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.

Taking Care of It

In reading and re-reading some of Steinbeck’s novels and stories, I came across a short novel I had never read before, entitled To A God Unknown. It is a strange novel, unlike any of his other works that I am familiar with. It fails as great literature in my view because his characters are thinly disguised symbols and the author seems to be intent on setting out his message rather than writing an imaginative work of literature. This is not to say that the work lacks imagination. On the contrary, it is highly imaginative. But also a bit strange.

The reader really doesn’t get to know the characters at all, and the central character seems a thinly disguised transcription of a Christ-like figure who sacrifices himself for the land — of which  he has become a part, almost literally. In any event, he is interesting and the novel has some important things to say to all of us here in the twenty-first century, because it is about the earth and about our responsibility to care for it.

The central character’s name is Joseph, and he leaves Vermont just before his father dies to homestead in California. As he takes possession of his piece of land he exclaims: “It’s mine and I must take care of it.” He feels a deep and pervasive responsibility to the land which he shares with his two brothers. Initially the land produces bountiful crops and he and his brothers prosper. But, almost inevitably, the skies cease to produce rain and the land dries up. His older brother takes what is left of their herd of cattle 100 miles to greener pastures while Joseph insists on staying behind. He abandons the ranch for a small oasis of green trees and a small spring which he regards as the heart of the land. But this, too, begins to dry up and because he is convinced that he has failed to care for the land, he sacrifices himself to the rains that he hopes will come. As the novels ends, the rains finally do come.

But the message within this tightly wound novel seems clear, despite the fact that it was written in the 1930’s when folks seem to have had a greater sense of their responsibilities to the earth which is their mother and to whom they will all return at some point. Today, we ignore this fact and many (most?) would regard it as a bit of romantic nonsense. We are too busy exploiting the earth for our own short-term interests, destroying the land and polluting the air and water as we check our bank accounts and ignore the signs around us that, like Joseph’s, is drying up, turning to powder. We need not sacrifice ourselves as Joseph does, cutting our wrists while lying spread-eagle on a huge rock covered with dying moss in the middle of the last remaining green spot for hundreds of miles around. But we could certainly inconvenience ourselves to the extent that we make small sacrifices in creature-comforts to conserve the land and protect the earth upon which we depend for our very lives. Joseph knew that well; we have forgotten it — if we even knew it.

This point was driven home to me recently after reading the World Wildlife magazine in which a feature story spells out the food shortages that will inevitably face the world we take for granted. In that article it was pointed out that, given the expanding world populations and the diminishing food supply, our only hope is to “double the amount of food available” on the earth and its oceans. The article goes on to say,

“By improving efficiency and productivity while reducing waste and shifting consumption patterns, we can produce enough food for all on roughly the same amount of land we use now.”

This, of course, ignores the fact of global warming and the very real possibility that our world, or large portions of it, will no longer be able to produce any food at all. It’s not simply a question of greater efficiency. It’s also a question of reducing the numbers of humans on earth and seeing to it that those who remain take responsibility for it — as Joseph did.