The concept of self-interest makes some religious people uncomfortable; it smacks of selfishness to them.  Virtue lies elsewhere, in selflessness, where there is no license to acquisitiveness.  From the pulpit social justice is equated with renouncing personal advantage and surrendering to the deep moral purpose found in detachment from gain.  Capitalism, with its insistence on the suspect concept of enterprise, is morally empty even if it might be efficient.  Accused of reducing all human transactions to the vulgar equations of profit,  capitalists are seen as the kind Jesus threw out of the temple.

Yet, careful reflection on what self-interest is offers a different picture, one where a  deep well of higher purpose is not difficult to find. In fact, those who engage in free economic activity in pursuit of gain are not more selfish than those pompously proclaiming socialized decision-making.  The evils capitalism permits to flourish are alive and well elsewhere, even in places one might not imagine. Ironically, in comprehensive systems that proclaim moral purpose, selfishness still shows its destructive head while in capitalism, that claims no such exhaustive reach, moral purpose often obtains. Any system fails by using false standards, yet capitalism beats other systems while claiming no special efficiency in every area of human action.

The crux of the matter resides in who is in a better position to judge what is in ones’ best interest, not on whether or not self-regard is important. After all, even Jesus himself grounded a knowledge of what is best for others on what is best for self, “Do unto others as you will want them do unto you.”  As human nature and the goods that instantiate authentic human fulfillment are directly accessible to a person primarily in light of ones’ own experience, only by pursuing what benefits  the self might one have an idea of what is good for others. Societies where self-interest is tamed do not have less self-interest; they only have a lid placed on meeting human needs.

How do we best know that our perception of the needs of others is real? How do we know what we claim to know if not in reference to our own needs?  The primary properties of human nature, what constitute the essence of such nature, are faced by us more fully by what we internally undergo, by the needs that flow from our experience. What we see in others is only a secondary property, copies of a reality mediated or “filtered” to us, as Kant pointed out, through our senses. This is not to say that our experience of the needs of others is unreliable but that it needs a direct point of contact that is available to us only by looking at self.  In a world of phenomenological experience filtered through sensory images we have eyes and often cannot see.

The real difference between a system that rejects self-interest and one that encourages it is that the latter has a better grasp on authentic human needs because it allows people to go after what truly interest them, what motivates them fully, what moves them to wake up in the morning and engage the world.  In the former, needs are assessed by third parties only through secondary experience or ideological presumption. The power to decide is rescinded, making the exercise an amoral transfer instead of a moral exchange.

Selfishness exists in the human heart and will show its ugly head under any social system. The crux is whether or not we accept this reality and allow good and evil to be or deny it and pretend that we can extinguish it from existence.  In the end, those who understand self-interest know that it is seldom atomistic, it is seldom concerned only with ones’ needs. Human beings are by nature social and what is important to them is rarely detached from the good of their families, friends, associates, clients, and communities. As Michael Novak tells us,

Thus the “self” in self-interest is complex, at once familial and communitarian as well as individual, other-regarding as well as self-regarding, cooperative as well as independent, and self-judging as well as self-loving.”

The utopian is so enamored with the goal of rescuing others that he confuses his ideal with reality and thinks that he can have a better grasp on the need of others than they have of their own needs. In the process, we obtain paternalistic meddling, not selflessness. In the end, pulpit pounding utopians are positing an expansive capacity for reason in the hands of those intent on becoming busybodies, ruling others because they supposedly know better and care more. Self-interest is seen with scorn out of an intellectual pride coated with out of context bible verses.

Yet, there are better ways, moral ways that respects the individual capacity to pursue what is best for self, which, as stated, is never in isolation.  These systems respect the human capacity to think and choose, to discover what is true and do what is good. They understand that motives are not as powerful as incentives and that self-interest properly understood is the most efficient instrument to create communities of cooperation.  In self-interest properly understood the human person is more than the homo economicus pursuing selfish immediate gratification but also the bearer of the capacity for virtuous behavior even as he pursues what is dear to his heart.  A truly free society informed by virtue encourages self-interest as the best way to advance communal well-being; a self-interest programed with an understanding of freedom that tames the selfish impulse.