Look up. Towards a smarter self-interest
Words & images © Paul Ransom
Self-interest. Lionise or demonise it, we all pursue it, individually and tribally. However, just as its pursuit can benefit others, when too narrowly defined it can wreak havoc, not merely on others but on ourselves. Additionally, we are highly likely to have conflicting self-interests. Pleasure seeking versus the rewards of principle. Short term kick versus long term gain. Control versus acceptance.
Our relationship with self-interest is one of the key personal and social conundrums we confront, ethically and existentially. We see its inherent tensions playing out in our private lives and in our politics and economy. It manifests in the rival claims of nations, and in our disagreements over environment and pandemic-era health policy.
The individual may well cry freedom, but the neighbours will soon want something done about the noise.
Yet, filtered through the prisms of ideology, tribal politics and adversarial news drama, the inherent complexities of balancing the various pulls of self-interest are typically reduced to a win/loss, good/bad metric. The individual versus the herd. In-groups against out-groups. Jobs or trees. Combined with our tendency to engage in presentist, declinist and nativist thinking – and our penchant for moral policing – the so-called ‘circle of empathy’ can often resemble an MMA octagon.
Despite this, we are familiar with the notion of enlightened self-interest. Individually, our formative encounters with this occur in childhood when we begin to grapple with the challenges of delaying gratification. As kids we also learn about sharing and teams, about quid pro quo; and even if our socialised behaviours and putative morals remain basically transactional well into adulthood, for the vast majority there is a clear understanding that instant rewards often come with intolerable costs and that personal welfare is deeply enmeshed with that of others. Most of us accept the notion that maintaining civility and being ‘law abiding’ is of both individual and collective benefit, and we are increasingly aware that we derive a species-wide advantage from acting to preserve biospheric conditions conducive to our ongoing survival.
You will likely have been offered the following advice:
- Don’t bite the hand that feeds
- Don’t shit in your own nest
- Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face
All hint at a realisation that our greater self-interest sometimes involves an acknowledgement of the part that others play, a measure of restraint, and a good deal of patience. Hardly rocket science.
So, why do we still struggle with it? Why do we resort to abuse, violence, sabre rattling, and identitarian rancour in pursuit of personal gain and tribal claim? Perhaps there are clues in the unpacking of both ‘self’ and ‘interest’.
We all feel individual. Each of us has a detailed and consistent sense of discreet self. In our everyday experience, we operate as distinct and clearly delineated beings, not just in body but in heart and mind. Furthermore, over the last three centuries we have evolved cultures that champion the individual. From secular/humanist universalism to the hyper-individual ethos of Anglo-capitalism, we have created cultural narratives, legislative frameworks and global markets that locate the individual at the centre of both personal and tribal reckoning.1
Yet, we have also learned that self emerges in the context of other. The encapsulated identities we recognise as I/Me rely upon a rich lattice of external inputs. Indeed, the foundational relationship we all have is not so much with the I as the Not I. It is from others we learn our names, our language, our norms. They are the stars by which we navigate. Moreover, the social construction of identity is wired into our brains. As neuroscientist David Eagleman observes:
“…who you are emerges from everything you’ve interacted with; your environment, all of your experiences, your friends, your enemies, your culture, your belief system, your era – all of it.”
– from: Livewired. (2020)2
In this view, the self is an emergent amalgam, a data-driven feedback loop, a continuous dialogue between internal and external worlds. Thus, the hard border we experience between ourselves and the wider world is more porous than we typically imagine.
If this seems a little arcane and academic, look around. Most likely, you are sitting in a chair someone else made, in a house other people built. If you have money, recall that its value is contingent on the willingness of others to accept it as money. As a social species we are almost entirely dependent on each other, physically and psychologically. Without you, I would not be me, and vice versa.
Whereas some will regard this as a Trojan horse for collectivist tyranny, the point here is less about politics and economy and more about a conceptualisation of the individual as a node in a highly networked process of exchange. (Indeed, this is perhaps analogous to economy. We trade in identity; with language, culture, etcetera as the currency.) Therefore, far from simply re-packaging ‘we are all one’ clichés or seeking to pathologise the pursuit of self-interest, the invitation here is for us to consider the self in its wider, symbiotic context.
- Much the same can be said for the groups we affiliate with. Whereas identity-political cleavages exist along ethnic, national, sectarian, class, and other conveniently drawn lines, these tribalised identities are themselves porous and inter-linked. Indeed, each of us could likely claim membership of numerous groups, and thus the pursuit of rigidly demarcated group interests is frequently counter-productive and self-defeating.
When The Other features on the radar of self, we can begin to re-imagine self-interest. Rather than admonish ourselves for being selfish or engage in the righteous fantasy of being ‘above’ such things, we can frame an individualism that acknowledges the shared foundation of identity and places a core value on mutuality.
Knowing what is or is not in our interests can be tricky. It can involve casting our gaze into an uncertain future or assessing the balance of risk based on limited information. In addition, a slew of unconscious cognitive biases and neurological habits work to cloud our attempts at rational analysis. If we are being honest with ourselves, we accept that we sometimes pursue objectives not in our best interest, even if we believe they are at the time. To err is human, even in the pursuit of self-interest.
Moreover, if we insert ideological fixity into the mix or rely too heavily on a narrow calculus it renders the identification of genuine self-interest even more problematic. Likewise, conceiving of our interests as contingent on specific outcomes and/or circumstances can blind us to the many other ways in which our interests could conceivably be met.
Simplistic either/or calculations of self-interest – notably those centered on gratification, acquisition, status, dominance, and virtue – tend to tunnel our vision. Though true we occasionally confront stark binaries in the weighing up of our interests, and that sometimes the choice is clear, more often we will have a range of both intersecting and/or conflicting interests.
Here again we might employ an economic parallel – for just as we accept that interest on loans will vary across time and context, and thus influence our willingness to take on various risks, it is similarly prudent for us calculate self-interest beyond the short term and to factor in the likelihood of shifting circumstances.
If self does not exist in a solipsistic bubble, neither do our best interests. Harking back to the aforementioned ‘circle of empathy’, we may regard both self and our interests as existing within a kind of circumference. Or lens. How wide is it? How much of the landscape does it take in?
Some will contend that ‘zooming out’ and seeking wider perspectives merely invites a stifling complexity, a paralysis by analysis. This is a genuine risk. I imagine most of us have experienced the occasional cycle of entrenched uncertainty and felt unable to move forward with clarity and confidence. However unpleasant and harmful this can be, it is not a convincing argument for a retreat into narrow egocentrism or rote simplicity. Indeed, on balance, ignoring or denying the ever-changing, networked complexity of our world contains far greater downsides than do intermittent episodes of over-wrought indecision.
And yet, in a way, complexity is simple; or at least predictable. Surely now we are all familiar with spectrum metaphors and other shades of grey. Considered coolly – and adjusting for our various ego-dramas – it is abundantly clear that a mature measuring of self-interest takes place against a fluid, shared and contested backdrop. We are unlikely to proceed perfectly, and without either error, setback, or opposition.
To recap, my best interests frequently involve yours. This is not a virtue signal. Neither is it especially enlightened or altruistic. It is simply the lay of the land. Deeper still, it turns out that one of the smartest ways to approach questions of self-interest is to control for the inevitable distortions of self. In other words, to get out of your own way.3
While prudent evaluations of personal self-interest can help with our relationships, career moves and financial planning, the terrain gets tougher when we consider our interests on a social scale. When groups pursue their perceived interests – politically, militarily, economically – the impact on others can be extreme. History is replete with blood-soaked examples.
Much as we might be critical of herdthink, group-based stereotyping, and the various narratives of racial/national supremacy, it behoves us to remember we are a social animal. Keenly individual though we may feel, we are hard-wired to preference tribal affiliation. Belonging.
- Curiously, even those who maintain an ideological aversion to anything social/collective, and who argue that society either does not exist or is a merely an aggregate phenomenon – a ‘collection’ of individuals in pursuit of private interests – end up acknowledging the reality of tribes. Scratch a libertarian jihadi and you will often find an advocate of due process and law and order, or indeed an ethno-cultural cheerleader/apologist. Point being, even when we sacralise the individual we cannot realistically extract them from the detailed mosaic of the society in which they operate. Furthermore, once we strip emotive drama from the libertarian war-cry what we end up with (hopefully) is a more nuanced argument about the nature and extent of group-based action and how that impacts the individual.
Consequently, despite hyper-individualist worldviews and tech-enabled social atomisation we find ourselves, once more, at a moment of amplified tribal schism. From the geo-strategic manoeuvring of nuclear armed nation states to the numerous identity-based battlegrounds, we see signs of a retraction into more sharply delineated groups. Setting aside right/wrong arguments and conspiracy theories – and correcting for the theatrical hyperbole of 24/7 news and reductive politics – the current spectacle of culture wars and hawkish postures underscores something fundamental about our species; that private and shared identity operate in a complex existential tango, and that they can be both in sync and out of time.
We have traditionally (though not always) resolved this duality by resorting to broad brush calculations of group interest, and to the use of force, coercion and the manipulation of ‘facts’ to further those interests. Cue our penchant for empires, law making and propaganda.
Here we may ask: what is the baseline purpose (or telos) of the group? It can be argued that their primary functions are to provide for, protect and police its membership. (The Three Ps of tribal organisation.) Drilling down, the herd is about survival – because there is nothing starker than a dead or alive dichotomy.4
Thus, beyond politicised and weaponised tribal self-interest there are more universal interests, those we share at a deeper, or more human level. Whatever our left/right persuasion, and to whichever in-groups we feel we belong, we all have a vested interest in things like:
- Basic civility – we agree not to predate violently or otherwise on one another
- A sense of fairness – visible and impartial justice, rules of engagement, the censure of breaches
- Prudent management of resources – that, through shared effort, we will provide for one another
We could likely find other inclusions, and doubtless argue over them, but perhaps what we’re really driving at here is a common interest in trust. As members of a social species, we have survivalist, reproductive and psycho-emotional interests in being able to trust each other. In the complex economy of human relationships, it is the reserve currency, underwriting the vast web of cooperative endeavours that constitute the ‘fabric’ of society.
Though it sounds corny, our shared interest is in one another – whether we like it or not.
The united/divided states of us
We find ourselves at a potential watershed in our history. In a mere blink of evolutionary time, we have gone from living and subsisting in small clan groups – where our relationships with one another and the land we lived on were concrete, and where our authority structures were personal and highly visible – to living in an abstract global village with enormously complex and frequently opaque power regimes and networks of interconnection. In parallel, we have upgraded our capacity for tribal conflict from hand-to-hand skirmishes to drone, cyber and nuclear warfare, and increased our use of finite resources to such an extent that our current operating norms are unsustainable and likely ruinous. Meanwhile, our deeply seated tendency for hierarchical organisation has manifested itself in highly stratified economies and a growing sense that present levels of inequality and associated injustice are fracturing the civic/political compact in dangerous and unpredictable ways.
- For more on this, check out Abstract Secessionism elsewhere on this site.
And then there’s the pandemic. Whatever else we might say about SARS-CoV-2, it is clear the advent of the virus has thrown both our divisions and our interdependence into sharp relief. Taking the helicopter view, we see how the core psycho-cultural fractures of our time run along a Me/We, Us/Them axis. Despite the noisy and righteous theatrics of ideological dispute that swirl around it, the amplification of this conflict raises serious questions about the weighing up of self-interest in the context of global phenomenon like disease, warming, and the increasingly pugilistic bristling of nation states.
To be clear, a rational and sustainable pursuit of self-interest in a united/divided, globalist/nativist world is not an easy balance to strike.
- When does the singular me become the plural we?
- When does the tribal us become the human us?
- And what becomes of them?
If our greater self-interest lies in mutually sustaining partnerships, in a rule-based compact, the central pragmatic and moral question then becomes: how best can I live with you, and how can this be viably arranged?
- How can I pay you a decent wage and still make a profit?
- How can I run my farm without polluting the river your children swim in?
- How can I enjoy my freedoms without stripping you of yours?
- How can we deal with our differences without lurching into mutually destructive spirals of vengeance and violence, or counter-productive one-upmanship and races to the bottom?
Yet perhaps there is an even more fundamental challenge lurking in the heart of our individual and collective self-interest.
- How can both/all our interests be acceptably met?
Though these questions may appear either obvious or unhelpfully vague, when we ask them in the context of Sino/US tensions, climate change and standard economic practise we have an opportunity to re-examine the parameters of self-interest. Rather than arguments couched in threat, moral invocation, missionary zeal, or doom-mongering, we can appeal to a more mature and teased out self-interest, one that situates itself in a world bigger than itself and looks beyond the next five minutes.
Again, no degrees or higher vibrations required. This is not about being superior – just practical.
At this juncture in human history – when ideological over-statement, conspiracy alarm and retractionist identity narratives distort the socio-political discourse – an appeal to sensible, civil pragmatism may seem like radically moderate medicine for a fevered zeitgeist.5 However, by framing things in self-interest terms, we can create a platform for agreement. Because we are all self-interested; and no matter how bad we think those fiendish out-groups are, we can surely empathise with their drive to pursue their own interests.
As examples, we need look no further than the three aforementioned Ps – provision, protection, policing. Each is existential in nature, and all involve risk, multiple unknowns, moral hazards, and the potential to create physical and philosophical conflict. All are located on the seismically active fault line between individual and group interest, and each of us has a stake in the scope and practice of all three.
On the provision front, most of us encounter this through economic relationship. While agriculture, mining and construction do the heavy lifting with regards physical necessities, we all access a range of essential/desirable goods and services via the ‘social technology’ of money. In addition, many of us are also providers. Plumbers, nurses, shopkeepers. Employers, lenders, investors. Considered whole, the economy is a model of monetised mutuality, a joint venture in which we each have a vested interest.
- For more on this, check out We Buy Ourselves On Credit elsewhere on this site.
Therefore, tempting though it is to pay low wages and think only of my own bottom line, as a business operator I thrive best when disposable incomes and aggregate demand are such that customers are buying, banks are lending, and people are willing to invest in new goods and markets. Our economy is deeply symbiotic, and self and shared interest clearly coalesce.
Yet, the distortions and perverse incentives, the many injustices, and the vulgar and destructive excesses of the global economy point to dominant ideologies of narrow self-interest. That we have disrupted the biospheric balance that literally sustains us in pursuit of the dollar and other conveniences speaks volumes about our personal and collective failure to consider our long-term interests – rationally, ethically, and existentially.
We may perhaps draw similar conclusions with regards to the way nations relate. While governments of all stripes speak of protecting borders and securing the safety of their citizens, we continue to murder one another in the pursuit of perceived ethno/national interest. Then there are trade wars, race to the bottom tax & reg competitions, and superpower chest beating. Together, we have created a geo-strategic space riven with threat, sanction and chronic buck passing on climate, people movement and resource management – not to mention the uptick in isolationism and nationalised dispute over quarantine measures and vaccine supply triggered by COVID.
- Despite this, the current tenor of international relations also illustrates how attitudes to other tribes and our understanding of entwined self-interest have evolved. For all the entrenched hostility of Israel/Palestine and the emergence of identity-driven nativist politics, we are less at war than at any time in recorded history. News and social media may tempt us to think we are stewing in a sea of violence and decline, but the measurable reality shows otherwise.6
However, long before nation states and global capitalism, we evolved law and order. Sociability implies rules of relationship, and in our species it has mapped out as formal mechanisms and conventions of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. We have policed ourselves in various ways for millennia, and our lingering disagreements about justice underline our dual and conflictual interests in both personal freedom and group cohesion.
I think it is fair to say we all have a vexed relationship with rules. We hate being constrained and censored yet are quick to cry foul if anyone else transgresses. Similarly, we love predictable civility and sanctify numerous traditions but abhor unquestioning orthodoxy and extol some (but not all) forms of disobedience.
Here perhaps is where the problem of self-interest is most keenly felt. Which rules to uphold, which to break? After all, who wants to think of themselves as obedient…and yet most of are, most of the time. Rebels maybe chic and the masses maybe sheep, (or so we’re told), yet our overall interests are not best served by fixed ‘me v the mob’ formulas or the pre-adolescent self-centrism of you can’t tell me what to do.
The existential economics of self-interest
The obvious question here is: why be interested in a more nuanced understanding of self-interest? After all, we instinctively act to ensure our survival, physical and psychological. Almost all of us have similar instincts around kith and kin, and to some extent the groups we regard as ‘us’.
How easy it would be to rely on reflex if the individual were truly that. But we live in a shared world. Hence all those pesky rules.
“To be fair, not all social norms are spirit crushing impositions. Most sane people don’t actually want to anally penetrate small children or defecate in restaurants. Yes, waiting politely in line can sometimes be irritating and listening to grandpa’s brain-freezingly dull yarns for the 4000th time can test your patience to breaking point, but we grin and bear it because, well, there’s a bigger picture. This too shall pass, choose your battles, don’t sweat the small shit, and so on.”
– Yours truly. The Pointless Revolution (2019)7
Therefore, rather than stick to blunt assertions, most of us find ourselves engaged in an ongoing process of weighing up odds and doing a cost/benefit analysis that factors in self and other as part of the interest equation.
And yet still we collectively contrive to blow up schoolgirls on behalf of fictional gods, play with fire in the South China Sea, and hack down rainforests to make all-beef patties.
Zooming out, it is clear there will never be a perfect (or utopian) alignment of interest, personally or politically. Conflict is both inevitable and frequently beneficial, and we should not be tempted by false promises of universal harmony. But suicide bombings and Capitol riots? Really?
Though we have our survival instinct, we need more than unconscious triggers to navigate our way around the obstacle course of life and society – which is where we can employ what I like to call Existential Economics7. In other words, a calculus that factors in downstream cost, risk probability, changing circumstance, and long-run pay-off; one calibrated with both survivalist and ‘trading’ realities in mind.
We operate in a marketplace of self-interest, and if we give clear thought to the health of that economy – acting as joint custodians of a shared ecosystem, rather than as implacable enemies and/or rightful (entitled) owners – we can begin to trade more profitably.
The crux here is focus:
- Point scoring or game winning?
- Winner takes all or sharing the spoils?
- Perfect hands or dealing with the cards?
- Letter or spirit?
- Alive or correct?
- Quantity or quality?
My focus here is not to argue for particular outcomes, nor simply to suggest the long-term view is always better than the short…but it strikes me that our best chance at enlightened self-interest comes when we take in as much relevant information as possible and are clear about where the impacts of our choices lie. When I act with tomorrow in mind, and with an eye for those around me, and I allow for the fact of incomplete knowledge, today’s self-interest is no longer calculated in isolation. When it comes to my interests, I prefer to do the due diligence.
Extrapolating this to the tribal/global arena, we have to wonder if folks like President Xi and Prime Minister Netanyahu have truly done this, or if they are both hoping to outrun the worst consequences of their ethno/nationalist pugilism (or praying their core constituents won’t join the dots). And what on Earth are the Burmese military thinking? Or Sunni extremists? Or fossil fuel lobbyists? Or COVID ‘elimination’ strategists? They all appear to be pursuing poorly thought out and/or counter-productive objectives with very high baked-in costs and almost no chance of ultimate success. (What odds China gets a free pass to take Taiwan or that IS will murder enough infidels to convince us the Caliphate is a good idea?)
We may well cheer Don Quixote in his individual battle against windmills, but I am fairly sure we don’t want the people in charge of hi-tech arsenals and trillion-dollar pension funds to be quite so oblivious to the likely outcomes.
Hence the existential input into this economy of interests. We pursue self-interest in a whole-of-life context. At the end of the day, ‘survive and thrive’ is where our bedrock physical and psycho-emotional interests lie. This is the end game. Victory and its trinkets may not be worth the price we ultimately pay.
Yes, I could crush you, assert dominance, extract a tithe, wave my flag over your house…but if this means you grow to hate me and put all your energies in to bringing me down, what does that mean for me going forward?
In defence of self-interest
If I have been critical here of the way we calculate and pursue self-interest, let me state clearly that I do not seek to pathologise it. Puritanical and pretentious ideologies that claim to situate themselves above self-interest, and ‘love everyone’ fantasies that promise communal utopias do not serve our best interests. Even where their sentiments are noble and well-intentioned, they carry the germ of censorious control, denial, and self-loathing.
Thus, while short sighted me-first attitudes and their reputedly meritocratic, supposedly freedom loving justifications remain deeply problematic, self-interest is not intrinsically bad.
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.”
– Adam Smith. The Wealth of Nations. (1776)8
Aside from asserting that social (or shared) goods can arise as a corollary of private interest, Smith situates this ‘regard’ in a world of exchange, not simply commercial but moral. He speaks of living and acting with “reference to the sentiments of others” and elaborates a vision of self-interest that functions entirely within a social fabric. Though often hailed as the godfather of laissez-faire capitalism, the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher was a man of egalitarian persuasion and broadly Christian principle. For Smith, self-interest should not be neatly distilled from public interest, neither ethically nor economically.8
I cite him here to underscore the deeper point I am hoping to make about self-interest – not only that it is embedded in a context of exchange (or relationship) but that it cannot be practically or morally sustained, nor indeed properly understood, when considered through the either/or prisms of common ideology. Indeed, to present the relationship between the individual and society as necessarily adversarial, as if the benefits of both were mutually exclusive, not only betrays a pre-pubescent mindset but creates an almost no-win situation when we come to the inevitable intersects.
Rather than locking us into an endless tug-o-war, our self-regarding sentiments can be our meet point. Sure, the details will get messy, and we probably won’t get everything our own way, but are our personal, tribal and species-wide interests served better by sub-optimal outcomes that allow us to go forward intact or by mutually destructive stubbornness?
In my view, self-interest is too good, too pivotal, to sacrifice to the hot air of us/them demagogues. Not only is it an engine of human creative dynamism but the most compelling motivation we have to factor The Other into the equation.
We do not need to become ascetics or mendicants, nor indeed police informants, to understand and embrace the broader self-interest. We simply need to remember that it is in our best interests to do so.
1: There is a view that modern individualism has its roots in religion, most notably in Christianity, with its core egalitarianism and personal accountability before (and relationship with) God. This contention drills through the distortions and hierarchical modus operandi of the various ‘churches’ to focus instead on the tropes of compassion and universality embedded in scripture. Doubtless, similar arguments could be made around other religious traditions. Either way, the suggestion is that individualism was not the sole creation of 18th century European philosophers or 20th century marketing mavens.
2: David Eagleman: Livewired, The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain, Canongate, 2020. Although the focus of the book is neuroplasticity, the author argues that the very nature of that plasticity – our brain’s eternal responsiveness to incoming sense data – situates everything from language to memory to biases of thought and feeling in a context that transcends commonplace notions of strictly atomised selfhood.
3: Clearly, there is an embedded paradox (or potential regress) here. However, this is intrinsic to the nature of the atomised self. Think, the self that sees self, or the self-monitoring self, or the self that sees the self that sees the…ad so infinitum. Whereas athletes and artists are familiar with the notion of ‘getting out of your own way’ and can identify and practise techniques that allow it, many of us continue to struggle with this. Counter-intuitive or fanciful though it may seem, it is possible (indeed pragmatic) to learn this habit. PS: You do not need to be a saint or genius to achieve this.
4: Though we may argue that human social/tribal groups serve more subtle purposes than ‘mere’ survival, it is clear sociability is an evolutionary adaptation, and that humanity is not the only species to gain an existential advantage from this. Despite our routine historical amnesia and tendency to deny mortal/animal reality – and the attendant othering of nature – human sociability did not evolve for the purposes of dinner parties, live theatre, or the enrichment of influencers. We coalesce in groups and tolerate the resulting constraints on our personal actions and desires because clan membership pays off in the most fundamental way.
5: Elsewhere on this site, I drill further into the nature of the current public discourse. See: Whatever Happened To Adult Conversation?
6: For long-run stats and thoughtful analysis on this I encourage you to check out Stephen Pinker, The Better Angels Of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now, and Bobby Duffy, The Perils Of Perception.
7: For more on Existential Economics, see The Pointless Revolution, published by Everytime Press and available to order in paperback or download here.
8: For more on Smith, I recommend Jesse Norman’s excellent bio & analysis, Adam Smith: What He Thought & Why It Matters. Allen Lane, 2018.