David Hume in 1776 wrote that self-interest was the highest form of social good, because the sum total of human beings allowed to pursue their own self-interest ultimately precipitated the maximum benefit for humanity as a whole. It is sometimes called the hidden hand theory of economics. Hume’s professorial occupation wasn’t that of an economist, but rather he was a philosophic professor of moral ethics.
Hume’s philosophy of self-interest was primarily focused on advancing and protecting one’s personal survival and wealth, but he did apply it to national interests to promote personal self-interest. His general theory was expanded by Malthus into his theory of population growth expanding to the carrying capacity of the environment, but its technical exploitation by humans wasn’t expected to grow as much as it did. That growth of technical expertise makes his theory appear to be wrong in the short run, but in general there are fundamental limits to growth, based on the resources that can be exploited. Darwin and Wallace both claimed their theories of evolution, based on survival of the those who most fitted their environment, were based on their reading of Malthus’s fifty-year-old theory, apparently without realizing the then eighty-year-old theory of Hume was a better starting point, as it was based on business practices that fitting their local needs best were most likely to succeed. The following will expand those underlying assumptions with the goal of understanding in the broadest possible way the concept of self-interest. It is a development of an idea needed because of my friend R’s challenges to my theory of kindness.
Self-interest is generally thought of as behaving in such a way as to advance one’s personal wealth, but the old saying for life’s goals, “happy, healthy, wise and wealthy”, covers more than that standard view. There is a problem with that view, in that self-interest requires the individual to be living to appreciate those boons, in that when they die those benefits vanish. Those people with children, or various categories of significant others, will pass the last of those boons, their wealth, on to those other people so they may realize the bounty of the dead person’s acquired wealth. Wisdom to some extent many people have already given to the world in the form of published works and other worldly accomplishments, and their influence on other people, and it might endure. Health might also be given, but it is limited to devising improved or sustained environmental situations that will survive their death. The feeling of happiness being transferred to the postmortem future seems limited to surviving things which generate thoughts which themselves generate positive emotions. Shakespeare said not to worry about his physical death as his works were the better part of him. Those things surviving the death of the individual might still qualify as enhancing their self-interest, but of course for them to enjoy it personally would require them consciously thinking about those future benefits enjoyed by their inheritors. Sonnet LXXIV:
But be contented when that fell arrest
Without all bail shall carry me away,
My life hath in this line some interest,
Which for memorial still with thee shall stay.
When thou reviewest this, thou dost review
The very part was consecrate to thee:
The earth can have but earth, which is his due;
My spirit is thine, the better part of me:
So then thou hast but lost the dregs of life,
The prey of worms, my body being dead;
The coward conquest of a wretch’s knife,
Too base of thee to be remembered.
The worth of that is that which it contains,
And that is this, and this with thee remains.
Shakespeare was clearly thinking of his future “literary life” here on earth as giving other people pleasure.
So I must return to the basic question, “What is self-interest, and how may it be enhanced, or maximized?” It would seem that by the age of four normal humans have come to realize that simply grabbing what one wants, by any means whatsoever, is counterproductive. That other people you encounter soon expel you from their presence when you violate their self-interest. As a general rule one gets more cooperation from other people by sharing goods based on aiding each other’s self-interest, and both of your are happier and more successful. This level of cooperation is well known in a basic form of the Golden Rule, “Give to others as you would wish them to give to you.” That complemented with the Silver Rule, “Don’t treat others as you would not like to be treated.” These two rules get most people though their personal relationships and life reasonably well, but they don’t address society, or the future. The old King James Version of the Golden Rule states “All things whatsoever you would that men should do to you, do you even so unto them, for this the law and the prophets.” That says what you should do is to “help them live and live more abundantly.” That form of the rule is much more expansive as it can apply to all people at all times.
My efforts to understand how we might help others to live more abundantly evolved into a theory of kindness which is based not on giving things to people, not solving their problems for them, but of perceiving what is blocking them from achieving their goals, and making the smallest possible removal of those blockages so they do all the work and get all of the rewards.
The question arises, “Where is my self-interest enhanced by removing some other person’s blockages.” The answer is the simple realization of one’s own mortality, because we all know we won’t live forever personally, but we live for an unlimited period of time in the form of our human DNA. Thus, if we enhance the self-interest of our human DNA we are enhancing our own long-term well-being.
Our kind deeds live forever in the form of enhanced human self-interest, which expands to all life’s self-interest, and to intelligence’s self-interest.