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Self-interest: How to Impact your World

Anthropologists and psychologists agree that humans have strong leanings towards their tribe. Not even the people of the highly civilized nations are exempted from this instinctual inclination. The word “tribe” may be suffering from its primitive connotation, but that is not sufficient to dilute its relevance in all human behaviours.

Indeed, we are tribal by nature. We easily re-align ourselves along tribal lines when there is a threat.  This is at the very base of our civilization. And the primary tribe is the individual. This tribal propensity explains why I will not hesitate to have a duel with my brother whom I have perceived as a threat to my survival when the circumstances warrant it.

Now, when the threat comes from a third party, my brother and I will put aside our differences, form a new tribe, and join forces to quell the competition. And if it so happens that the threat is to come from an outsider –anyone that is not within an unwritten but predefined boundary marker, possibly biological, psychological or sociological e.g. by blood, by a common interest or by proximate coexistence –, it will require a communal effort to suppress the intrusion.

It is the reason why nations go to war: to protect the national tribe. In psychology, this tendency to show hostility to threat or competition is established in the Realistic Conflict Theory, which gives a clear reason for the hostility observed amongst intergroup. When a nation perceives another nation as competition in the race to survive, all options on the table are somewhat permissible.

It is pertinent to add that being a member of an outgroup alone is not necessarily the cause of the hostility, but coming as a competitor for scarce resources like life, power, food, energy, time or money makes one the enemy.

If we stop to think about it we notice that at the core of most of our interactions is this self-interest or tribal inclination. We make most of our decisions based on self-interest. And whether we like to admit or not, it is inward-looking. This is the philosophy that undergirds most of our dealings until the arrival of a superordinate goal, well-articulated by a leader.

Long before the negative connotation that is now attributed to politics in modern times, and which of course is justifiable, politics was the sum of activities to preserve, promote and propagate self-interest, whether it is of a person, a family, a community or a state.

It will help us to look at specific instances to fully appreciate this concept.

It is for self-interest that a snake, say a python will swallow a goat or a human. And it is also for self-interest (for food) that some community, in turn, kill pythons. In the eyes of a lioness with cubs, attacking a prey for food is an action done in love to keep the cubs well-fed to survive and propagate. If the prey happens to be a buffalo that stood its ground killing the lioness in the process, it obviously will not be for the mere sake of killing.

Similarly, self-interest was elemental in the scramble for Africa by colonial masters. The British colonial expedition in Nigeria was for self-interest: to keep the crown resourced, even though it occasioned enlightenment and Christianity. Also, America’s invasion of oil-rich Middle East is for self-interest as suggested by the Anglo-American Petroleum Agreement: heat energy requirement during winter seasons is enough motivation to be creative even if it means contriving to invade. Although, unlike the British situation, the pretext was democratic liberation, an objective yet to be realized or if it exists, unstable to yield dividends.

During the peak of the COVID19 pandemic, the rich and those who have economic means advocated for complete lockdown. This self-interested position which will help mitigate the spread of the virus is taken because they, the rich, had stocked up with about a month’s supply of food and other consumables. The validity of this argument is clear. The disease is highly infectious and novel, and if left to take its course could take out half of the human population, a subset of which could be a very competent human capital.

On the contrary, the poor and all those who earn a daily living protested against the lockdown, and in some instances, defied the order to be out in search of livelihood. This was done in self-interest and is not different from the actions of their counterpart on the other side of the wealth spectrum. At the roots of both actions is survival: the most elementary form of self-interest.

In such a situation where there is a conflict of interest, the only hope for order, rest in the hands of the government – the leadership figure that has been empowered and resourced to ensure the protection of the global self-interest of the state.  This global self-interest is the superordinate goal that impacts on the largest possible group not defined by any status but citizenship.

Every self-interested action or position is expected to return an incentive. Oftentimes, this incentive is converted to capital. And as a factor of production, we all need capital to produce anything. The capital may be tangible or intangible. But the more capital you can command, the wider your influence.

As remotely as philanthropic gestures may appear to be not for profit, they are still actions in self-interest which end up returning social capital: a form of capital that can be called upon for a different type of transaction. There is a biblical *account that suggested this possibility. A group of Jewish leaders approached Jesus to heal the servant of a centurion. They referred to his benevolence in building a synagogue for the community, and Jesus responded favourably.

I doubt if I can exhaust the instances showing how self-interest has been the underlying incentive for most of our decisions or actions. Certainly, its trappings are not difficult to find if we look around.

I would be remiss if I do not mention some practical implications of self-interest as a necessary precondition for the smooth functioning of society.

 

Negotiation

The act of negotiation in human social interactions occurs quite frequently. When negotiating, it is fruitful to accord the counterparty the right to be self-interested, because, in the first place, that’s our primary motive for wanting to negotiate as well.

Highly successful executives like the fictional Harvey Specter of **Suits approach the negotiating table intending to satisfy their firm's self-interest by acknowledging and making efforts to satisfy the other party's self-interest.

This win-win approach is not only productive but also forestall the kind of animosity and bitterness that is likely to creep in when we see the counterparty as the only “villain” in the room without admitting to ourselves what we represent in their own eyes.

One key indicator that we are missing the big picture is how often most of our interactions precipitate name-calling. When we take things personally, we have likely refused to see an issue from the viewpoint of the other party.

Let’s be clear, some zero-sum events are inevitable, but if we end up as winners every time we play a two-man game, soon enough there will be no more game to play as the perpetual loser needs to be motivated to continue.

 

Self-actualization

We have come to believe that the best way to transform our world is to go out as a crusader against the “oppressive bourgeoisie” and make the world a better place. But virtue signaling should not be misconstrued for morality. At least a huge portion of the 20th-century large-scale deaths, handwork of crusaders like Pol Pot, Mao Zedong, Adolf Hitler, etc, is evidence of this truth. And more recently, the inhuman treatment of prisoners of war, and rape incidences reported to characterized the Boko Haram and ISIS camp, is proof.

It is often the case, that people who go out to save the world as their first response, return with less effective solutions. While those who care about their self-interest, often always return saving the most persons. The entrepreneur is one such person.

This, perhaps, explain why in the call for succession, those who are heavily invested in the parent state hardly partake. The same is also seen amongst a subset of black American intellectuals who through self-actualization, enjoy the returns of capitalism, and are indifferent about the call for revolution. Ultimately, everyone acts in their self-interest until a truly selfless leader emerges with a superordinate goal.

As selfish as we may perceive the entrepreneur, the society is better off because he/she went out to tackle a challenge, and in the process faced untoward risk. Yet, the entrepreneur is profitable to the state since he/she will either employ someone who earns wages or pays tax to the coffers of state from their profit.  In comparison, no poor person is acclaimed for employing labour or remitting to the national purse.

Even those entrepreneurs whose greeds have not been tempered by religion or any other moral code do better than the social crusader. Self-actualization is fueled by self-interest and it is very different from selfishness. Selfishness is easy to spot since it often tends to penury: a consequence of discounting the interest of everyone else and reckoning yours as the ultimate. Politicians involved in graft and misappropriation of public funds fit this description.

My Econometrics professor once said that the best way to maximize societal interest is to allow the individual to maximize their self-interest. This was put differently by Carl Jung who said:

“If you take a personal problem seriously enough, you will simultaneously solve a social problem.”

In other words, if you decide to leave the clan to go get an education (a self-interested act), in a short time, you are likely to impact on the lives of more persons in the clan, than if you had stayed back. Also, if you decide to withdraw funds from the clan to upskill yourself, you are far more likely to improve the lots of the clan than otherwise.

By seeking your self-interest, you are more likely to enhance the interest of your family. It was for-profit that petroleum refining companies ventured into the business, but they end up improving the movement of goods and services all over the world, an accomplishment that may not be part of their primary objective.

 

In conclusion, it bears repeating that our civilization has come this far because people are free to pursue their dreams, and at the base of this pursuit is a self-interested incentive. Economics as a social science is practically useful in our everyday lives. Most of its principles are established on the fundamental assumption of the rational economic agent who will always seek to maximize his/her satisfaction and optimize self-interest. So, whether our goal is to thrill the global audience with our musical notes or eradicate poverty from Africa, the shortest and efficient route is for us to deploy the most of our resources to advance our self-interest foremost and see how prosperous others will become as a consequence.

Finally, to what extent then, can I advance my self-interest? The crux of the matter is finding the right balance. The best answer that humans have been able to conjure is the constitution. A body of laws codifying the generally accepted limits of the pursuit of our self-interest. And seeing that human behavior evolves, it is counterintuitive not to review or amend any constitution.

 

 

*Luke 7:1-10,  ** Suits: an American Drama Series

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