Self-Interest and Other-Interest

We get to choose between being self-interested, on the one hand, or putting the needs of others first, on the other, right? Or maybe not.

sharing and self interest

I grew up, as a Lutheran preacher’s kid, hearing a lot of negative things about self-interest, selfishness, and self-centeredness. And I heard a lot of positive things about putting others ahead of oneself, altruism, and even self-sacrifice. When I got older and went to college, I was exposed to a different view. I studied economics, in which I was taught that economic agents are basically self-interested. Tweaks in the basic model, to allow “altruism,” were sometimes allowed–but only in special cases, such as to explain charitable donations. Then even later in life, as a Zen student, I was exposed to the teaching of “no-self” and the image of Kanzeon, the bodhisattva of compassion. These seemed at first to hark back to the altruistic side. All these streams seemed to point to a polarity: Selfishness versus altruism. Choose only one.

And, of course, the poles are very gendered. In the “masculine” realm of business and commerce, it seems that acting in one’s self-interest is now expected. The idea that corporate Chief Executive Officers need to be properly “incentivized” came from mainstream economic thinking. One can’t, apparently, expect that CEOs will diligently serve their companies as responsible people while  making merely a very good salary. Since they are (economists assume) entirely self-interested and opportunistic, they’ll accept the salary but become lazy about earning it. The only way to get them to act in the interest of the company, it was reasoned, is to give them bonuses based on the company’s performance. This has provided a handy excuse for the grand wealth grabs that have led to the rising incomes of the (top fraction of the) 1%. (The bonus compensation paid has actually had, by the way, very little relation to actual performance.)

But when economist’s attention turns to nursing, a traditionally “feminine” occupation, the assumptions shift. A couple of articles recently published in  economics journals argue that the way to make sure that one employs the best nurses is to keep their pay be low. That way, it is reasoned, one can be sure that only altruists, who put their patients well-being above their own, will take the job. I’ve also noticed that if nurses mention wage issues when they are in labor negotiations with a hospital, the hospital will fall all over itself to label them as greedy, selfish, and hence un-nurse-like. This association of having a spine with being greedy–especially if one is female–can  also arise in personal relationships. I was at one time in a relationship in which my male partner called my education and career efforts  “selfish” if they took away from relationship time (the traditional female responsibility), while he considered his “altruistic” because they (also) would contribute to our joint income (the traditional male responsibility).

This is nuts.

If we think of self-interest and other-interest as a polarity, our thinking becomes narrowed and confused.  To economists, self-interest is the norm, and the slightest step away from a completely narrow self-focus is “altruism.” To others, Christ-like self-sacrifice is the ideal, and any step away from that could be “selfishness.”

So “altruism” describes both giving a buck to charity, and throwing yourself under a bus to save a child?

The category of “selfish” has to be wide enough to cover demanding millions of dollars in bonuses, and wanting to keep yourself adequately fed?

Real life requires both adequate self-interest and self-care, and adequate other-interest, or attention to how we live in community with others. Nurses care for others, and their kids need to eat, and have a house, and transportation, and fun. Businesses and markets engage in commerce, and run best when the people making them up act with integrity and responsibility. Social theorist Howard Margolis coined the acronym “NSNX,” standing for “neither selfish nor exploited,” to describe how people actually behave in a wide variety of situations. We tend to want to act in pro-social ways, since at some level we understand that we can’t separate our personal well-being from that of our families, communities, workplaces, and world. Yet if we come to feel that other people are narrowly self-interested and are not also contributing to the common good, we are likely to draw back. When we believe that they are out to exploit us, we will likely be inclined to defend ourselves, and pay more attention to our own self-interest. So by teaching us that people in general are self-interested, economists help make this a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The extremes of selfishness and altruism don’t work very well. The extreme of selfish opportunism crashes any relationship in which it is tried, including the social relationships that make up our economic system. The 2008 financial crisis is a case in point.

Neither is the extreme of altruistic self-sacrifice a worthy ideal. As a Zen student, I’ve come to quite a different understanding of “no-self” than the one I started with. I don’t think, anymore, that realizing “no-self” or manifesting compassion is about trying hard to be a good, unselfish person all the time. It’s not about measuring oneself against a pure standard of “no harm,” or even obliteration.  (Living does, necessarily, involve taking life, even if it’s only the life of a carrot.) That whole game is, quite literally, self-centered: It puts how I’m doing on some scale of goodness or purity at the center of my attention. Opening up my attention to a larger field, and responding, as well as I can, with care and integrity, to needs both inside and outside of my skin, is a quite different thing. Thinking back on my earlier Christian upbringing, I’m not sure anymore that the death of Jesus on the cross is an image of sacrifice that should be glorified. Perhaps instead it means that even in our darkest hour–and certainly watching your own Child be tortured is a darkest hour–God (if we use this term) is with us and knows what we are suffering.

Self-interest and other-interest. When we realize our interdependence with others, these are not opposites.

Photo Credit: Hoffnungsschimmer / Flickr Creative Commons

Author: Julie A. Nelson

Julie A. Nelson is a writer on gender, ethics, economics, ecology, and Zen; a Professor of Economics, Emeritus; a Dharma Holder and Teaching Coordinator at the Greater Boston Zen Center; and mother of two grown children.

3 thoughts on “Self-Interest and Other-Interest”

  1. I think another result of choosing to accept that “other people are narrowly self-interested and are not also contributing to the common good” is to conclude that the common good must, of necessity, become the province of government. But that can and probably does result in more people becoming narrowly self-interested and not contributing to the common good. “Why do I need to care? Isn’t there a government program…?”


  2. You raise many interesting points, beginning with your father as a Lutheran preacher. We equate greed with money. But having money is power. Rich people can’t really spend the money they have, but they can always have more power. The emptiness that Zen talks about is not, I don’t think, measured in wealth.


  3. A central teaching of Christianity (and apparently most other major religions) is “Love your neighbor as you love yourself,” or alternatively, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I think this is a succinct way to define the right balance between self-interest and other-interest. We can not be exclusively self-interested if we want a functioning society or economy. Greed will not work. The genius of economics is that it shows how everybody could be better off, but our prosperity results from our mutual dependency. It only works if we “leave money on the table,” or we deliberately do not “capture all the value of the product.”


Leave a Reply to Kameel Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: