Bryan Caplan  

Sympathetic Self-Interest Quotes

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I'm looking for a sympathetic quote about self-interest to open Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids.  The main quotes from Smith are too ponderous, and the main quotes from Rand are too off-putting.  Suggestions?

Update: I think J. Daniel Wright's Hamlet quote's a winner.  I've heard it a hundred times, but it completely slipped my mind.  Thanks!

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COMMENTS (31 to date)
Joshua Macy writes:

Maybe Hillel?
"If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?"

Patrick R. Sullivan writes:

Henry J Kaiser, when asked by a young man how he could get rich, reputedly said; 'Find a need, and fill it.'

J. Daniel Wright writes:

I like this one:

The right of nature... is the liberty each man hath to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own nature; that is to say, of his own life.
-Thomas Hobbes
Faré writes:

The greatest productive force is human selfishness. — Robert Heinlein, "Time Enough For Love"

Selfishness is the measure of all good (and bad) in the world. There cannot be any good whatsoever without a self to feel it. WHO is whatever "altruistic" oppression ever good for? No one. Why is gratuitous vandalism or well-intentioned mass murder bad? Not because it is selfish, but precisely because it hurts other people's selfish interest. — Faré

Justin Ross writes:

There must be a million good Homer Simpson quotes out there. From the movie:

Risking my life to save people I hate for reasons I don't quite understand.

or this exchange from the movie with Bart and Flanders (given the title of your book, seems applicable):

Bart Simpson: How bout a dare contest?

Homer Simpson: That sounds fun! I dare you to... climb the TV antennae!

Bart Simpson: [Bart climbs it easily] Piece of cake.

Homer Simpson: [starts shaking the antennae] Earthquake!

[Bart falls off and hangs onto the railing]

Homer Simpson: [starts shaking the railing] Aftershock!

Ned Flanders: Uh, Homer? I don't mean to be a nervous Pervis, but if he falls, couldn't that make your boy a parapleg-erino?

Homer Simpson: Shut up, Flanders!

Bart Simpson: Yeah, shut up, Flanders!

Homer Simpson: Well said, boy!

Eric writes:

'You can't love others unless you love yourself'
~anon cliche, still good

Steve Z writes:

Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.

Oscar Wilde

Ano writes:

I wish you luck finding a good quote, but I have to say this: maybe it's hard to find such a quote because selfishness is not attractive.

Matt Skene writes:

I'm not sure about good quotes for selfishness, but I was reading Jane Eyre and found this quote (in the second paragraph of chapter 12) that reminded me of your book. After describing her student as having perfectly mediocre intellect and skills, she says the following:

"This...will be thought cool language by persons who entertain solemn doctrines about the angelic nature of children, and the duty of those charged with their education to conceive for them an idolatrous devotion. But I am not writing to flatter paternal egoism, to echo cant, or to prop up humbug; I am merely telling the truth."

StrangeLoop writes:

Some that seem relevant to your book...

"People love others not for who they are but for how they make them feel" -- Irwin Federman

"Live for yourself -- there's no one else
More worth living for
Begging hands and bleeding hearts will only cry out for more" -- Neil Peart (Rush)

"Self-interest blinds some people, and makes others see." -- Francois De La Rochefoucauld

"Where self-interest is suppressed, it is replaced by a burdensome system of bureaucratic control that dries up the wellspring of initiative and creativity." -- Pope John Paul II

And here are a couple of real keepers...

"Self-interest is the enemy of all true affection." -- Franklin D. Roosevelt

"What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money." -- Karl Marx

P.S.H. writes:

I don't know if these are "sympathetic," but they're at least catchy.

"If the physical universe be subject to the laws of motion, the moral universe is equally so to those of interest. Interest is, on earth, the mighty magician, which to the eyes of every creature changes the appearance of all objects." – Claude Adrien Helvétius, De l'esprit

"[I]n all the outward relations of this life, in all our outward conduct and actions, both in what we should do, and in what we should abstain from, the dictates of virtue are the very same with those of self-interest, tending to, though they do not proceed from, the same point." — Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Aids to Reflection

jc writes:

"It has always seemed strange to me... the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second." - John Steinbeck (w/ 'produce', in this case, being kids)

There have got to be interesting quotes somewhere about self interested genes wishing to replicate via human reproduction...

Æternitatis writes:

I was going to recommend Johnson's "There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money", but upon verifying the source it appears you not only already knew it but are also the Google's number one link for it. Too late, again.

Richard writes:

Woody Allen's character in Annie Hall:

"Hey, don't knock masturbation. It's sex with somebody I love."

Carter Hemphill writes:

Lots of good suggestions here. How about:

"There is a different type of human excellence from the Calvinistic; a conception of humanity as having its nature bestowed on it for other purposes than merely to be abnegated. "Pagan self-assertion" is one of the elements of human worth, as well as "Christian self-denial." - John Stuart Mill

eric writes:

"Bow to your master and lord, behold his divine truth"

-Abe Lincoln, Gettysburg address

Gil writes:
Selfishness is not myopic selfishness. It is whatever it is that interests the participants, whatever they value, whatever goals they pursue. The scientist seeking to advance the frontiers of his discipline, the philantrophist seeking to bring comfort to the needy, the missionary seeking to convert infidels to the true faith - all are pursuing their interests, as they see them, as they judge them by their own values.

-- Milton Friedman (Capitalism and Freedom)

Marcus writes:


Maybe the reason self-interest isn't attractive is because we're too self-interested to appreciate the self-interest of others.

In other words, when we see someone else act self-interested we are disgusted by it because their self-interested behavior doesn't help our own self-interest at all!

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

I've taken so many notes on this subject in the last few years it is hard to know where to start.

"I respect your need to be acknowledged and validated in this world, and if that comes across as selfishness, so be it."

Bryan if you would like the quote just let me know and I will also jot that down.

Jason Brennan writes:

"Selfishness is not myopic selfishness. It is whatever it is that interests the participants, whatever they value, whatever goals they pursue. The scientist seeking to advance the frontiers of his discipline, the philantrophist seeking to bring comfort to the needy, the missionary seeking to convert infidels to the true faith - all are pursuing their interests, as they see them, as they judge them by their own values."

Please don't use this line. It's not one of Friedman's finer moments. It is fallacious thinking. You can walk into day four or five of any intro to ethics class in the country and see the professor covering Joel Feinberg's "Psychological Egoism", in which Feinberg decisively refutes the line of reasoning above. Decisively. There isn't even reasonable disagreement on this.

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

methinks a slight improvement might help...

"...if that ever comes across as selfishness, so be it."

Lars P writes:

I don't have a quote, but I think the core of the issue is that your life is your responsibility to make as good as possible, since it is the only one you can actively influence and evaluate.

That is why your finite efforts can bring the largest happiness when applied to your self, and a world where everyone does that is the best possible.

Not sure if that makes sense to anyone...

Tracy W writes:

"We are all on earth to help others. What on earth the others are here for, I can't imagine. "
John Foster Hall

MikeP writes:

“If your imagination leads you to understand how quickly people grant your requests when those requests appeal to their self-interest, you can have practically anything you go after.”

Napoleon Hill

J. Daniel Wright writes:

I was on my way home on the Red Line reading "Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court," when I came across another quote that I thought might be appropriate. From Hamlet:

"This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man."

Nick writes:

Marcus, you hit the nail on the head.

Brian Clendinen writes:

I vote for Francois De La Rochefoucauld quote. Is the most succinct quote explaining the double edged sword of Self-interest

Hume writes:

This seems like a fool's errand if you are trying to find a sympathetic statement using the word "selfish" (I realize you are looking for "self-interest"). I believe that the term "selfish" or "selfishness" is comprised of a normative evaluation, and a negative normative evaluation at that. You should look for statements regarding, e.g., rational self interest, or something along those lines.

caveat bettor writes:

Should you value moment-to-moment happiness more than retrospective evaluations of your life?--Tom Gilovich, from Jennifer Senior's article

Robin Hanson writes:

"In the event of an emergency, masks will fall from the ceiling. Put on own mask before assisting others."

Patrick R. Sullivan writes:

I'd warn Bryan away from the quote from Hamlet, as the line is delivered by a character, Polonius, who's depicted as a fool...a blowhard; 'brevity is the soul of wit....' I.e. he doesn't even realize what he's saying.

I know of no other character in Shakespeare who is treated with such naked contempt as Polonius. Possibly because the model for the character was Queen Elizabeth's Lord Chamberlain, William Cecil (later Lord Burleigh). His daughter Ann is recognizable as the tragic Ophelia.

Cecil made a fortune as Master of the Royal Wards--in those days of martial vigor, many an aristocrat died in service to the monarch and an office was created to bring up the orphaned children in a manner appropriate to their stations in life.

Shakespeare seems to be having fun lampooning Cecil on stage in a way that would be recognized by any of those Royal Wards who'd had their inheritance diluted by Cecil's ministrations. Consider these 'precepts' from Cecil's pamphlet written for his charges:

5. Beware of suretyship for thy best friends. He that payeth another man's debts seeketh his own decay. But if thou canst not otherwise chose, rather lend thy money thyself upon good bonds, although thou borrow it. So shalt thou secure thyself, and pleasure thy friend. Neither borrow of a neighbour or of a friend, but of a stranger, whose paying for it thou shalt hear no more of it.

6. Undertake no suit against a poor man without receiving much wrong.

7. Be sure to make some great man thy friend.

8. Towards superiors be humble, yet generous. With thine equals familiar, yet respective. Towards thine inferiors show much humanity and some familiarity.

9. Trust not any man with thy life credit, or estate.

10. Be not scurrilous in conversation, or satirical in thy jests."

That's the character Hamlet refers to as 'a fishmonger' and a 'tedious old fool...'

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