Bryan Caplan  


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Agree or disagree: "Selfish" is to "self-interested" as "cheap" is to "thrifty."

Please explain your answer.

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COMMENTS (28 to date)
Peter St. Onge writes:

Agree and nice analogy. Both are weighing one's own preferences higher than those of an unmentioned other. Other than that, it's just degree of speaker disapproval.

I can't remember who said love is discounting the utility of another at a very low (or negative) rate. Sounds Landsburgian.

Sean writes:

meh.. there's no way getting around self-interest. No matter how altruistic one tries to be, it is still THEM intending to be that way for whatever reason. Thrifty is a choice; self-interest is a simple fact of each individual only being able to truly experience the self and only able to speculate or approximate the wants and experiences of others through their actions. We don't have to be thrifty; we have no choice but to be self-interested.

Various writes:

Well I agree....sort of. To me, and I say this without consulting Websters Dictionary, the word "cheap" implies a somewhat irrational and habitual tendency to pay less for things than the norm. "Cheap" to me implies some sort of excessive search for bargains, to the point where the risks start to outweigh the rewards of "thrift". Similarly, "selfish" implies a degree of self centerdness (if that is a word) that is excessive, and to the point where the downside (in terms of damaged relationships, loss of dealing with competent and reliable counterparties) outweighs the benefits of focusing on one's short-term transactional gains.

Brian Shelley writes:


The selfish person sees the world as comprising mostly (or entirely) of zero-sum games. It's a rejection of "good will" or reciprocity, and to help others necessitates that he lose something. The self-interested person also sees win-win situations, which will include "virtuous" behaviors.

Cheap is to abuse social norms to keep or make money. Thrifty is maximizing consumption within social norms.

david (not henderson) writes:

Agree. Making a vice out of a virtue.

Salem writes:

Brian Shelley makes good points.

However, "thrifty" is a compliment, while "self-interested" is still an insult. The opposite of cheap is generous. The opposite of thrifty is spendthrift. The opposite of selfish is altruistic. The opposite of self-interested is community-spirited. This is an economics blog and hence likely to attract people who believe that human actions are motivated by "rational self-interest" or whatever, and hence many here seem to regard "self-interest" as a neutral or even praiseworthy concept. But our cultural conventions do not agree. I don't think this is even a linguistic thing - it's the concept of putting your personal interests ahead of others' that is frowned upon, not the way it's expressed.

The best I could come up with was "individualist" or "self-reliant."

Hyena writes:


Both "selfish" and "cheap" connote that you've over-emphasized some component of a valuable habit, self-interest or thrift. Usually this takes the form of short-range thinking.

Selfish people work for the immediate satisfaction of their goals without regarding the broader framework of reciprocity and trust which supplies greater value in the long run. Cheap people often invest too much time in finding a good deal or sacrifice so much quality that they face much larger long term costs.

In both cases people mislabel: some "selfish" people simply have front-loaded life plans, some "cheap" people actually have few alternatives for the labor invested or get additional value from the search itself.

Hyena writes:


"Self-interested" is an insult because it gets bound up with the idea of narcissism as a consequence of word construction. However, if you say that someone "watches out for their self-interest", this problem disappears because the noun form seems not to carry this issue.

Steve Miller writes:

Agree. It's ultimately a distinction without difference. However, "enlightened self-interest" does suggest a long-term, more thoughtful way of being selfish. "Selfish" is usually meant to be something very narrow and immediate.

Philo writes:

Salem writes: "However, 'thrifty' is a compliment, while 'self-interested' is still an insult." This is close to my view, which leads me to give a negative answer to Bryan's question. It seems to me that, while 'thrifty' has positive evaluative content, 'self-interested' is very nearly value-neutral. ('Cheap' and 'selfish' are both value-negative.)

Salem writes:
"Self-interested" is an insult because it gets bound up with the idea of narcissism as a consequence of word construction. However, if you say that someone "watches out for their self-interest", this problem disappears because the noun form seems not to carry this issue.
No, the reason this "disappears" is because:

1. You have changed from describing who this person is, to something this person does. This will always take away a lot of the sting. E.g."She is cheap" vs "she drives a cheap car." You are no longer defining that person, just describing one action among many. To watch out for your own self-interest does not exclude also being altruistic/community-spirited. To be self-interested does.

2. The (deliberate?) ambiguity of the phrase "watches out for." I fear your rewrite introduces distortion of meaning. A neutral rewrite to switch from adjective to noun would be "he is motivated by self-interest." Which is still an insult.

Les writes:

Excellent question, Bryan! It seems to me that Philo has the best analysis.

I see "Self-interested" and "Thrifty" as ethical or virtuous, because they do not seek to gain at the expense of others. However, I see "Selfish" and "Cheap" as unethical because they imply profiting at the expense of others.

In brief, this table sums it up:

Unethical Ethical
Selfish Self-interested
Cheap Thrifty

Ricardo Cruz writes:

Is that a list of word pairs that mean the same but have opposite connotations?

I personally call myself an agnostic when I'm in "good company" rather than an atheist. heh ;)

Yancey Ward writes:

Different sides of the same transaction.

fundamentalist writes:

Everyone has their own private definitions of both. To some selfish and self-interested are exactly the same. The problem with equating the two is that we are left without a word to describe things that people do to further their own survival. What is eating, sleeping and drinking water if selfish and self-interest are identical? What word exists to define those actions? There isn't one.

What is working to provide food and shelter for one's family, if selfish and self-interest are the same?

Even if different, it's clear that at some point self-interest will become selfishness, but the dividing line is not clear. We can easily identify extreme forms of selfishness, but cannot marked the exact dividing line when legitimate self-interest (interest in survival for oneself and one's family) turns into selfishness.

floccina writes:

To me cheap means that you avoid picking up the bill and thrifty means you avoid the dinner all together.

Yancey Ward writes:

Thrifty is taking your girlfriend to McDonald's for dinner. Cheap is having your boyfriend take you to McDonald's for dinner.

Lori writes:

'Cheap' and 'selfish' have negative connotations. 'Thrifty' has a positive connotation. 'Self-interested' is the subject of the present public relations campaign.

And what Yancey said.

Alfred Centauri writes:

Salem, altruistic is not the opposite of selfish, altruism is the opposite of individualism.

The opposite of selfish is (usually) selfless.

Whereas selfish usually implies a lack of concern for the interests of others, I don't think self-interested necessarily does.

In fact, it can clearly be in one's interest to be concerned with the interests of others, e.g., those that one loves, which implies that being selfish, as typically understood, is not in one's true interests properly understood.

Sam writes:

Same concept, conjugated in different persons.

I'm frugal, you're thrifty, he's cheap.

I'm rational, you're self-interested, he's selfish.

saltmanSPIFF writes:

Sam's explanation is sound. With both sets of words the concept is the same whereas the connotation differs. In most cases, it goes something like this: Peter does not give as much to charity as Paul thinks Peter should, so Paul calls Peter "selfish." You can tell a similar story for the other three words. The connotation changes according to the desires of the person who is projecting his or her values on another.

Troy Camplin writes:

"Thrifty" means one is practicing thrift or economical management, which results in one thriving, being prosperous, or successful. It is also defined as "growing vigorously," which is connected to economic health as well. Therefore, one wants to be thrifty, because it results in economic health, success, and prosperity.

"Cheap" is defined as "stingy" or "miserly." It is further defined as "of little account; of small value; mean; shoddy".

"Selfish" is defined as "devoted to or caring only for oneself; concerned primarily with one's own interests, benefits, welfare, etc., regardless of others." The important term here is "regardless."

As for self interest, perhaps the following will suffice:

"[Self-interest] is a doctrine not very lofty, but clear and sure. It does not seek to attain great objects; but it attains those it aims for without too much effort. ... [It] does not produce great devotion; but it suggests little sacrifices each day; by itself it cannot make a man virtuous; but it forms a multitude of citizens who are regulated, temperate, moderate, farsighted, masters of themselves; and if it does not lead directly to virtue through the will, it brings them near to it insensibly through habits." [Alexis de Tocqueville, "Democracy in America"]

So self-interested is to selfish as thrifty is to cheap. Indeed, a thrifty person is self-interested, but a cheap person is selfish.

Silas Barta writes:

Coincidentally, two days before this post I had submitted this to LessWrong, which attempts to account for the difference between self-interested and selfish (see "SAMELs vs. CaMELs, Morality vs. Selfishness").

Basically, selfish acts are a kind of self-interested act that does not recognize that it was only possible because of people not expecting that you would do it. Essentially the same as what other posters said about selfishness not recognizing the reciprocity relations that allow for greater wealth.

HT writes:

I prefer "cheap".

Fewer letters, one syllable.

Bob Layson writes:

A self is, at least, a bundle of interests. Every self has interests to be persued. The greatest violators of rights and the greatest respecters of rights act on their interests. They are, manifestly, interested in different things - moral constraints for one. Idealists, when in power, can do more harm than the most selfish of tyrants.

kzndr writes:

I think david (not henderson)gestured to where I would go on this--the analogy contrasts a virtue with its corresponding vice. Similar to courageous:foolhardy, generous:prodigal, prudence:cowardice, etc.

Sebastian Franck writes:

I'm glad I read the comments for this post, because it made me discover Salem. Seldom have I seen such clear and rigorous thinking in a blog comment! My compliments. I'll seek out your comments from now on.

stephan writes:

one of the posters had the dictionary definition correct - selfish is concern for one's interests regardless of others -- in other words, fundamentally, given human nature and the need to discover your interests and to have the integrity to act on them, intellectual independence. If you discover what is in your self interest, you do it, regardless of who doesn't like it, is hurt, or screams at you to do otherwise. Of course, it leaves entirely open the question, what is in your interest? How do you incorporate in principle of facts in your decision (including the objectors'). For that, and for the world-shaking statement of what I said above, read the opening essay Ayn Rand's the Virtue of Selfishness.

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