In this entry, Ian Welsh discusses common notions of “self-interest” and why they don’t add up.
People have many reasons for doing what they do. Self-interest, if it is so nebulous a concept as to mean “whatever you do is in your self-interest” is actually so nebulous as to have no explanatory power.
If you want to get people to do something due to fear, say so: “We’ll scare them into doing it.”
If you want them to do it due to patriotism, say that. If you intend to coerce them, say that: “If they don’t, we’ll throw them in jail.” If you want them to do it because it’s the kind thing to do, say “We’ll appeal to their kindness.”
Now it’s true that there are lots of category errors. You can think you’re appealing to kindness and really be appealing to self-image, or to social ties (“People will despise me if I don’t and like me if I do,” etc.). You can appeal to reciprocity. You can even appeal to pure altruism or pure tribalism.
And you can admit that there may be a mix of motives, including self-interest, without boiling everything down to self-interest…
Our concepts of human nature predict our policies. Self-interest as a foundation stone of human nature means that we create our societies around self-interest. And that does not work.