"Interests"- it's for your own good?

Howie Chodos howie at magi.com
Mon Apr 10 13:31:45 MDT 1995

Lisa Rogers wrote:

>I've been thinking about "interests" and self-interest for several
>days now, because I've noticed that it seems very problematic.  I had
>not been aware that it was recognized as a problem by anyone else,
>and I'm curious to find out more about the state of thought on the

I don't think I can clarify the general state of thought on the question of
interests but I have tried to come to terms with some of the issues
involved. My problem is largely that I haven't yet tried to boil down my
ideas to a concise presentation. Justin and I recently exchanged a few
thoughts in private in pursuit of the conversation you cited Lisa, and
though he suggested we pursue it on the list I was reluctant to do so.
However, given that you have raised the issue explicitly, I will try to make
a start at addressing some of the points you raise.

Lisa wrote:

>If preferences are what you think you want, but interests are what is
>really good for you (not morally "good") then what is good for one?
>Defined how and by whom?  Is it good for the individual or the group?
> Which group, how large, and when is it in the interests of an
>individual to give up something private for "the good of the group"?
> Measured by what and over what timespan?
>It seems important to me because socialists are trying to persuade
>people that it "is in their own interests" to do this or that, and I
>suspect that it is not only due to "false consciousness" or
>brainwashing that they do not buy it.  It may not really be in their
>own interests at all, depending on how that is defined.

My own starting point is the conviction that what we should want is for
everyone to have the right to judge their own best interests (I can think of
no other approach that is consistent with all forms of
"self-determination"), and to have as wide a range of options as is possible
for how to go about meeting them. I think that it is important to
distinguish between interests, needs and wants or preferences. Interests
seem to me to occupy a ground that is neither entirely objective nor
entirely subjective, neither completely "material" nor completely "ideal".
There are of course objective, material constraints on what is in our
interests. If we want to go on living then we need to eat, drink, etc. If
the species is to survive some of us at least need to procreate.

But, in terms of interests, it is possible to imagine situations where one
could legitimately think that it is in one's best interest to sacrifice
oneself for some greater good. For the sake of one's family, one's country,
one's class. If self-sacrifice can be in one's interest then the simple
matter of self-preservation, i.e. meeting one's needs, cannot exhaust the
terrain of interests. We get situations where what I would call "ideal"
considerations can override the "material" ones. Being the type of person
you are, you decide that it is better for you to sacrifice yourself than to
go on living under circumstances you find abhorrent. You believe that your
continued material existence is less important than living up to your ideals.

Considerations such as these lend an irreducible element of indeterminacy to
the question of interests. I can find no automatic reason to think that one
set of interests is necessarily more important to all people at all times,
be they class interests or interests based on identity, or other group
identification. What it is in my interests to do depends not only on what I
would like to see happen but also on what it is possible to accomplish at
any one point in time. The same seems to me to apply to groups. Group
interests are not necesarily more "objective" simply by virtue of being
relevant to aggregations of individuals. We might want to say that it is in
the interests of the working class to struggle for socialism, but in
practice socialism is a long way off, and we don't have too good an idea of
what it's going to look like. But yet we are forced to make decisions on
what to do on a day to day basis based on how we each assess our own best
interests. I am inclined to say that what we must do as socialists is to
make it become in the interests of the working class (and all oppressed
groups) to struggle for socialism.

There is much more to be said on this issue, and you raised several points
which are essential to clarify (the question of timespan, and false
consciousness amongst them), but I've got to leave it there for now. I hope
this is a useful start and that others will help take the debate further.

Howie Chodos

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