Rebirth of Reason


From Selfishness to Rational Self-Interest
by Merlin Jetton

The title means a developmental transition. Something we learn when growing up is the existence of social morality. It consists of rules that require or prohibit action that humans direct to one another to engage in, or refrain from, certain kinds of action. This is only part of morality. There is also what makes a good life, proper goals, and the nature of virtue.


Each of us has first-person interests and goals we pursue. These often affect others. One cannot literally escape the first-person perspective, but one may integrate one's understanding of others' perspectives into it. This is what Jean Piaget called "decentering", the decline of egocentrism.  “Egocentrism is the inability to differentiate between self and other. More specifically, it is the inability to untangle subjective schemas from objective reality; an inability to understand or assume any perspective other than their own” (Wikipedia).  Decentering occurs with experience and maturing. 


Selfishness as commonly meant is a feature of such egocentrism every child has. It is a behavioral aspect of egocentrism. The child doesn't see it this way, but the effects on others are likewise. The child hears moral admonishments from others such as "don't be selfish", "be considerate of others", or more specific applications of them. The child might also hear praise when heeding such admonishments. The child may even hear a form of the Golden Rule, but it is very abstract, and he often does not understand how it applies in particular cases. Both admonishments are applications of the negative or cautionary version of the Golden Rule -- one should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated. Respecting the individual rights of others is also an application.


A young child first understands rules as commands from adults. Later the child will understand them like rules of a game that coordinate and regulate activity, not simply the child's own, to ensure fairness and regard of others.


In common parlance the selfish person is one who refuses or fails to take into consideration all the facts relevant to assessing how to act. That is, he fails to be objective, in the sense that he rests his choices on an incomplete collection of facts--usually selected on the basis of whether they reinforce his present desires. It isn't merely a moral matter; it's also an epistemological one. A similar view can be found in Aristotle's distinction between “good” self-love and “bad” self-love. The bad self-lover pursues every whim and fleeting passion as his interest, whereas the good self-lover forms an idea of his interests by rationally evaluating his passions, purposes, and all other relevant facts -- including living among other people who act and have their own goals.


It takes years for a person to learn and apply moral rules. Very young children have in common with sociopaths the seeming inability to grasp that moral rules can provide them with reasons to modulate, or view impartially in a wider context, their own ends and concerns. Their recognition of other minds is immature. Psychologists call this ability to simulate or work out what others are thinking ‘theory of mind’. The emergence of theory of mind in children is a vital developmental milestone. Adapting to a better known world is part of growing up.


Rational self-interest as a well-understood concept is too complex for a child to firmly grasp and apply. But shaped by numerous encounters with the world and other people in it, the child's outlook with increasing age becomes wider and more sophisticated. Hopefully, it reaches the stage of rational self-interest (good self-love), with which one can pursue one's own goals without harming or being unfair to others. Consistency calls for respecting the rights of others if one expects one's own rights to be recognized by others. Cooperation with others can facilitate achieving one’s own goals.


Some people, of course, take a divergent path. Confronted with moral admonishments from others such as "don't be selfish" and "be considerate of others", they elevate the interests and goals of others above their own. It is reinforced by the clergy, politicians, and in the media. Or at least they believe that other people should heed such admonishments, but make exceptions for themselves and selected others. They may even make it into a moral ideal. They may preach it far more than practice it, e.g. many politicians. Still others rebel.


The adjective "rational" in "rational self-interest" has two aspects -- rational goals and rational means. It includes not violating the equal rights of others, and even being unfair to others in lesser ways that would not qualify as rights violations, e.g. breaches of trust. It develops with a better understanding of the complexities of life and adaptation.



“Beyond Self and Other” in Self-interest, edited by Paul, Miller, and Paul.

Bk 9, Chap 8, Nicomachean Ethics, by Aristotle.

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