Home > Business, Commentary > Self-Interest ≠ Selfishness; A Brief Response to HBR

Self-Interest ≠ Selfishness; A Brief Response to HBR

The current issue of Harvard Business Review features a somewhat frustrating piece by Yochai Benkler called “The Unselfish Gene.” It’s quite engaging in places, particularly when discussing some of the research regarding how context shapes people’s motivations, and in the resulting prescriptions for restructuring business environments to promote collaborative behavior. Unfortunately, the arguments are weakened by two fairly key misinterpretations central to his thesis.

First, Benkler treats self-interest and collaboration as direct opposites, when they don’t even belong in the same category. Self-interest is a motive, collaboration a modus operandi. People don’t collaborate for its own sake; they do so as a means to an end. Almost invariably, that end will be a self-interested one, albeit one that all of the collaborators happen to share.

This, writ large, is the essence of civilization, of representative government, of the rule of law. It’s the very point that Adam Smith, contra Benkler, makes when describing self-interest as something that must be understood and channeled, rather than denied or squashed. (He also invokes Thomas Hobbes as, apparently, an indirect influence on neoliberal economics, an interesting claim I’m fairly sure I’ve never heard before.)

Which brings us to the other key flaw, the reason why Benkler denigrates the notion of the self-interested rational actor: he seems to conflate “self-interest” and “selfishness.” These are by no means equivalents, though at points he uses the terms interchangeably. (Curiously, though Benkler takes Alan Greenspan to task, he doesn’t mention Greenspan’s guiding light Ayn Rand, who actually wrote a polemic called The Virtue of Selfishness. I haven’t read that, but I suspect it’d make a more fitting target for Benkler’s ire than either Leviathan or The Wealth of Nations.)

Take this passage, for instance (from Page 2 of the online version):

In fact, systems based on self-interest, such as material rewards and punishment, often lead to less productivity than an approach oriented toward our social motivations.

This argument presumes that “self-interest” and “social motivations” are mutually exclusive. In fact, every social motivation – the desire to contribute to the greater good, to assist loved ones or peers, to achieve a common purpose or sense of identity – is a self-interested one.

Yes, self-interest can be narrowly constructed as simple material gain (i.e., selfishness, which I think is more fairly characterized by a deficit of empathy than by a surfeit of self-interest). But it can also be more broadly constructed as anything which tends to enhance one’s well-being, including what we think of as “selfless” actions.

Altruists, no less than anyone else, act out of self-interest. They derive individual gain from values and behaviors that benefit other people. They act because they feel better as a result, or because on some level they expect to reap the social benefits of a positive reputation. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t. The world is not is exactly lousy with hair-shirted ascetics undertaking good deeds in spite of the wrenching agony such deeds visit upon them.

Put another way: I doubt that even the most dedicated Wikipedia updater or Yelp reviewer (two of Benkler’s examples of unselfish, collaborative actors) is sacrificing their own happiness out of an ironclad moral obligation to enhance the commonweal. Whatever obligation they may feel is one they’ve chosen for themselves, because they value its outcomes more than its expenses. They devote time and resources because it gives them pleasure to contribute to society, or because it taps into a skill they enjoy using, or simply because they’re compelled by ego to show off their education (on Wikipedia) or spout their opinions (on Yelp, Amazon, etc.).

So long as they perceive the benefits to outweigh the costs they’ll continue, and the moment that calculation reverses, they’ll quit. Just the way rationally self-interested social animals have evolved to behave.

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