A Good Word for Narrow, Material Selfishness

by Don Boudreaux on August 13, 2004

in Myths and Fallacies

A frequently overlooked benefit of material self-interest is that it helps us to keep our noses out of other people’s business.

I overheard a cafeteria discussion recently in which a woman expressed heated hatred of homosexuality. “It’s just wrong!” “It’s disgusting!” “I don’t know why we tolerate it!”

Her lunch partner was silent; I don’t know if he agreed or disagreed with her.

But hearing this woman got me thinking: Why does she care? No one forces her to engage in homosexual acts, or to watch such acts performed. She can ignore them and lead her life as if they never occur.

If this woman were more narrowly self-interested, in a material dimension, she would spend more time thinking about how to improve the furnishings in her home, what school is best for her children, where to vacation next summer, how to raise her income – all sorts of matters that would divert her attention from worrying about affairs that are none of her business.

In fact, though, because this woman does care – and, believe me, her tone of voice suggests that she truly and deeply cares that some people engage in homosexual activity – we can say about her that she is not completely, narrowly, materially self-interested. Part of her is altruistic, other-regarding, not-selfish. She would not materially gain if homosexuality diminished or even stopped.

However, her altruistic, other-regarding, un-selfish wish that homosexuality be eliminated is horrid. It’s an instance of an other-regarding motive that is destructive.

It’s true that the world might be an even better place if each of us were a little less materially selfish and, in consequence, a little more giving to others of things that others genuinely desire and that yield long-term benefits. But it is a teeth-gnashing error to assume that reducing self-interestedness will necessarily make the world a better place. If people’s other-regarding inclinations cause them to intrude into areas that are best left to others, greater altruism will be harmful.

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