Self-interest is too vague a term to mean anything.

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.

4 thoughts on “Self-interest is too vague a term to mean anything.

  1. Kenny Davis November 8, 2017 at 20:11 Reply

    Hello, are you the gentleman that runs/ran strongatheism.net? If so I would like to know if you still take questions from that sight.

    • Francois Tremblay November 8, 2017 at 20:19 Reply

      I don’t, but what’s your question? I can answer it here.

  2. Kenny Davis November 9, 2017 at 11:37 Reply

    In your response to a reply to the argument from noncognitivism you stated

    “Your example, on the other hand, is very bad. “Square-circle” is meaningless because its two properties (being a square, being a circle) contradict. There is no possible way for one to differentiate between a square-circle and a non-square-circle.”

    Is this not a endorsement of the long dead verification principle?

    Or is it a kind of “Caesar is a prime number” nonsense?

    Wherein Caesar is not a thing that can bare the property of prime or not prime.

    • Francois Tremblay November 9, 2017 at 19:22 Reply

      “Is this not a endorsement of the long dead verification principle?”

      Essentially, yes. My point being that if there is no possible way to use a distinction to actually distinguish between things that actually exist, then the distinction is meaningless.

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