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Enlightened Self-Interest

by TGeraghty 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.

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Enlightened self-interest is simply about making short term sacrifices for long term advantage (deriving from common goods, or from the value of relationships, etc...). It is also about making investments in others, in the community, in the common pot, for future use by all and by oneself.

What is missing in today's world are these concepts of sacrifice, of investment, of the future. Instead, we have an exacerbation of personal gratification (and instantaneous at that), or consumption, and of the present. We are narrowing ourselves.

The question is; is this coming only from the idea that every value should be expressed (and measured) in money terms, and evaluated by market mechanisms (a permanent way to set some form of instant valuation) - and discussed on the basis of the very short term evolutions of its "price"?

  • is it possible to make it clear that some values have no price? (i.e. separate politics from economics, and especially from finance)

  • within what belongs in the economics/financial realm, can we make it clear that some things should not be valued only by their short term price?

  • or alternatively, how can we make sure that long term considerations get incorporated in that instantaneous price?


In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sun Feb 19th, 2006 at 09:54:08 AM EST
Supposed you knew that your current lifestyle was to end shortly. For example, many in Europe knew in 1934-8 that their lives would be wrecked by the pending war. People in several Latin American countries have experienced the loss of their wealth due to runaway inflation. There are other circumstances like the pandemics which sweep societies as well.

In these cases you have several options. You can retreat into mysticism or religion, you can try to leave, you can try to set up a defensive fortress, or you can live for the moment.

I claim, without any proof, that many people fear their lifestyles are about to change. There are the threats from unseen enemies, unstoppable diseases, loss of the economic underpinnings of society, and climate and raw material catastrophes being predicted. The reactions seem to be those I listed.

There is a rise in religiosity, hedonism and self protection. Notice that even among those who feel that something can be done (like the bloggers here), most of the discussion is about defining the problems, and very little about providing solutions of a magnitude large enough to be meaningful.

Perhaps being selfish and irrational is actually rational in such circumstances.


Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Sun Feb 19th, 2006 at 10:39:09 AM EST
I happen to disagree with you on the lack of proposals on the "solutions' front. As I were, I just wrote about it on dKos again: DailyKos in Action: theexample of Energize America.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sun Feb 19th, 2006 at 11:59:39 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Jerome:
Maybe I'm just feeling discouraged, but I don't see any signs of the global paradigm shift needed to address the worldwide issues.

When I wrote my version of what you are trying to do:
Goals for the 21st Century
I tried to include as much discussion on implementation and opposition issues as on the goals themselves.

The issue with the the Gulf Coast is a perfect example.
The problem was well known (weak flood controls). The solution was proposed (detailed plans to improve the levees). The funding was not provided. The disaster happened. And now even having seen all that, the remediation plans are still not in place. New flood control plans are non-existent as are rebuilding or resettlement plans.

There is just something lacking in the current world leadership. What is missing is vision, or competence, or the ability to rouse the populace to sacrifice, or perhaps only rich, self-centered people can get into top policy positions in modern society.

So, please continue with your energy policy efforts, but keep in mind that unless you have a plan which will counter the power of the world oil industry/government alliance it has little chance of having a major impact.


Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Sun Feb 19th, 2006 at 12:56:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
In these cases you have several options. You can retreat into mysticism or religion, you can try to leave, you can try to set up a defensive fortress, or you can live for the moment.

<snip>

Notice that even among those who feel that something can be done (like the bloggers here), most of the discussion is about defining the problems, and very little about providing solutions of a magnitude large enough to be meaningful.

Your sentence after the <snip> implies, to me anyway, that you are thinking of a 5th option as well.  An option where people form around a solution to a problem, or a vision, normally leaders emerge, and great efforts happen to overcome the problem.  Perhaps the pre-WWII period is a good example,,,where Churchill and others saw what Hitler's true motives were.  They were unsuccessful in the beginning, for one reason because after the horrors of WWI, there was an understandable reluctance to accept that this might happen again.  But eventually a political coalition was formed around his vision of reality, and what needed to be done.

Slavery in the US was a major issue during the writing of the constitution.  But a broad shared vision was not able to win out.  On this issue, the founders "kicked the can down the road",,they couldn't work it out, so they took what good things they could agree on, and ran with that.  But the inequities to fellow man were egregious, those with the vision of freedom for all formed many common groups with 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.

These were massive efforts that we are all aware of.  But their are smaller efforts like this that are under the radar of the press and population in general.  There are small deadly diseases, where friends and loved ones of those that have the disease desire that money and resources be dedicated to solving it.  Often this starts with a few loved ones forming a group to try to develop a program to fix the disease.  I've been reading about Lupus a little recently, so I googled it and found The Lupus Foundation of America.  Just some of the headlines on the site:
1. Federal Employees Can Donate to LFA
through the Combined Federal Campaign - Agency #0533
2. Grants Available from Department of Defense for Lupus Research
Letter of Intent Due April 10, 2006 - Final Application Due May 12, 2006
3. Save the Date! 3rd Annual Champion to Champion Awards Gala
Ritz-Carlton Hotel, May 10, 2006, Washington DC

(btw, I don't really know this Lupus foundation, so I'm winging it here a little in implying they are reputable--I assume they are, and know of many like them that have wonderful motives and are hoping for results.  But I haven't carefully researched this)

The US government, (the UK and perhaps others as well) have put programs into place to support the efforts to find solutions.  Clinical trials today can run to $100's of millions, which is an incredible challenge if the disease only effects a small part of the population.  The orphan drug act was created to make that process easier for these small incidence diseases.

Enlightened self interest then brings in start-up companies, investors willing to take risks, to try to solve the problem, with the hoped for reward of financial gain, or perhaps for scientific employees, recognition by peers.  One company that I have become familiar with, La Jolla Pharaceutical had some technologies that they thought would impact Lupus, and they formed a company, did all the science, went public, ran their clinical trial--got just OK results, but didn't hit their end points on the trial, so the FDA said they thought the drug could make it but the trial had to be redone, and prove it factually.  At that point the company had "blown" $250 million.  They came close to bankruptcy, but convinced more investors it was worth rolling the dice and betting another $88 million.

But there are many stories in healthcare of people with enlightened self interest banning together to try to accomplish altruistic objectivers--and the supporters are loved ones of patients, the governments, scientists, investors, business people to run the firm, engineers to develop the products and manufacturing processes.  

I mean for these examples to support the point of enlightened self interest, and hopefully they do.

by wchurchill on Sun Feb 19th, 2006 at 12:39:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]

There is a rise in religiosity, hedonism and self protection. Notice that even among those who feel that something can be done (like the bloggers here), most of the discussion is about defining the problems, and very little about providing solutions of a magnitude large enough to be meaningful.

Perhaps being selfish and irrational is actually rational in such circumstances.


It possibly depends how rational your belief about what's coming down the pike is.

If you believe Jesus is going to come down on a cloud and sweep you up into Heaven - that may seem like a justification for strip mining the entire planet, but I think most non-fundies aren't going to think it's particularly rational.

Also, if your present behaviour guarantees a catastrophe when it could mitigate it or even avoid it, that doesn't seem very rational either.

I think all of our environmental problems can potentially be solved. There might be some drastic change, but drastic change isn't a new or unusual thing in history. I think with good leadership the changes could even be smooth and relatively painless.

The political problems are a harder call, because so many leaders seem to have no ability to model the long term, or even to think about it honestly. So I can't see serious progress on the bigger issues unless political systems are overhauled to make sure the right people end up on top - and not the sociopaths, careerists, egotists, bullies and paranoiacs, which seems to have been the way things have happened throughout most of history.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Sun Feb 19th, 2006 at 01:46:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Interestingly, the fundies are some of the most pro-environment people you'll find in America, and they've been making it an issue recently -- global warming being the biggest issue.  Remember that they're the ones who hunt, go fishing, drink well water, and work in polluted areas, so environmental hazards do have an impact on them.  The question is, "Will they stop voting for people who destroy the environment?"  That remains to be seen.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.
by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Mon Feb 20th, 2006 at 11:22:08 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Good presentation of an important concept.  It may seem obvious, but it is so important to frame things like this.

alohapolitics.com
by Keone Michaels on Mon Feb 20th, 2006 at 01:44:03 AM EST
I recently read a quote from Harry Belafonte, who said though these times are indeed dark and hopeless seeming, there was actually a darker time in America (and in th World), and that was when widespread slavery existed. And yet, somehow that Amrican apartheid was defeated, as was the apatheid later on in South Africa, and if that can be defeated, anything can be. I respect his point of view...and value this perspective: there is always hope, though we must keep up the fight. This is true for the current greed trend...we must keep fighting it.

Excellent diary...

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia

by whataboutbob on Mon Feb 20th, 2006 at 04:51:28 PM EST
Try the works of John Rawls:
Here is a link to an overview:
Theory of Justice

Basically he ends up with a variation on the golden rule.


Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Mon Feb 20th, 2006 at 06:14:48 PM EST
While the greed is good philosophy begun in the Reagan era in America, which continues today, is totally against the best interests of even the most loyal average Republican, keep in mind that economic conservatives would never win public offices if they did not cloak their agenda in front issues such as Jim Crow separatism, demonization of the poor (welfare), Evangelicalism, and family values. If these issues could be peeled away, a sense of economic justice and community might reemerge.

by shergald on Tue Feb 21st, 2006 at 10:27:54 PM EST


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