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Graphically Speaking

Self-Int sun rainbow.jpg

      is not the same thing as Selfishness.

Self-Interest is the basis of most Economic theories. Most economists assume that people will always seek what is in their best interest. That makes some people feel a certain way about economists. But Self-Interest is not the same thing as Selfishness, and it comes in varying levels of maturity.

In its most essential form, Self-Interest is the drive to stay alive – to get the things necessary for being alive, and prevent the situations that would cause a state of not being alive. If you are a fan of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, you would recognize this as the two base levels – physiological and safety.

But humans have other needs, too. Like guinea pigs, they are social animals. They need love, affection and belonging (Maslow’s third level). But putting aside Maslow for a moment - it's just not true that a human can make it on their own in this world (for very long). Human babies take a ridiculously long time to learn how to move themselves around with any sort of accuracy. And that's just the start of all the care a juvenile human needs before they can be let loose with any semblance of independence. At which point, they can live off the land (that they don't have because of how we construe property rights) or enter into a complex, interdependent society. And that complex, interdependent society relies on the well-being of others.


It is very Self-Interested to be concerned about how well your society functions, and what can help it function better. That need for social cohesion may be part of the reason why humans have internalized value systems and often seek a greater sense of meaning (Maslow’s top levels). They feel distressed when they don't live up to their own ideas of what makes for a good person, or have a sense of purpose in their lives.

Different humans are in different places in their understanding of their own Self-Interest – and that’s ok. But it is not true that Self-Interest begins and ends at your own survival and comfort. It can includes the well-being of the people you care about, the society you live in, and your ability to keep in step with deeply held values or belief systems.


When you think about it – why would you ever do something that was not in your own Self-Interest? Even sacrificing your own safety and well-being for others, or for your belief system, can be easily understood as a more mature understanding of your own Self-Interest - what we like to call "Self-Interest in Disguise".


Making a sacrifice is making a decision that something outside of your physical self is more important to you than your physical well-being. We commonly call these behaviors Selfless – but it’s equally valid to reconceptualize them as Self-Interest in Disguise. You’re not gong to sacrifice your life for something you don’t actually care about, or see as a greater good!

Is it semantics? A little bit. But if we undertake Economics as a serious scientific discipline, we need to be precise with our terms. In Guineanomics – we take all goal-directed behavior to be Self-Interested, and draw a firm distinction between Self-Interest and Selfishness.

What about when people make stupid choices? Well – stupid according to who? People pursue their own self-interest as they see it - not how other people see it. Sometimes they are mistaken and acting on bad information. Sometimes they have value systems other people disagree with. Sometimes they have lived experiences that drive them to do things that are incomprehensible to someone with a different background. That doesn’t make them irrational. That just makes them a different sort of cat than you are.


What about when people self-harm or constantly sabotage themselves? That’s more of a Psychological question, but as far as we’re concerned – we take that to mean they are relieving more internal distress by acting out these behaviors than when they refrain from doing those things.

When we take the approach that all goal-directed behavior is Self-Interested, definitionally, it gives us an objective framework for examining all these different topics impartially and systematically.

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