Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

The Rise and Fall of "Self-Interest"

Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

The Rise and Fall of "Self-Interest"

Article excerpt

Drawing on Hobbes, Locke, Smith, Mandeville, and Rousseau, Faulhaber's 1977 article argues that self-absorbed self-interest cannot serve as the foundation of society because individual perversities do not sum to the common good. In Faulhaber's own words "the transformation of the water of 'self-interest' into a wine of public interest [is] a fake miracle." His concern is with the choices to be made regarding the interests of the self, the interests of the nation, and the interests of humankind. The key to these choices resides in self-respect in which a person understands that his/her own happiness and the happiness of others are intertwined. Community, in other words, is formed not on the foundation of self-interest through the invisible hand that makes more of self than of others but on self-respect wherein the disparate interests of the self, the nation, and humankind are reconciled by economic agents who exhibit a genuine regard for the well-being of others in everyday economic affairs.

Keywords: self-interest, self-respect, community, egoism, self-love, common good


All men were, are and will be self-interested. There is no choice in the matter, and without choice there can be no question of the morality of being self-interested. In effect we must admit that every man possesses interests, concerns, preoccupations, goals and so on. No man is without interests; even he who commits suicide can be presumed interested in being dead. Therefore, the term "self-interest" is a redundancy. Interests are referred or belong to the self, if not, to whom? In this sense, no one is "altruistic" or "disinterested," "egoist" or "selfish." The important questions then become--and these are matters of choice--what are and what should be the self's interests, the nation's interests, and, finally, mankind's interests? (1)


This error which is the taproot of the tree of modern problems is not a simple proposition. But without too much risk it can be compressed into a twin doctrine: (1) that interests are radically egoistic, and (2) that the conflicts between such interests do not pose an unsolvable problem for social life, that is, they are able to be resolved into a public interest that can be qualified as good.

The first, if not also the second, of these antagonistic beliefs is not peculiar to the modern era. It is a fundamental feature of Sophist, Epicurean and Skeptic views of man. Despite the influence of Platonic and Aristotelian schools, an essentially selfish interpretation of self-interest may well have dominated the classical world, but later the influence of Christianity's doctrines and philosophical attachment to Aristotle forced the notion of selfish interests underground.

Yet even in medieval Christianity, the teaching that men must do the will of God does not automatically suppress, and probably stimulates, the narrowest of motives for doing that will since the self is rewarded with eternal happiness and punished with permanent suffering. The theologically correct motivation, love of God, and not a combination of infinite greed and fear, was by no means kept a secret; yet preaching, even up to very recent times, rarely eschewed the efficiency of creating a carrot-stick syndrome in the hearts and minds of the faithful. No doubt, too, Christian (sic) art, especially painting, made a hellish contribution to men's imagination, though that art was not so successful in depicting heaven. (2)

All of this suggests that Christianity had concentrated men's attention on the self and tended, in effect, to produce egoists, however religious. It was the self that was saved from eternal damnation, even though salvation was held to be worked out in the Christian community. In Michelangelo's Last Judgment the terrifying look of horror on the face of the man who is contemplating his condemnation may be due not so much to fear of the pit but to the awful realization that it is irrevocably happening to him. …

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