26 April 2015

against the very nature of self-interest

Behavior and arguments in interest conflicts are not notorious for their “rationality.” Nothing, unfortunately, has so constantly been refuted by reality as the credo of “enlightened self-interest,” in its literal version as well as in its more sophisticated Marxian variant. Some experience plus a little reflection teach, on the contrary, that it goes against the very nature of self-interest to be enlightened. To take as an example from everyday life the current interest conflict between tenant and landlord: enlightened interest would focus on a building fit for human habitation, but this interest is quite different from, and in most cases opposed to, the landlord’s self-interest in high profit and the tenant’s in low rent. The common answer of an arbiter, supposedly the spokesman of “enlightenment,” namely, that in the long run the interest of the building is the true interest of both landlord and tenant, leaves out of account the time factor, which is of paramount importance for all concerned. Self-interest is interested in the self, and the self dies or moves out or sells the house; because of its changing condition, that is, ultimately because of the human condition of mortality, the self qua self cannot reckon in terms of long-range interest, i.e. the interest of a world that survives its inhabitants. Deterioration of the building is a matter of years; a rent increase or a temporarily lower profit rate are for today or for tomorrow. And something similar, mutatis mutandis, is of course true for labor-management conflicts and the like. Self-interest, when asked to yield to “true” interest—that is, the interest of the world as distinguished from that of the self—will always reply, Near is my shirt, but nearer is my skin. That may not be particularly reasonable, but it is quite realistic; it is the not very noble but adequate response to the time discrepancy between men’s private lives and the altogether different life expectancy of the public world. To expect people, who have not the slightest notion of what the res publico, the public thing, is, to behave nonviolently and argue rationally in matters of interest is neither realistic nor reasonable.

Hannah Arendt, On Violence (III)