A Story of Self-Interest

Let’s imagine, a tribe of cave men and women are suffering a rough winter and have gone for months without a good slab of uhh…mammoth. One night, three cavemen are sent to hunt down a mammoth. One is the hunting chief, the other two are assistants. Let’s name the backup guys Rockafeller and Marx. Rockafeller holds the chief’s clubs and Marx acts as the lookout. In the struggle to take down one mammoth, the Chief kills the beast but also loses his life to the mammoth’s vicious tusks. With a dead Mammoth and tribe full of hungry mouths, the well armed Rockafeller realizes he can make one of 2 decisions:

a) He can kill the weaker unarmed guy drag the mammoth home and emerge as the tribe’s sole hero and new chief.

b) He can get home with the other caveman and share the prize equally among their tribesman.

Knowing Rockafeller is a capitalist, many would assume that he would automatically go with choice one because it would bring him more immediate power, and anyone who believes in the virtue of self interest would make this decision wouldn’t they?Well what if Marx was also the tribe’s medicine man and Rockafeller had a chronically sick son, would it be in his self-interest to kill him? What about if Marx saved Rockafeller’s life last year and there was a tribal belief that killing someone who saved your life will result in eternal damnation for you and everyone in your family for generations to follow? Is a bigger slab of mammoth worth the trouble of eternal damnation of you and everyone you bring into the world? I’m guessing that’s a no.

I used this example to illustrate that self-interest doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The decisions that best serve our aims are often shaped by the values and expectations of the tribes we belong to. Our families, our religious beliefs, our country, and our ethnicity all create value systems that reward and punish us for different actions. Society gives us context for whether its in our self interest to buy new boobs before embarking on a television career, or to put another $5 bill in the collections plate at church. The way selfishness AND altruism is rewarded has a lot to do with society’s values. Is it possible for us to live in a society where it is in our self-interest to be altruistic? With an increased number of people demanding that businesses exist not solely for money, but as positive forces in their communities many businesses are seeing the value of being altruistic. Pepsi, Starbucks, even Walmart are putting programs in place to show that they are doing good business by being good citizens. And customers are paying attention, particularly buyers from GenY.

One study from Boston based companies Cone Inc. and AMP Insights shows that 69% of 13- to 25-years old consider a company’s social and environmental commitment when deciding where to shop, and 83% will trust a company more if it is socially/environmentally responsible. It is becoming in the self-interest of many businesses to pay attention to ethics and ways to serve society at large because the values of a growing portion of their customers are demanding it.

Perhaps more important to the concept of self-interest than community values are our individual values. All of our actions reinforce what we believe about ourselves and once we get out of physical survival, what we really work to maintain is a survival of who we believe we are in the world. If we believe we are kind giving people, we will reinforce that by rushing to write checks to a country that has just been devastated by a natural disaster. If we believe we are not worthy of loving relationships that exist without pain, we’ll go back to our abusive partner time and time again.

So next time you hear about the destructive nature of “self-interest” think about all the altruistic and selfish things you do to preserve your sense of self and consider the complex motives behind both acts.

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Comments
3 Responses to “A Story of Self-Interest”
  1. Akhila says:

    I love this post. Have you read Adam Smith’s “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”? I think it really demonstrates how self-interest is construed in a broad way – not by just us looking out for ourselves, but also including our family members, people we love, and everyone we care about. Our self-interest is broad and so the actions we take are not always “selfish” in the traditional sense. Definitely read that book – an excellent piece of economic theory!

    • Kim Campbell says:

      Hi akhila,
      I have read Smith’s moral sentiment and I think most people who aren’t actively engaged in the study of economics miss the various ways many of its main concepts get pared down and misrepresented. I like that books like frakonomics make some econ ideas more mainstream, but I’m glad I have the opportunity on this blog to share different perspectives on some of these concepts. Thanks for stopping by:)

  2. Kim – you nailed it. Raises a controversial notion though – that of altruism being a misnomer, as nobody can be truly altruistic, and that the great philanthropists of our time (Gates, Buffet, etc.) are doing it for some deep-rooted selfish reason. Maybe, it is karma that generates the ROI 🙂

    Thanks for a great read!

    Cheers,
    Prince

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