Self-Interest

I recall reading years ago a book in ethics that built an entire ethical system out of the notion of self-interest. This was not simply ego-centricity, not raw selfishness. It was self-interest properly understood: enlightened self-interest. If I ask not “what do I want here and now,” but “what will I want in a few day’s time” I begin to see what is in my true self-interest. I will denote the difference by putting caps on the notion of Self Interest properly understood.

On a mundane level, Self Interest translates into “I will scratch your back because there may come a time when I need you to scratch my back.” Thus, if your car breaks down and you need a ride to the garage I will take you there in spite of the fact that I was on my way to the Mall to buy the item I really wanted because it is on special this week and the sale ends today. I really want to go to the Mall, but I realize that it is in my Self Interest to help you out, because there may come a time when I need you to help me out. Conscience may enter into it, or it may not. It may simply be a matter of calculation. But the end result is that I do the right thing. Similarly, if you make me really angry and I want to smack you upside the head, I realize that if I walk away you will still be my friend and we can continue to have fun together. It’s in my Self Interest to swallow my anger and simply walk away and cool off.

A good citizen who is calculating his or her Self Interest will realize that they need to vet each candidate carefully, get out and vote, and continue to keep an eye on the voting habits of the candidates of choice in order to determine whether they deserve to be reelected. He or she will pay taxes because they realize that they will benefit the schools (whether they have kids in the schools or not) and help the state pay for road repair, support fire and police salaries, and keep up the public parks — all of which benefit me in the long run. (Even someone else’s kids will vote and act wisely in the future if they are well schooled, presumably.)  In a word, Self Interest requires taking the long view, considering the consequences of actions and asking the question: what will benefit me in the long term.

The owner of a factory who knows he can save big bucks by neglecting to put scrubbers on his factory’s chimneys takes the view of Self Interest and spends the money for the scrubbers because he realizes that this will improve air quality that benefits the health of those around him, including his employees, and himself and his family as well. Short-term profits are sacrificed for long-term benefits to a great many more people. And, in the end, these are the people that will continue to work for him and will buy his products. The long term always involves a sense that each of us is in a boat with others. It’s not just about me or you: it’s about all of us. What is good for each is good for all. It’s not rocket science, but it takes a bit of imagination and patience and a willingness to think before acting.

At the highest levels, of course, ethics demands that those who make the major decisions that indirectly affect us all require the perspective of Self Interest. It may be in my self-interest (small case) to cheat on my taxes and save a few bucks, put pressure on my political cronies to get them to vote my way, cut health care because it will benefit those few who support my candidacy, fail to fill vacant federal judgeships that stand in the way of my political objectives, or eliminate regulatory agencies because they interfere with profits. But if I step back and take the perspective of Self Interest I realize that paying my taxes, cooperating with my political cronies (whether I like them or not), promoting universal health care, promoting a strong and healthy judiciary, and funding regulatory agencies that protect us all are in my Self Interest: they are in the best interest of all and therefore of myself as well. When we all benefit each of us as individuals benefits as well.

This system is not the be-all and end-all of ethics, but anyone who seeks to follow the path will find that he or she ends up doing the right thing most of the time. It takes imagination and a willingness to ignore short-term desires for long-term benefits. But if each of us followed that path our democracy would be a stronger and healthier political system that does, in the end, help to promote  the Common  Good — which was always the goal of a republican system of government.

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The Business Model

Some years back NSP was thinking about putting a coal-burning power plant in a town close to ours. They sent a couple of their suits down to placate the locals and reassure them that all would be well. During the question period that followed their presentation a farmer asked them what would become of the numerous acres that would be taken up by the plant and its holding ponds. The spokesman said he didn’t know, they couldn’t project past five years. The farmer responded that if the land were left alone he could predict with some assurance that the land would still be producing corn and beans. One of the wittiest comebacks I have ever witnessed.

It’s an interesting thing, this business model that doesn’t allow us to predict long-term. It’s all about short-term — which translates into profits and losses. The models that the mathematicians come up with cannot work with too many variables, and as the years are added up the variables begin to outnumber the constants. So prediction becomes difficult, if not impossible (just ask the weather prognosticators!) The business model gives us short-term thinking and quantification. The model works, there is no doubt about it: business has brought great wealth to a few and raised the standard of living for many in this country and around the world. It has even provided us with a paradigm of success, for better or worse. But it has its limitations — as suggested above.

It doesn’t encourage long-term thinking and it seeks to reduce all issues to numbers. The model doesn’t work in contexts other than business — say, education. The problem, of course, is that it has in fact been forced on education and has increased the difficulties the schools are having teaching the young. As though there aren’t enough problems already. The notion that schools have to be held accountable and their “product” evaluated on a scale that can be quantified is absurd. But that’s where we have come, because it’s the only model bureaucrats know.

Further, the goal of education — which should be to put young people in possession of their own minds — has become reduced to getting a job. As though we could predict today what the jobs will be when the college Freshman graduates. We lie to them when we lead them to believe that the jobs available now will be available four or five years down the road. Here’s where the business model might be applied in a sensible way.  But we forget our inability to predict long-term in the desire to “sell the product,” which is the latest fashion in education finery — culinology (whatever that is), or accounting, or forestry. The only thing about the future that we know for sure is that it will change, and the only preparation for change we can urge on today’s students is to learn to think, to express themselves, to calculate, and to understand as much as possible of the world around them. The irony here is that the people who can use their minds are the ones who will get the jobs — the goals of education and job preparation are not necessarily antithetical to one another, as long as we get the priorities straight. But if we stress vocationalism and ignore liberal learning (as we have) we place blinders on the students and decrease their ability to adjust to changing circumstances down the road. If the seventeen-year-old focuses exclusively on, say, office management and then discovers at age 36 that the job is boring — or just not there — she is trapped in a straightjacket. If the focus is on breadth of preparation, the student will be ready for anything.

Short-term thinking, quantification, and the notion that it’s all about jobs are antithetical to education properly understood. The business model works in the world of profits and losses; it doesn’t work in the world of human development.