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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L141-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2001
Retrieved June 21, 2024, from

Article Summary

The concept of self-interest is used in two distinct ways. It sometimes refers to what is in a person’s interests, to well-being understood as what makes their life go well. Self-interest can also refer to a motive or disposition of character: persons are said to act from self-interest when they aim at their own good or to be self-interested when they are disposed to pursue their own good.

Are humans always really motivated by self-interest? Psychological egoists believe that all actions, including apparently other-regarding actions, spring from self-interested motivations. Some arguments for this view depend on a fallacious inference from the claim that a person gets pleasure from the satisfaction of an other-regarding desire to the claim that the agent acts in order to get pleasure. Recent appeals to the assumptions of economic theory also fail to establish the universality of self-interested motivation. The weak assumption that individuals aim to maximize preference-satisfaction does not entail that they are self-interested. Stronger assumptions about self-regarding interests used in the explanation of behaviour in markets cannot be extended to explanations of behaviour in non-market settings. Individuals’ identities are constituted by a variety of roles, relations and commitments, and in different institutional contexts under different descriptions individuals can have distinct and sometimes conflicting conceptions of their interests.

What is the relation of self-interest and morality? Classical theories of morality claim that the virtuous life is the best life for the individual. This view ties morality to what is in a person’s interests. But this does not entail that agents are necessarily motivated by self-interest. In contrast, some contractual theories tie morality to self-interested motivation: moral rules are those that agents motivated by self-interest would agree upon in order to realize their long-term good given a rough equality of power. Ethical theories in the Kantian tradition reject any justification of ethical obligations that appeals to self-interest. In claiming that commitments to others and excellences of character are part of the good life, however, classical theories can avoid the more plausible versions of Kantian objections.

Citing this article:
Oneill, John. Self-interest, 2001, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L141-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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