs the connections between the brain and sensory receptors, so they end up with a false image of their situation in the environment.
    I think we can identify a whole host of sensory deficits:

    Sense of time
    Sense of direction
    Sense of order
    Sense of sequence
    Sense of place
    Sense of connection
    Sense of situation
    Sense of temperature
    Sense of environment
    Sense of rhythm

    The consequences are readily identified.  If a person has no sense of the environment, especially what he can't see, it makes sense that he doesn't care about it.
    I suspect our largest sensory organ, our skin, has something to do with. After all, our integument registers our connection to the material world. If our sense of touch is dull, we are worse off than the blind, who manage to navigate by relying on it.
    I think it is telling that the captives in Plato's cave were bereft of all but the sense of sight. They couldn't even look sideways. Talk about a state of sensory deprivation. No wonder they needed to be led to the light.

    We organize governments to provide benefits and prevent abuse.

    by hannah on Wed Nov 14, 2012 at 04:41:47 AM PST

  •  Human beings succeed using two techniques. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    MrSpock, greengemini

    One is selfishness. The other is cooperation. What's interesting is how we choose between the two in any given situation, how we switch back and forth, and why some people use one technique to the exclusion of the other.

    Selfishness and cooperation can co-exist. Very few people can exist entirely outside the realm of society. Most people, even as children, quickly find out that cooperation within a "tribe" can lead to benefits to the self. (Even primate studies bear this out.) I find it interesting to consider whether pragmatic cooperation should be considered a form of selfishness -- if someone chooses behavior that results in a 'win-win' situation, did they do it for the good of both, or only the good of themselves?

    The relentless focus the right puts on selfishness is, perversely, a form of tribal cooperation. They believe good things should come not just to themselves, but to members of their own social group. They are willing to share, but only with those who think other tribes should not have anything. They are blind to the concept of benefits derived from inter-tribal cooperation. They believe in zero-sum situations: if another tribe gains something in greater society they feel it must come at a loss to their own tribe. They apply the framework of scarcity to even non-physical resources such as happiness. They don't seem to realize this has begun to hurt their own self-interests, as the American governing system is designed to encourage inter-tribal cooperation.

    You can call it "class warfare" -- we call it "common sense"

    by kenlac on Wed Nov 14, 2012 at 05:01:06 AM PST

    •   All morality has a locality aspect (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      kenlac

      Would anyone doubt that you'd more likely sacrifice for your child than a relative?
      Or that you'd sacrifice more for a relative than a neighbor.
      Or that you sacrifice more for a neighbor than a stranger.

      The problem with republicans is not in making those decisions on sacrifice for themselves, but in imposing them on others. They try to rig the system so that only their decisions matter. The structure of the system itself has to be above selfish influence even though individual selfish decisions are encouraged.  

      •  I suppose the scale of the sacrifice comes (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        MrSpock

        into play. Certainly anyone would rescue their own child from drowning first. The question becomes would you then ignore your neighbor's child drowning altogether because you're worried your child might catch a cold?

        Perhaps a key distinction needs to be made: self-interest is not the same thing as selfishness. Indeed, there are times when selfishness is detrimental to self-interest.

        You can call it "class warfare" -- we call it "common sense"

        by kenlac on Wed Nov 14, 2012 at 06:55:39 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  As they say the devil is in the details (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          kenlac

          You make a good point about scale and I think that is where the distinctions can be found. The level of sacrifice for most things are not absolute and can be affected by one's morality. My giving $100 to a homeless man is a different level of sacrifice than Bill Gates giving the same $100.

          In the case of morality or beliefs, if I value technology and progress more than nature's beauty and traditions, then the things I'd be more willing to sacrifice would be different from someone who had the opposite beliefs. Two moral people can look at the same situation and come at different conclusions. It would be complete arrogance to try to design an economic system that only rewards one of those outlooks.

          •  I think you've hit upon the very distinction (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            MrSpock

            between the liberal and conservative mindsets with this statement:

            Two moral people can look at the same situation and come at different conclusions.
            The liberal mindset accepts this premise (even if we find it confusing at times) whereas the conservative mindset rejects it thoroughly. There can be only one moral path in their world.

            You can call it "class warfare" -- we call it "common sense"

            by kenlac on Wed Nov 14, 2012 at 08:41:41 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

  •  I respectfully disagree (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    VClib

    Fist off you are attacking a straw man by conflating a macro economic system with personal morality. You can both be for an economic system based on individual self interest and advocate for personal morality. In fact the two go hand-in-hand in that part of a person’s self interest is their morality.

    A self interest based system benefits greatly from morality. If I don’t like what you are doing I can boycott you. If I can get enough people to share my view then your own self will force you to change. If on the other hand I am a lone lunatic then you can safely ignore me.

    Second, I pose this question: What would an economic system based on assuming everyone was moral look like? Well for one it would be fragile because it would require that people “do the right thing”. What happens in such a system when the inevitable human selfishness shows up?

    Even more troubling is what is the definition of “do the right thing” and who gets to make it? You could make a strong case that if I sacrifice my personal resources to help others less fortunate that I am acting nobly. But what if that sacrifice does not just affect me, but my family…or my community…or my state…or my country. For example it would be noble for me to forgo a movie night out and donate the money to help feed the homeless. But how noble is it to deny my children that same luxury? How noble would it be to say that no one could buy a luxury item until everyone was fed…on the entire planet.

    Third, who is better at determining what I want than me. I’d much prefer to be able to buy the flavor of ice cream that I like, than to have to rely on someone else’s ability to guess what I like. That is at the heart of the self interest argument. It is simply the best and most efficient way we have to determine the correct aggregate demand. Let everyone vote for what they want, let them be selfish if you will, and total the results.

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