What Is Enlightened Self-Interest?

Enlightened self-interest is a philosophy in ethics which states that persons who act to further the interests of others (or the interests of the group or groups to which they belong), ultimately serve their own self-interest.

It has often been simply expressed by the belief that an individual, group, or even a commercial entity will “do well by doing good”.

Unenlightened self-interest

In contrast to enlightened self-interest is simple greed, or the concept of “unenlightened self-interest”, in which it is argued that when most or all persons act according to their own myopic selfishness, the group suffers loss as a result of conflict, decreased efficiency, and productivity because of lack of cooperation, and the increased expense each individual pays for the protection of their own interests.

Some individuals might profit, in a material sense, from a philosophy of greed, but it is believed by proponents of enlightened self-interest that these individuals constitute a small minority and that the large majority of persons can expect to experience a net personal loss from a philosophy of simple unenlightened selfishness.

Golden Rule

Enlightened self-interest is related to the Golden Rule: simply acting toward all others the way one wants them to act toward oneself. The reasoning, for example, is “I will not steal because if I steal then others may steal from me and the creation of a thieving society will likely hurt me”.

Deferred gratification

Enlightened self-interest also has implications for long-term benefits as opposed to short-term benefits to oneself. When an individual pursues enlightened self-interest that person may sacrifice short-term interests to maximise long-term interests. This is a form of deferred gratification.

An individual may choose to forsake pursuing immediate gratification by supporting and not interfering with others’ pursuit of self-interest. An individual may have to sacrifice his immediate self-interest for the purpose of a positive relationship with a group of individuals to which he relates. For example, a merchant likely will maximise profit over the long term if they choose to be generous to their customers in a manner beyond the requirement of policy, say, in accepting returns and refunding the purchase price when not required to by explicit policy. By doing so, they may lose short-term gain but likely will eventually profit from increased business volume as they gain a reputation for being reasonable, honest, and generous.

Altruism

Enlightened self-interest is also different from altruism, which calls for people to act in the interest of others often at the expense of their own interests and with no expectation of material benefit for themselves in the future. Some advocates of enlightened self-interest might argue that pure altruism promotes inefficiency as well.

Developing Enlightened Self-Interest

The ability to act in your own interests follows on from self-acceptance and confidence. As we shall see, it is also important to take into account the interests of others. The principle of enlightened self-interest takes into account both parts:

  • You place your own interests first.
  • You keep in mind that your own interests will be best served if you take into account the interests of others.

tating the interests of the other people in your world.

Human beings are fundamentally self-interested

Notwithstanding any precepts that say we should be otherwise, human beings appear to be intrinsically concerned first with their own welfare.

Hans Selye has argued that the desire to maintain oneself and stay happy is the most ancient – and one of the most important – impulses that motivate living beings. All living beings protect their own interests first of all. Selye points out that this begins with our basic biological make-up, in that the various cells in our bodies only cooperate with each other to ensure their own survival.

Human beings are also motivated by social interest

Selye has pointed out, though, that we are also strongly motivated by altruistic feelings. As well as self-interest, we also possess social interest – the wish to ensure that the social system as a whole survives and develops.

How is that two apparently contradictory tendencies can co-exist?

The answer is that we help others in order to help ourselves. In other words, our self-interest is enlightened. It appears that like self-interest, social interest is also inherent within human beings – both have biological roots. Collaboration between body cells promotes the survival of each individual cell and enables the total organism to function.

In effect, individual interests are best served by mutual cooperation. Accordingly, self-interest without social interest is misguided. So is social interest without self-interest. Always putting others first leads to resentment or a martyr attitude.

People who believe they are acting purely in the interests of others are dangerous. By denying (to themselves) that their own self-interest is involved, such people may justify all types of manipulative and controlling behavior toward others. You are both self-interested and socially interested.

This dual tendency is built into your very being and begins with your basic biology. By accepting this about yourself, you will be able to do a better job of acting in your own interests – in an enlightened manner.

What is it to be enlightened?

The word enlightened has several related meanings. It is humanitarian – charitable, liberal, and idealistic; and at the same time utilitarian – useful, beneficial, and practical.

Can you see how merging an enlightened attitude with innate self-interest can apply at all levels – to yourself, to your family, to your town or city, to your country, and to the world as a whole?

  • Consider the effect on this planet if every person acknowledged their self-interest and then practiced it in an enlightened manner.
  • What if every country based its external and foreign policies on the humanitarian and practical principle of enlightened self-interest?
  • Why enlightened self-interest is important to stress management? If human beings did not have an inherent will to protect themselves and further their own interests, they would not survive. If you don’t attend to your own interests, who will?

Knowing what is in your interests will help you get what is best for you and avoid what is harmful. It will keep you moving toward your goals – and ensure that your goals are the right ones for you. But you had better simultaneously take into account the interests of others.

Getting people to have positive feelings toward you is a good idea. They will be more likely to treat you well and less likely to harm you.

Contributing to their welfare will encourage them to contribute to yours. And contributing to the development and survival of the society in which you live will mean a better environment in which to pursue your interests.

If you acknowledge that self-interest is inherent in your nature, you will feel less guilty about looking after yourself. If you acknowledge that altruistic behavior is in your interests, you will be more likely to cooperate with others. If you do both, everyone gains.

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