Self-interest isn’t anti-social

But where we locate our self-interest matters.

Desert Botanical Gardens, Phoenix, Arizona. Arizona. © Dave DuBay

It’s controversial to say self-interest is our primary motivation for whatever we do.

This claim seems to advocate selfishness. And what would a society built on selfishness be like?

Besides, there are examples of people taking great risks or even sacrificing themselves for people they don’t even know. How is that self-interest?

Perhaps someone wants to be a hero, or at least not be a coward. Perhaps someone strives to live by a particular moral code. Perhaps someone is concerned about the negative impact on their loved ones if they don’t act.

The difference between narrow self-interest and broader self-interest is important, however.

Being concerned only with the immediate impact on ourselves is selfishness. Though that’s not always a bad thing. Self-defense is one example.

Broader self-interest looks at the long term implications; the effects on people we care about and people whose assistance we might need later; and the impact on society, which can in turn affect us and those we love.

In his Discourses (1.19.11-17) Epictetus writes that

Every living creature…does everything for its own sake…And in general, he [God] has constituted the rational animal to have such a nature that he cannot obtain any of his particular goods without contributing to the common benefit. And so in the end it isn’t anti-social to do everything for one’s own sake.

What follows, then? When people come to hold absurd opinions about things that lie outside the sphere of choice, taking them to be good or bad, it is altogether inevitable that they’ll end up paying court to tyrants…and their flunkeys too!

But isn’t it in our self-interest to give in to a tyrant if he can do us harm?

Epictetus says no. A tyrant cannot force anyone to compromise their ethics. And history is full of people who have stood up to tyranny. They can kill the body but not the soul is how Jesus put it.

Epictetus’s distinction that failure to understand what lies within and outside of our control—and how this failure can lead to failure to understand what is good—is key.

We’re self-interested in things we think are good, but what are these things? He asks, if we value possessions then what’s to stop us from stealing them? After all, if it’s the object we value most then necessarily we value respect for other people’s property less (1.22.16).

But that only leads to all manner of conflicts. What is truly good, then, cannot lie in external things. We don’t control our possessions, circumstances, even our reputations—which can be conferred on us or taken from us by others or by circumstances.

The only things that are truly ours—things no one can take from us—are our deliberate thoughts, deliberate actions, and chosen values.

That’s where Epictetus locates self-interest. And this is self-interest in the broad rather than narrow sense of the term.