Mon Feb 20th, 2006 at 04:39:16 PM EST
Building on Jerome's excellent liberal manifesto.
Moral philosophers used to talk about an "enlightened self-interest" in which people would balance individualism with concern for the community.
People will pursue their self-interest - it is an inherent aspect of being human. But, people, by nature, do not pursue only their narrow short-run individual self-interest. It is within the fundamental nature of people also to care about others and accept the responsibilities of humanity. Rethinking does not require that people deny their self-interest. Instead, it will require that we rise above the economics of greed to an economics of enlightenment. The invisible hand can still translate the pursuit of self-interests into the greatest good for society, but only if each person pursues an enlightened self-interest - a self-interest that values relationships and ethics as important dimensions of our individual well being.
How do we get our society back to considering equality as a key component of the common good? ~ From the diaries ~ whataboutbob
Enlightened self-interests includes narrow self-interest (which focuses on individual possessions) but it includes also interests that are shared, in which one has only partial ownership (which focuses on relationships, community, and social values) and interests that are purely altruistic (which focuses on interests that are solely others', which one pursues only out of a sense of stewardship, ethics, or morality). All three - self-interests, shared-interests, and altruistic-interests -- contribute to one's well being or quality of life, but not in the same sense that greed might enhance one's material success. Each contributes to a more enlightened sense of quality of life - which explicitly recognizes that each individual is but a part of the whole of society, which in turn must conform to some higher order of things or code of natural laws. . . .
This enlightened self-interest is a product of balance among narrow self-interests, community or shared-interests, and altruistic or other-interests. Enlightened self-interest means that we cannot simply maximize or minimize any one particular aspect or dimension of our lives. We cannot be driven solely by greed, by altruism, or by concern for community. Instead we must pay conscious attention to whether we are adequately meeting our needs as individuals, as members of some larger community or society, and as moral, ethically responsible humans. Quality of life is a consequence of harmony or balance among the three.
For example, it is now mostly forgotten that Adam Smith's invisible hand is propelled not by selfishness or mere individual opportunism, but by enlightened self-interest.
So, in The Wealth of Nations:
Every individual endeavors to employ his capital so that its produce may be of greatest value. He generally neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. He intends only his own security, only his own gain. And he is in this led by an invisible hand to promote an end, which has no part of his intention. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.
But also, from the Theory of Moral Sentiments:
How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others when we either see it or are made to conceive it in a very lively matter.... By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation. We enter, as it were, into his body and become in some measure the same person with him.
Tocqueville also talked about "interest rightly understood"
the concept that people working together can not only serve their own interest, but can also serve the community as a whole. . . . Americans voluntarily join together in associations to further the interests of the group and, thereby, to serve their own interests. . . . combined the right of association with the virtue to do what was right.
From Democracy in America:
The Americans, on the contrary, are fond of explaining almost all the actions of their lives by the principle of interest rightly understood; they show with complacency how an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist each other, and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the state.
This idea of enlightened self-interest is what is largely missing from modern political discourse. On the right, we see this as the "greed is good" philosophy, but we see this on the left too in the balkanization of different social movements and the seeming inability to come together on a common philosophy and program that furthers our mutual interests and the common good.
What does this mean for liberals and the left?
Liberalism has traditionally been about balancing the values or "virtues" of freedom, equality, and community, and that this is what distinguishes liberalism from conservatism, libertarianism, and radicalism. Liberals favor freedom, but it has to be a freedom in which all people can participate equally. Likewise, liberal community must be one in which all people are valued equally, and all have an equal say in defining the rights and obligations that constitute that community. Thus, in addition to balancing the virtues of freedom and community, liberalism must also be committed to directly attacking economic, social, and political inequalities.