Tag Archives: self-interest

Jon Elster

[T]here can be no way of justifying the substantive assumption that all forms of altruism, solidarity and sacrifice really are ultra-subtle forms of self-interest, except by the trivializing gambit of arguing that people have concern for others because they want to avoid being distressed by their distress. And even this gambit […] is open to the objection that rational distress-minimizers could often use more efficient means than helping others.

Jon Elster, Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality, Cambridge, 1983, p. 10

Eric Olson

Perhaps accepting [nihilism] would make us less selfish. At any rate it would mean that self-interest was not a rational motive for action. How could it be, if there is no “self” to have any interests? If there are no such beings are myself or others, there can be no reason to put my interests above those of others. Nihilism might imply that all interests are of equal value. We might find that liberating.

Eric Olson, What Are We? A Study in Personal Ontology, Oxford, 2007, p. 203

Jeremy Bentham

Take any two persons, A and B, and suppose them the only persons in existence:—call them, for example, Adam and Eve. Adam has no regard for himself: the whole of his regard has for its object Eve. Eve in like manner has no regard for herself: the whole of her regard has for its object Adam. Follow this supposition up: introduce the occurrences, which, sooner or later, are sure to happen, and you will see that, at the end of an assignable length of time, greater or less according to accident, but in no case so much as a twelvemonth, both will unavoidably have perished.

Jeremy Bentham, Constitutional Code, Oxford, 1983, vol. 1, p. 119

Bertrand Russell

The orthodox economists, as well as Marx, who in this respect agreed with them, were mistaken in supposing that economic self-interest could be taken as the fundamental motive in social sciences. The desire for commodities, when separated from power and glory, is finite, and can be fully satisfied by a moderate competence. The really expensive desires are not dictated by a love of material comfort. Such commodities as a legislature rendered subservient by corruption, or a private picture gallery of Old Masters selected by experts, are sought for the sake of power or glory, not as affording comfortable places in which to sit. When a moderate degree of comfort is assured, both individuals and communities will pursue power rather than wealth: they may seek wealth as a means to power, or the may forgo an increase of wealth in order to secure an increase of power, but in the former case as in the latter their fundamental motive is not economic.

This error in orthodox and Marxist economics is not merely theoretical, but is of the greatest practical importance, and has caused some of the principal events of recent times to be misunderstood. It is only by realising that love of power is the cause of the activities that are important in social affairs that history, whether ancient or modern, can be rightly interpreted.

Bertrand Russell, Power: A New Social Analysis, London, 1938, p. 9

Jonathan Glover

Amoralits are sceptics about the claims of morality. They do not have to be ruthlessly selfish—they may have generous impulses and care about other people—but they are sceptical about claims that they ought to do things for others. An amoralist says about ‘ought’ what Oscar Wilde said about ‘patriotism’: it is not one of my words. The generous, caring amoralist is in practice not much of a problem. It is the ruthlessly selfish amoralist who arouses the hope that amoralism can be refuted.

Jonathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, New Haven, 1999, p. 18