Bryan Caplan  

What Does Selfishness Require of Us?

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I often wish the people around me were more selfish - or at least better at being selfish.  I know how to deal with rational, self-interested actors.  They're really quite charming.  If I want them to change their behavior, I offer them a deal.  While they might hold out for more, at least they don't take offense.

But what exactly does selfishness require of us?  What does it take to be a selfish saint - perfect in the pursuit of one's self-interest?  Economists will naturally be drawn to formal criteria, such as:

1. Your beliefs must be unbiased - at least as long as your beliefs have practical consequences.

2.  Your time preference parameter should equal 1 - a unit of satisfaction (not consumption!) should count just as much no matter when you enjoy it.

3. When outcomes are uncertain (i.e. always), your actions must satisfy the expected utility axioms.  These imply, for example, that while you will not discount the future per se, you will linearly discount satisfaction that you might not survive to enjoy.

4. Your utility function should put no direct weight on other people's utility.  Of course, insofar as other people are useful to you, selfishness might require you to make great sacrifices to help them.

Psychologists and philosophers would more likely suggest substantive criteria, such as:

1. The main (only?) arguments in your utility function should be your own fun, health, and convenience.

2. Choose a career that gives you flow.

3. Remember that you and your genes often have conflicting goals - and what have your genes ever done for you?

4. Think win-win.

5. Live the Randian virtues: rationality, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, and pride.

Overall, the formal economic criteria are clear and compelling, but seem to leave out much of importance.  The substantive criteria try to get at something important, but seem both vague and overbroad.  Got anything better?


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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Kurbla writes:

Completely selfish individual should accept this simple rule as well:

    Cheat, steal, kill your competitors if you are sure enough you can get away with that.

Right?

david writes:

@Kurbla

I think it's Hanson who bites bullets like that, not Caplan.

Jayson Virissimo writes:

Cheat, steal, kill your competitors if you are sure enough you can get away with that.
Right?" -Kurbla

Would a similar rule apply to altruists as well as egoists?

Cheat, steal, kill your competitors if you are sure enough that it will help others on net.

Right?

David Jinkins writes:

Why is a selfish person required to have time preference one? One of your recent cross-posts with Robin Hanson sparked a long debate about personal identity. It is easy to think of "far future you" as less you than "now you". What makes benefiting "now you" at the expense of "far future you" inconsistent with selfishness?

Alex J. writes:

Firstly, I'm with David Jinkins. It seems to me, that being a perfectly selfish homo-economicus has more to do with being deaf to the signaling effects of ones own actions. We use heuristics to figure out what to do, and if you're going to drop signaling as a strategy then I suggest:

1) Live in a (modern, Western) society where forming alliances isn't very important. Generally, there's a great stock of social capital built up to which you won't be contributing.

2) Get an annuity and find a nursing home for yourself with a good reputation. If we are going to have time preference of one, a few years of misery at the end of your life will outweigh all the rest.

3) Don't have children, though I suppose you'll have them by the genes regardless of how you treat them.

Watch "Children of Men".

Douglass Holmes writes:

Being rationally selfish is hard enough. I only understood one of Bryan's points about being selfish. So, should I become selfless?

Conversely, what does selflessness require of us? If we are to live a life solely in service to others, by what criteria do we determine that we are being of the most service possible? Why would feeding the homeless be more valuable than entertaining the wealthy? Why would feeding the starving be more important than feeding your own children?

This is all too complex!

vt writes:

"The substantive criteria try to get at something important, but seem both vague and overbroad. Got anything better?"

How about this: Always do whatever maximizes your potential, i.e. whatever allows you to do as much as you can possibly do, given your talents and circumstances. (This is Ortega y Gasset's theory about what favors individual happiness.)

As a side-effect, the above principle rules out much of immoral behavior because being anti-social brings about all sorts of negative consequences due other people's counter reactions (anti-social behavior undermines your future attempts at maximizing your potential). On the other hand, it does not favor conformity either because conformity is a waste of your potential.

Ryan Vann writes:

Mr. Jinkins asks,

'What makes benefiting "now you" at the expense of "far future you" inconsistent with selfishness?'

It might be a stretch, but maybe the assumption of rationality explains why Mr. Caplan asserts a 1 value time preferance parameter. Basically, a rational person knows that the now you and future you discount each other. Also a rational person would likely take into consideration diminishing utility returns.

For instance seven hamburgers consumed over a one week period would likely provide me with more satisfaction than trying to eat them all at once.

Great question though; it will probably bother me for the rest of the day.

Kurbla writes:

Jayson:

    Would a similar rule apply to altruists as well as egoists? Cheat, steal, kill your competitors if you are sure enough that it will help others on net.

    Right?

Right! But I do not advocate total utilitarian altruism based on individual decisions. I'm much more moderate. Bryan was one who advocated -- or played with -- perfect selfishness idea.

Really, criterion (4) is a bit inhuman. If I totally ignore all ethical questions and simply go about pursuing the things I recognize as my values I'm going to violate (4) quite a lot. And it's slightly ridiculous to say I need to reform my values if I am to be a proper egoist.

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