Re: Sanderson on self-interest

Thu, 24 Apr 1997 13:15:31 +1000
Bruce McFarling (

At 01:30 PM 4/23/97 -0500, Stephen Sanderson wrote:

>What I mean by calling individuals rational is that they follow their own
>interests, and that they have been built by biological evolution to do so.
>Austin wonders whether other animals behave rationally. Of course they do in
>the sense that they, too, have been built by biological evolution to follow
>their own selfish interests.

>It really amazes me the extent to which the assumption of the naturalness of
>human self-interest is rejected by many sociologists. I would think that
>anyone who has ever reared an infant would have no serious doubt of how
>absolutely natural human self-interest is. As Nikolai points out, the
>socialization process is substantially devoted to put all kinds of constraints
>on overwhelmingly egoistic behavior.

It may be that you have to be exposed to the opposite extreme in
much of mainstream economics to have this point leap out at you:

It is one thing to say that humans pursue their self-interest,
and quite another to leave it at that. Because ignoring the fact that
much of this self-interest is socially constructed leaves you with a
situation in which you can simply group on whatever convenient basis
you wish to apply, and move from the individual to the group level by
simply aggregating the individual levels.

Of course, self-interest is socially constructed in at least
two different ways. The first, recognised even in some mainstream
approaches to economics such as New "Institutional" Economics, is that
the structure of society modifies the likelihoods of different outcomes
which individual may prefer. Along that line you can get all the way
to "enlightened self-interest", with the sacrifice of some short-term
personal advantages in order to maintain the viability of social
organisations and the longer term benefits accruing from that viability.
However, the self interests pursued are also to some extent socially
constructed: people do not pursue abstracted interests, but concrete,
imaginable interests, and both the range of plausible alternative
actions and the desirability of some of the goals pursued are, in
part, socially constructed.


Bruce McFarling, Newcastle