Self-interest seems like a good enough idea, as far as ideas go. The more you pursue self-interest, the more you get. After all, the most powerful among us didn't come into power by self-abnegation alone; although many have come into power by sheer proximity to those already in power.
In truth, self-interest is more than just an idea. It's how a species survives an unremittingly hostile world. As such, it's beyond rational thought and codes of behavior. It's merely a matter of instinct. You want to live, then you either flee or fight your enemies.
With a scarcity of resources, every species has natural enemies. Not only is there not enough food for everyone, but the scarcity of resources requires a system of checks and balances otherwise known as the food chain. Fortunately for us we're at the top of that chain since we're willing to eat just about everything and anything that can be eaten, and more if we can. We'd consume it all if it were shipped to market and moderately priced.
If the primary purpose of self-interest was the survival of the human species, then self-interest has served us well. This was assuming, of course, that humanity pursued a shared purpose. This may have been so when human communities were truly communal, holding together as tribes weathering the elements and fighting their foes. Together, more was possible. Alone, there was nothing but fear, suffering and death.
The principle of security came from these close-knit tribes who gained strength by banding together and by the division of labor some hunting and others gathering, some caring for children and others keeping them safe. As such, this was also the beginning of gender roles which once had more value than they do now. There was a place for everyone, once the world began to seem less dangerous. Unfortunately, we had more to fear from our fellow humans than we ever did from catastrophic forces of nature or from other equally self-interested and dangerous species that once terrorized us.
If it weren't for fear of danger, there would be no need for self-interest. The more we fear losing the self, the more we endeavor to preserve it. Considering the close relationship between fear and self-interest, one might as well think of them as one and the same. Therefore, we can redefine self-interest as the fear of harm or loss. Better to gain than to lose and better to live than to die.
Without self-interest, who will help us when we need help defend us when we're attacked, pay for us when we have no money, or love us when we're alone? Without self-interest, we'll have nothing to rely upon but for the kindness of strangers; and strangers aren't very kind when they're afraid.
In short, self-interest is self-preservation. But what happens when self-preservation works against our best interests? How can it, you ask? Well, self-interest isn't an exact science. We rely on our perception of self-interest to determine how best to maximize gain. At times that gain isn't a gain at all, not for us and certainly not for anyone else. The gain may only be immediate, the long-term difficulties far outnumbering the short-term benefits.
It should be remembered, however, that all of us, powerful and disenfranchised alike, seek some measure of self-gain. Those with more power should find it easier to actualize that self-interest. Those of us with less power may find it to be more of a struggle.'
While we have no better way to maximize self-interest than by individuating ourselves, individuation makes self-interest a purely solitary concern rather than a communal one. Humanity, however, survived as a species not because each of us pursued our own self-interest at the expense of others but because we shared a common goal and worked together to achieve it. Communities are larger today, the largest of them called nation-states, and these communities claim to act in the best interests of all those who comprise it.
But there are too many people for a community of that size to assure the self-interest of all. So we appoint leaders to act in our best interests, complaining when they fail to do so. As mentioned, self-interest isn't an exact science, and the reason for that is that no two interests are created alike, the interest of those who can influence the rule-makers far greater than the interest of those who merely follow the rules.''' The state, therefore, is not an equal collection of interests but reflect something more hierarchical, the powerful better positioned to assert and achieve self-interest and to use the law to preserve that power. It's the reason that a nation's elite can sustain themselves from generation to generation, power accumulating more power.
Although it's not the purpose of the Church That Is No Church to pit the have-nots against the haves, we will still endeavor to speak plain. And as long as the truth empowers, it will be your greatest asset, provided you can distinguish between truth and falsehood. Those with power will attempt to blur that distinction or at the very least convince the powerless that only by supporting the powerful can they hope to achieve the same power and influence. That support usually doesn't yield the results promised, promises amounting to little more than ideas of parity.
As such, the interests of the powerful are rarely the interests of the least powerful. Moreover, the interests of individuals rarely square with the interest of the community which seeks its own self-preservation, even against the people who reside in it. Individual self-interest also deviates from the communal interest, which is why the community creates prisons. Only those powerful enough to modify communal interest to reflect their own best interests need never find themselves on the wrong side of the law.
Self-interest remains a valid idea, but it's still more valid for those who can better actualize that self-interest. For those who can't, it remains a promise that with enough hard work and ambition, sky's the limit. But with a limited supply of resources, there is only so much to go around. It's impossible, therefore, for everyone to maximize self-interest. As long as there are winners, there must be losers, the consolation being that the promise of self-gain still holds and that what's lost can be regained and what was never had can one day be enjoyed.
Even the most effective application of self-interest can be risky since self-interest is rooted in our deepest and most irrational fears: the fear of losing not only power and property but perhaps even our lives. The fear of danger can be so overpowering it induces a panic. Whether it's investors pulling their investments and precipitating a market crash or it's a crowd running from a fire and trampling people to death, self-interest can work destruction for many.
At times the fear is too strong for individuals to recognize the dangers. At other times, the dangers are readily apparent and deemed to be well worth the risks. The financial sector often makes such determinations, the potential of maximizing gain well worth the adverse consequences left to others.' It's a case of self-interest justifying itself, no matter what; and that however destructive, it remains a force for good.
The problem with self-interest is that it is no longer necessarily a means to an end but an end in and of itself. It's even said that it's the backbone of our transnational economy and that without it we would devolve into barbarism; although, truth be told, the barbarism remains, only its now regarded as the hope of civilization, the idea of self-interest reflecting a sheen of nobility if never had before.
Despite claims that self-interest is our salvation, it's unlikely that we will be improved by it, particularly when self-interest rarely seeks the betterment of humankind. The idea is that individual self-interest will preserve the species. Now that we are only communal in name,' self-interest benefits only those who seek it. The state benefits by requiring the benefit of collective self-interest in the form of taxes and other investments of time and effort; however, the state seeks its own self-preservation not that of its residents.' The residents are of value only to the extent they benefit the state.
The other problem with self-interest is that it doesn't always secure self-value. Granted, people may be quick to overvalue their contributions, but we only overvalue for fear of losing value. Self-value, however, cannot rely on fear or any irrational impulse for that matter. It must be reasoned and it must be clear. Self-interest may be blind, but self-value is always self-aware.
Self-value means that self-interest is never an end in itself but always a means to an end. Self-value means that self-interest is never pursued without due consideration of its consequences. Most importantly, self-value is creating individual worth even at the expense of self-interest.
If self-interest can't ensure empowerment, self-value most certainly will. While effective self-interest requires self-value, self-value has no need of self-interest. Self-value is self-sufficient, with or without the drive for self-preservation. It's confidence, not fear. It's also the future, not just the present moment.
One might even call self-value an enlightened form of self-interest that requires a consideration of more than just an immediate need. Moreover, self-value is only possible by valuing others and respecting the self-interest of others. It takes humanity beyond the competition over scant resources to a consideration of methods to enhance access to scant resources for all. It provides not only for the desires of the moment but paves the way for a more prosperous future for our children and our childrens' children.
Only by self-value might an individual exceed the needs of self-interest to claim full ownership of the self. And only by self-value can we becomes creators of something better as opposed to reacting to what we're given. Life will never meet our ideals by principles of self-interest alone.
More is required to move beyond the limitations of scant resources and the restrictions of a state that asserts control over those resources to the benefit of those who can best influence the policies of that state. To blindly seek self-interest is to lose to those empowered to claim a larger share.
Self-interest is never equal, but self-value is as equal as we want it to be - self-empowerment without others having to pay the consequences. Only self-value can meet our ideals and perhaps even exceed them.