Self-Interest, Part 1

Article excerpt

Asked on camera by John Stossel "Who has done more good for humanity, Michael Milken or Mother Teresa?" philosopher David Kelley unhesitatingly answered, "Michael Milken."

Kelley is surely correct. But I've spoken to many people who are horrified by this answer. Mother Teresa's name is synonymous with good deeds and humanitarian concern. In contrast, Michael Milken was a businessman, a financier. To comfort others, Mother Teresa sacrificed herself. Michael Milken did what he did only to make money for himself.

Self-interested motives are so frowned on-and other-regarding motives so admired-that the typical pundit, politician, and pedestrian believes that motives are all that matter. Mother Teresa is admired because of her motives, not because of her results. Michael Milken and other business people are famous-or, in many circles, infamous-largely because of the personal fortunes they've accumulated rather than because of the huge benefits their goods and services bestow on millions of people around the world.

One response to those who judge a person exclusively by his motives was made famous by Adam Smith. It says: Look, almost everyone is naturally self-interested. Whether or not this fact is regrettable, it is unalterably true. So let's deal with reality. As it happens, a free market encourages self-interested people to act in ways that benefit others. So we need not spend much time lamenting people's self-interest.

Being a great admirer of Adam Smith, I find this line of argument compelling. But having now taught for 20 years, I've learned that it leaves a sour taste in the mouths of many students. "But wouldn't it be great if we all were like Mother Teresa?" students earnestly ask.

No, it would not be great. It would be catastrophically bad.

Self-interest is not merely an unchanging fact of reality that, as regrettable as it might be in the abstract, turns out to be okay in a free-market society. Instead, self-interest is necessary to make a large economy work. If each of us cared as much for strangers as we care for ourselves and our loved ones, our lives would certainly be poor and short, and possibly also solitary, nasty, and brutish.

At least two reasons justify my claim that self-interest is a benefit to humankind-that our world would be worse, not better, if self-interest were not part of our mental make-up. This month I'll address the first reason. I'll address the second reason next month.

While it's difficult to imagine the supposed ideal of universal love-a world in which no one distinguishes the welfare of strangers from that of himself and his loved ones-try to conjure in your mind this imaginary scenario.

One thing to notice is that, with everyone caring deeply about everyone else, our world would be a tyranny of busybodies. I often scold myself for caving into my weaknesses-for sleeping too late, for spending too little time with my young son, for eating too many potato chips, for buying that new necktie that I don't really need, and so on. I then try to govern myself by leveling self-imposed penalties for these failures. …