(Here’s part one btw.)
We see this problem time and time again in the history of Western philosophy:
We live in a society. (Surprise.)
So, among other things, we have to cooperate enough to make some individual sacrifices in service of our common good.
Unfortunately, what’s in my self-interest and what’s in your self-interest irreconcilably conflict. (I’d rather you sacrifice while I sit back.)
And so even when it’s rational for us to cooperate, it can seem rational for me not to do my part.
That’s what’s going on in the classic prisoner’s dilemma:
You and I are both arrested on suspicion of some crime, but the police don’t have any real proof. So they question us separately, hoping we’ll accuse each other.
Here are our options:
If I betray you, you’ll spend 12 years in prison, and I’ll go free.
If you betray me, I’ll spend 12 years in prison, and you’ll go free.
But if we betray each other, we’ll both spend 10 years in prison.
And if we both stay silent, we’ll both spend 2 years in prison on some trumped-up charges.
If we can’t communicate, what should we do?
Here’s a table if your brain works that way:
I stay silent
You stay silent
You: -2 I: -2
You: -12 I: 0
You: 0 I: -12
You: -10 I: -10
It’s easy to construct an argument that you should betray me, no matter what:
If I stay silent, betraying me takes you from 2 years in prison to 0.
And if I betray, betraying me takes you from 12 years in prison to 10.
And yet, if we betray each other, we spend 20 years in jail, the worst possible joint outcome.
So we’d do better cooperating and spending just 4 total years in jail.
But I’d do better defecting.
The prisoner’s dilemma is taken as a model for lots of real-world problems, from taxation (I’d rather not pay while you do…) to climate change (I’d rather pollute while you stop…) to nuclear buildup (I’d rather have nukes while you don’t...) and on and on.
In all these applications, my self-interest opposes our common good.
We’d do well by cooperating, but I’d do even better (in purely self-interested terms) if everyone else cooperated while I defected and got to play free-rider.
But if everyone reasons the same way, no one will cooperate and we’ll be stuck with really bad social outcomes!
So the question becomes: How do we convince people not to act out of their self-interest at the gross expense of the common good?
So think about it: Why care about others (especially strangers) enough to make sacrifices for them? Why not treat everything and everyone else around me as just useful for me?
This is the language of self-interest, and it supposes that my good is over here on my private scoreboard, and your good is over there on yours, and that it makes sense to radically refuse to recognize anyone else’s score except your own.
So why not act from radical self-interest all the time?
Q. Why not be a total asshole?
A. Consider two ways in which being an asshole is very bad for you.
1. Being an asshole might be bad for your self-interest.
This is the much weaker reason everyone seems to go for.
Pretend you only care about what’s good for you in isolation. You treat everything and everyone else around you as just useful for you to advance your private scoreboard. (No one’s really like that, but it’s just pretend.)
Even so, helping someone else might sometimes be useful for you in self-interested terms. It’s probably useful for the bar owner to keep the bouncer healthy. But even if that’s right, the bouncer’s value in terms of mere usefulness is fleeting or disposable. You can always hire another one!
This way of valuing the bouncer seems worryingly contingent, like it could go either way. It doesn’t offer them the solid recognition we might hope for from an ethically sound point of view.
Being an asshole might hurt your private scoreboard. Or, it might just make you president. Who knows? You’re not even sure which one I’m talking about!
2. More importantly, being an asshole is definitely bad for your well-being.
Everything and everyone else isn’t just a useful thing or mere object for your use, and seeing the world this way is really bad for your well-being.
You live side-by-side with tons of other entities with interests of their own. But your self-interest doesn’t see just how enmeshed their interests are with yours, because it’s obsessed with one singular value: the value of being you, and having your interests. Being dominated by your self-interest like this is really bad for you, no matter how much worldly success it might bring.
After all, a full understanding of your well-being involves appreciating relational goods that don’t appear on the private scoreboard, core goods like love, respect, and mutual recognition that go far beyond how useful we find others. They require caring about others for their own sake. And without these relational goods, we can’t imagine our lives going well for us.
But taking that step to move from my self-interest to my well-being involves a much more integrated ethical conception that tracks my well-being in light of yours, and appreciates their deep connections and interdependencies. Once we recognize that we both have a well-being, we do much better by welcoming powerful relational goods into our lives.
Seeing just how deeply your well-being is enmeshed with and depends on mine is a really important first step for helping us to appreciate the demands of our common good on my individual good.
So there’s some motivation for the distinction between self-interest and well-being that I’m trying to draw and explore in this early chapter. Your self-interest sees others as just useful for you; your well-being sees your interests as bound up with theirs. But in the end, it’s well-being, not self-interest, that counts.
Surprise, how your life goes for you isn’t well-measured on a private scoreboard! We should go for a qualitative, integrated picture that looks a lot more like a shared story.
But we’ll get there soon. (More revisions coming.)
In the meantime, if you really wanna dig in, here’s a draft of the full chapter: