Enlightened Self-Interest

It is rational to behave with enlightened self-interest, because one would benefit if everyone else did the same; it is the Golden Rule.

Without recourse to any other source of legitimacy, it is possible to explain to people why it is rational to adhere to the Golden Rule.  In his essay Ethics Without Gods, Frank Zindler declared that:

“Given, then, that gods a priori cannot be the source of ethical principles, we must seek such principles in the world in which we have evolved.

…The principle of “enlightened self-interest” is an excellent first approximation to an ethical principle which is both consistent with what we know of human nature and is relevant to the problems of life in a complex society.”

Put simply, it is in one’s self-interest to show consideration to other people, on the assumption that one may (eventually) receive similar consideration in return (though not necessarily from the same people).  This way of putting the argument invokes the concept of reciprocity.  The self-interest which underpins it can be referred to as ‘enlightened’ because one might not gain benefit for oneself from a good deed.  The benefit is to society as a whole.  One might benefit from the good deeds of others in a society accustomed to the practice.

In summary, it is rational to use enlightened self-interest – the Golden Rule – as a guide to moral behaviour.  That is not to say that everybody would agree with such a conclusion – as David Brooks remarked, in a New York Times review of the Edge seminar on The New Science of Morality:

“it might not satisfy those who want their morality to be awesome, formidable, transcendent or great”.

But an individual who does not see the need to show consideration to other people would perhaps not receive much kindness in return.  This would not be a happy situation for such individuals or anyone who came into contact with them.


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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/4233a.htm.