What Does Selfishness Require of Us?
By Bryan Caplan
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?