Is self-interest virtue or vice?

Ancient and Medieval philosophers didn’t debate whether self-interest is a virtue or vice because they didn’t have to contend with economists.  Many libertarians and capitalists think self-interest is a virtue. According to them, self-interest drives prosperity and creates so much good that it is a virtue, not a vice.

For example, Mark Ruscoe wrote the following in response to my 2003 column in the Asheville Citizen-Times:

Every once in a while, an opinion on the AC-T editorial pages reaches out and grabs me in a way I can’t explain at first. The June 8 column by Casey Hurley, professor at WCU, was one.

. . .  the really thought-provoking parts for me were his comments regarding “self-interest,” which came in for quite a bit of criticism. He said, “Civilization depends on rejecting the belief that self-interest is the dominant motivation.” And that “norms of civilized societies are based on the opposite belief — that humans often rise above self-interest.”

Ruscoe went on to say capitalism is “based on self-interest.”  His concluding paragraph elaborated:

But enlightened self-interest [italics added] is what will let us fashion a society and world that works, exactly as was envisioned by our founding fathers. Not by cloying appeals to selfless, liberal groupthink, which to me has the faint, but unmistakable odor of collectivism.

Ruscoe said enlightened self-interest because few people would argue that plain self-interest “will let us fashion a society and world that works.”  My guess is that many of Ruscoe’s “enlightened” self-interest situations involve rising above self-interest.  Anyway, in Ruscoe’s response I hear more Milton Friedman than founding fathers.

Debating the virtue of generosity

Friedman’s theories about free markets and competition are the basis for the “choice movement” in public education. Magnet and charter schools are now widespread, and vouchers and home schooling are often discussed in school board meetings and state legislative sessions. Furthermore, allowing parents to move their children out of so-called “failing schools” is a centerpiece of the No Child Left Behind Act. But magnets and charters don’t go far enough for Friedman and the foundation he and his wife founded.

Self-interest is at the heart of Friedman’s economic theories and his argument that a free-market education system should replace public education as we know it.  At the 21-minute mark of an interview with Phil Donahue, he explained why.

According to the interview, “self-interest” and “separate interests” are a good thing.  Therefore, they should not be considered vices:

1.  Friedman — “Is there some society that does not run on greed?”

2.  Friedman — “What is greed?”

3.  Friedman — “The world runs on individuals pursuing their separate interests.”

4.  Friedman — “The record of history is absolutely crystal clear — that there is so no alternative way, so far discovered, of improving the lot of the ordinary people that can hold a candle to the productive activities that are unleashed by the free enterprise system.”

5.  Friedman — “And what does reward virtue?  . . .  And where in the world are you going to find these angels that are going to organize society for us?”

There is much to agree with here.  There is also much to challenge:

1.  Does he ask the first question to point to a universal truth — that all societies run on greed?  Is that true?  According to Friedman, it is.  I am not sure.  I have not looked at all societies.  Has he?

2.  He does not answer the question, “What is greed?”  Economists aren’t philosophers.  If Friedman were a philosopher, he would know greed is the vice opposite the virtue of generosity.

3.  He claims the world runs on individuals pursuing their own separate interests. Is there no place for cooperation? Friedman exaggerated, and I think he would agree. His point is that self-interested people make things happen in the world, not government bureaucrats. He mentions Albert Einstein and Henry Ford. I did not know either man, but apparently Friedman knew that both were motivated by their own separate interests. He is not saying, however, that self-interest was their only motivation.  Since both men are dead, we will never know how much of their achievements were driven by self-interest and how much by generosity.

The point of the six-virtue definition of the educated person is that the extent to which Einstein and Ford were generous (and not self-interested) reflects the extent to which they were “educated” men. I think Friedman would see no connection between generosity and being “educated.”

4.  Speaking about the free enterprise system, Friedman said “there is no alternative way, so far discovered, of improving the lot of the ordinary people.”  I agree.  And I agree that the record of history is “absolutely crystal clear” on this matter.  But the key to this statement is, “so far discovered.”  Educators, are driven by the ideal of what it means to be educated — but not only in the ways humans behaved in the past, but in the hopes of how we can teach humans to behave in the future. Education balances (1) teaching about the past, (2) preparing students for the future, and (3) creating a better future. Friedman might agree, but he might be so unimaginative (the second virtue) that he can only imagine what happened in the past, not what is possible in the future. I love irony.

5.  Friedman says we don’t have enough “angels” to drive the world in ways that are more generous and less self-interested.  Again, up to this point in history, this is true.  But isn’t the point of educating young people to help them become more virtuous, to help them become the “angels” Friedman is so sarcastic about?

Friedman and I disagree about the essential purpose of education.  I believe it is to model and teach virtue, but there is nothing about the six virtues of the educated person in his discussion of the role of government in education.  So, further discussion is fruitless.  We don’t agree on what it means to be educated, so we don’t agree on what we should teach our young people.

I conclude with a brief history of the “public goods” provided by public education over the last 150 years.  Public education provided “public goods” that served the country well during (1) waves of immigration — public schools “Americanized” immigrants during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, (2) two world wars — public schools graduated the literate, loyal soldiers who were essential to victory, and (3) the Cold War — public schools educated mathematicians and scientists in the battle to show the world that capitalism is superior to communism.

Today, choice advocates and those who regard self-interest as a virtue, want public education to provide more “private goods.”  Just as the historical record favors capitalism over Russian and Chinese Communism, so the historical record favors “public goods” provided by public education over a privatized system of public education.

When we confuse economic theories for educational ones, we confuse vices for virtues.  Self-interest is not always bad, but it is not a virtue. Generosity is the virtue capitalists, libertarians and conservatives should model for their children.  If they don’t, their behavior is too convenient — too self-interested.


#1 Digital SLR Reviews on 04.01.12 at 4:57 am

Just as good as your last post. Do you accept advertisers?

[WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

#2 casey on 04.01.12 at 3:50 pm

Nobody visits this website, so you should probably save your advertising dollars. If there are any readers “out there,” what do you say?

Leave a Comment