A Taxonomy of Self-Interest

From economics to philosophy to theology, questions of self-interest take high priority. In what follows, I propose a revamp of the taxonomy.

First, here’s an old taxonomy. One might define a few points along an axis from selfishness to self-sacrifice.

Selfishness is when one literally thinks only of oneself, inevitably at the expense of others. There is only one the center of the universe, and the universe itself exists to satisfy this self.

Self-interest is when one acts for one’s own interest or gain but with due recognition that others are also acting in the same way. Moreover, potentially, a group of self-interested actors can come together in a way that makes everybody better off, i.e.: “Let’s make a deal.” Self-interest is at the foundation of modern free markets, trade, and economics. It’s also at the foundation of democratic political systems.

Disinterestedness is the idea that one can have “no interests” at all at stake, or no personal interests. A disinterested party is completely objective and takes, as it were, a God’s eye view.

Lately I’ve been trying to make sense of Hannah Arendt’s use of Kant’s critique of judgment (his aesthetics vs. his moral philosophy), and this involves Kant’s particular idea of “subjective” disinterestedness. This seems like an oxymoron, so the trick will be to get to the bottom of how that can work. Disinterestedness also seems to be an impossibility for humans in general; we’re not God and have no “view from nowhere” (or everywhere). This will have to be a topic for another time.

Self-sacrifice is the opposite of selfishness. It’s to take on personal loss for the sake of another’s gain. It’s heroic, saintlike — and usually garners all manner of social kudos unless it’s done anonymously. (But even then, one has to fight pride and self-praise by somehow “not letting the left hand know what the right hand is doing.”) I’m not sure genuine self-sacrifice is possible for humans any more than disinterestedness. Sure, there could be self-sacrifice on one level, say on a bodily or material level, but there’s likely an overall gain on some other level, presumably more valuable such as the psychic, social, or divine (eternal salvation) level.

That’s one taxonomy. Here’s another. It has only two “poles” at this point because it’s as far as I’ve thought.

Self-forgetfulness is when you become so absorbed in something — an experience, work, creative activity, artistic or musical performance — that you literally forget yourself. Researchers (after Csíkszentmihályi) call this a state of flow.

Expanded self, for lack of a better word, is when one feels the “self” to have expanded out via some series of concentric circles beyond one’s immediate body or psyche or individuality. Apart from substance-induced mind expanding experiences, the best example I can think of for this is a mother and her children. A mother includes her children, in some way, as part of her self. Or, take a coach and her team — a coach does well when the team does well. When a person’s own interest is genuinely wrapped up in the well-being of others, the “I” does well only when we all do well together.

By and large, in economics, politics, philosophy, and theology, it would be a huge boon to understanding, to conversation, and probably to everybody’s well-being if we moved away from the first taxonomy and toward the second.

For example, if two of the things society most needs are (let’s call them) 1) capacity building and 2) willingness to take responsibility, then flow-state self-forgetfulness might indicate high capacity (high performance, high skill, immersive contribution), while an expanded sense of self would naturally incline to bearing responsibility for others.