The norm of self-interest

A core doctrine of the current era is that people are inherently self-interested and that self-interest is a moral act, which benefits the collective. I’ve recently read a fascinating article by the social psychologist Dale Miller that shows just how deeply this doctrine has worked its way into the social life of Western societies. The result is very strange – people trying their best not to benefit others in the belief that such acts are an embarrassing breech of proper behaviour.

Before getting into Miller’s argument, it’s important to remember that the evidence for people being primarily driven by self-interest is weak. In fact, as I’ve argued at length in The Infinite Game, most people are strongly inclined to share with, and help, others. We feel empathy towards people in need, an emotion that pushes us to try to improve their situation. We also have an almost irresistible desire to share our interests, skills and knowledge. ‘Talent,’ as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, ‘is always conscious of its own abundance and does not object to sharing.’ In fact, unshared talent is a sad and lonely thing: think of the artist whose work is not recognised and who eventually succumbs to despair. So cooperation and generosity are easy for most of us most of the time, and it takes self-restraint to ‘look after number one’ through ignoring the plight of others and guarding our assets.

Nevertheless, according to Miller we feel obliged to show such restraint and act consistently with our ‘short term, material self-interest’. Self-interest, he argues, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. First, we are trained to believe that self-interest is the natural human condition. This is helped by the popular version of the theory of evolution, in which we are assumed to be in a constant race for survival. We are also told that self-interest is good for the collective. If we each focus on our own needs the system will function efficiently and provide good outcomes for all. Our responsibility under this ‘natural’ and ‘socially beneficial’ system is simple: accumulate wealth and other personal resources and use them to enhance life for ourselves and our families. In an effort to conform, we act and talk as if we are self-interested, providing further evidence that self-interest is the right and normal way to behave.

A study Miller discusses involved students from three university courses. One course was in economics and based on game theory, a theory that assumes people are out to maximise their material gain. The second course was on the economics of Maoist China. The third course was on astronomy. Prior to receiving any teaching and again at the end of their course, students were asked a series of questions designed to measure their level of material self-interest. One question, for example, was, ‘Would you return a lost envelope with $100 in it?’  Those who did the game theory course showed a significant shift towards self-interest after the course, so, in the case of the sample question, they became less likely to indicate that they would return the $100. Those who did the astronomy course showed no such shift. The students taught about the economics of Maoist China scored somewhere in between the two. Miller suggests that the students who were taught from the perspective of game theory learnt that self-interest was ‘the rational and appropriate action to take no matter how guilty one feels doing so.’ Note: the students may have been intellectually persuaded in favour of self-interest, but they still experienced the emotional signal (guilt) that something wasn’t right.

The norm of self-interest may also lead people to hide their compassionate motives. Miller discusses how volunteers in one study described their motivation to volunteer primarily in terms of the benefit to themselves, as if it was inappropriate to be motivated by concern for others. It’s easy to find other examples of people hiding other-focused motives.  Even the wonderful Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and a writer whose work oozes compassion from every pore, claims she writes for herself in her book on creativity. She implies that wanting to write ‘to help other people’ is pretentious or misguided – an act of self-deceit that places a burden on others and will not produce work of value. ‘Enlightened self-interest’ is a mantra taken up by the business world to describe acts that benefit the collective such as carbon offsetting, ethical investing or working with suppliers who provide reasonable conditions for their workers. It’s OK to promote the common good, this framing tells us, because you will benefit in the end!

Miller claims that acts which can be seen as self-interest are also favoured in the political domain. If you are a woman, you can fight for gender equality. If you are a nurse, you can take industrial action to get better pay for nurses. If you are from an ethnic minority, you can stand up for the rights of your people. It is much harder for those outside the relevant identity to take up the cause, even if they feel just as strongly about the issues concerned. The most commonly touted explanation for this is that it is only insiders who care enough to put in the time and effort. However, an alternative explanation is that it is only insiders who feel entitled to put in the time and effort. The claim that ‘we’ are suffering and deserve better is compatible with self-interest, the claim that ‘they’ are suffering and deserve better is not. Viewed through the normative lens, the latter claim seems odd, incoherent and downright suspicious. The pressure to only stand up for what benefits you or your group results then, in an unwillingness to take action for the common good – or to be caught doing so.

A passage in the autobiography of Richard Randerson, who was a minister in the New Zealand Anglican church for several decades, vividly illustrates this pressure in action. It was 1968 and he was at the annual meeting in which the church traditionally endorsed a pay rise for clergy. ‘I suggested we should live sacrificially by not taking an increase, saying that Jackie [my wife] and I were able to live comfortably on the existing stipend. The Herald leapt on to this as a big story: turning down a wage increase was unheard of. A reporter was sent to interview Jackie on our food menu and budget, with details published in an article the next day. But [my suggestion] unsurprisingly, was not well received. We [had no children] and I was speaking to family men supporting a family on a single income. A trade unionist sent a copy of my photo from the Herald with a bullet-hole marked in my forehead. My statement was naïve and foolish, and I remember driving home to Papakura wishing the earth would open and swallow me up.’

Whoa – let’s think this through. Randerson got a death-threat for suggesting that he and other church employees relinquish their pay rise. Instead experiencing the threat as bullying designed to quash his compassionate impulse and send a message to anyone else thinking along the same lines, he experienced it as a sign of his naivety. And in a sense, he was naïve – he attempted to publically break the rule of self-interest. Had he donated his pay rise back to the church that would have been easier to manage – a private act and an aberration, not a plea to change the norm that the interests of one’s own group must come first.

By helping to suppress acts aimed to enhance the wellbeing of others, the norm of self-interest fragments our efforts to keep what we value in play. Social change becomes a series of campaigns in which those disadvantaged by the current rules fight for their patch. The civil rights movement in the USA is one example. It is now told as a successful battle for black rights, when many of Martin Luther King’s speeches called for improved conditions for all people experiencing poverty and oppression. Women are assumed to want equal representation in positions of power, with the implication that once the gender numbers are balanced, feminism will have achieved its goals. Again, this version of feminism is a far cry from a much more inclusive possibility – that women already do vital work and learning from ‘women’s ways’ could be of great value to society as a whole.

As always, however, it takes more than a mere norm to keep people in check. Yes, the norm of self-interest is powerful in pulling us toward some behaviours and away from others. The accompanying doctrine also strips us of ready language to talk about impulses that go against the rules. But the telling signs that people do care – like the guilt experienced by the self-interested students of game theory – don’t go away. And there are alternatives everywhere if you just notice them – the relational plays of many women (and men) are just one example.

So if you feel awkward admitting you want to help others, realise that isn’t because helping others is an unnatural and misguided act. It is because you have been trained to think it is an unnatural and misguided act. Why not feel the fear and do it anyway?

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