14 Selfishness and Self-interest

Some people think that taking ethics seriously is naïve. Many may worry that if we don’t look after our own best interests nobody else will. Indeed, we may think that each of us individually is best equipped to make judgements about what will be best for ourselves and resist the idea of offering help or accepting it from anyone else. Some people will defend such views on the basis of claims about the competitive character of human nature, appealing to capitalism or Darwinism (quite mistakenly, we should add), as grounds for thinking that everyone should single-mindedly pursue their own interests and preferences. If we have such an attitude, it is easy to see why we might be predisposed to selfishness.

Of course, all of us are, to some extent, concerned about our own self-interests and, indeed, most (though not all) of the moral theories canvassed above suggest that we should protect our own interests at least as much as everyone else’s. However, selfishness, understood as simply pursuing one’s own preferences and interests without any consideration of the preferences and interests of others, is not only generally considered immoral; it is also irrational.

First of all, it doesn’t seem to be psychologically plausible. As relational theorists have pointed out, we are social beings who are for large parts of our lives intimately dependent on the good will and care of other people. Indeed, all of us are totally (or at least largely) dependent on others for most of the first couple of decades our lives and most of us experience such dependency to varying degrees and for varying lengths of time throughout our adulthood. The trust and nurturance that exist in healthy relationships of dependency are important for our emotional well-being. We psychologically benefit from helping each other.

Secondly, if everyone always behaved selfishly the vast majority and perhaps all of us would likely be considerably worse off than if we cooperated. This means that selfishly pursuing one’s own self-interest would undermine one’s self-interest, which is self-defeating.

Early modern political theorists in the liberal tradition recognized this and generalized from the ethics of personal interactions to the ethical justification of how we structure society and justify the limitations on our personal freedom within a society. English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, identified the situation where everyone simply pursues their own immediate self-interest as a “[war] of every one against every one” where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”[1] We are better off, thought Hobbes, if we enter into a social contract where we submit to a state power that maintains order. As we have already seen, Mozi had much the same idea. (We might think that ubuntu also expresses a similar insight, though arguably a single-minded pursuit of personal self-interest isn’t really intelligible from this perspective.) Most political philosophy is committed to trying to figure out the details of this idea.

It is worth noting that even those who tout the virtue of selfishness will typically defend some limits on individual liberty. After all, as we saw in the last chapter 4.13.2, rights come with corresponding duties. One cannot protect everyone’s freedom without limiting people’s freedom to act in ways that would limit the freedom of others. Respecting other people’s rights inevitably entails curtailing some of our own preferences.

Thinking that everyone should simply pursue their own self-interest and not be asked to look after the interests of others also seems to be substantially unfair. After all, sometimes people are simply unlucky and need help from others through no fault of their own. To find ourselves in a world in which nobody has an obligation to help us when we are in terrible need—through sheer misfortune—would not at all serve our preferences and interests. So, our rational self-interest seems to require certain types of altruism or reciprocity.

Of course, some people will think that there is no such thing as luck and people have nobody but themselves to blame for their circumstances, so they don’t deserve help from anyone else. However, this attitude simply overlooks not just bad luck but the reality that there are oppressive political structures that harm people and severely limit their options. The failure to appreciate this reality tends to reflect a certain type of self-oriented thinking that fails to take seriously the challenges of other people’s lives or the good luck and privileges of one’s own.

  1. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Project Gutenberg, 2013), chapter 8, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3207/3207-h/3207-h.htm.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Applied Ethics Primer by Letitia Meynell and Clarisse Paron is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book