Thursday, June 9, 2011

Utter Balderdash on Self-Interest and It's Antidote: Long Range Rational Thought

This may be lost on someone whose mind bristles the moment they hear the word "selfish" but for those of you whose minds are still open for business I would like you to take away one thing:  There is no such thing as short-term self-interest.  There is long-term self-interest and there is self-destruction.

The concept of self-interest is a complex topic and it is easy to make mistakes about its nature and the consequences of choosing to be guided by it.  But the ruling principle here is that you cannot call a short-term gain that destroys all of your values and any possibility of long-term success "self-interested".  That is something that you would call self-destructive.

I was inspired to take up this topic by one of the many horrible articles attacking politicians such as Paul Ryan for making public statements that they are inspired and influenced by Ayn Rand's novel, Atlas Shrugged.  Critics of Ayn Rand, in general, have a difficult time with the idea that a self-interested person could be anything other than a deceitful crook and that Altruism is the only way to be a good person.

If you were to agree with the premise of one such article's claims, you might consider the following claims to be valid:

  • If a person presents himself as having no self-interest, or that he suppresses it in favor of putting the interests of others first, he can be trusted.  
  • If a person claims that he believes that each person should be guided first and foremost by his self-interest, he has given himself "a blank check to lie, cheat, steal, bribe, manipulate, backstab and betray".
    (though I provide a link here in the name of being complete, I do not recommend following it because they have a ridiculous paywall and it takes a while to get to the content)

Let's consider the first example for a moment.  This is just about every statesman.  They claim to be honest and trustworthy and to be looking out for someone's interests other than their own.  A number of them are honest at least some of the time.  A number of them are dishonest at least some of the time.  The mere fact that they present themselves as not putting their own interests first has no bearing on whether they turn out to be honest or not and is, therefore, no reason to trust them.

Consider a similar example.  You're moving into an inner city apartment and a stranger you don't know who has a friendly demeanor offers to keep an eye on your truck of belongings as you move items in.  Should you trust him to do so?  I wouldn't.  And neither would I trust the statesman who claims no self-interest to watch my camera bag while I go to the bathroom.  I don't know them.

Which brings us to the second guy in my list of claims above - the one who does claim that self-interest has a central role in each man's life.  You could say about this man that he is at least up front about this fact.  It's at least partly true for both men because they are both human, and as such need to act for their own survival.  What you can't say about him for certain is that you can trust him or that he will never be worthy of your trust.  The anti-Rand articles claim the latter, in loud and un-intellectual language.

The correct disposition to take in both cases is to withhold judgment on trustworthiness because one does not trust people based on who they say they are, but rather based on who they demonstrate that they are by their actions.  To trust a person with all of your earthly belongings based solely on their claims or on a gut feeling is to take them on faith, which we have no reason to do.  We need to see their actions to know who they are, no matter what they claim about themselves or the nature of man.

The question of whether a person who claims to be motivated by self-interest is ultimately trustworthy depends on the range of the person's thinking and action.  The better the mind, the longer the range.

If a person thinks and acts on the short-range, then you can trust that they will make all sorts of bad decisions perhaps including to lie, cheat, steal, and/or defraud others.  Such actions could not be said to be in a person's self-interest because the outcome is bad for the person.  Even if he/she gets away with fraud, he still has to manufacture and maintain a fake reality for others, if only to stay out of jail.  When the entire thing comes crashing down, as it usually does, he is left ill-equipped to deal with reality honestly because he is too practiced in living in a fake one.  This is self-destruction.

If a person thinks and acts on the long range, he will have to be honest first and foremost to himself about facts of reality in order to be determine what course of action is in his best interest over the full range of his life.  In his dealings with others, he would know that people can see a pattern in his behavior and are not likely to deal with him again if they know that he is the sort of person who is willing to lie, cheat, steal and defraud. He would also be able to guess that people can warn other people off.  This person has the capacity to deal with people honestly because he deals with his life honestly and doesn't knowingly sacrifice long-term thriving to short-run gains.

Long-term self-interest is the only kind of bona-fide self-interest.  Thinking and acting on the short range is self-destruction whether it is masked by a veneer of self-interest or not.