jwalker jwalker at
Mon Apr 10 15:41:57 MDT 1995

Hello all -- couldn't resist a comment on the "interests" thread.

In my experience in political and moral philosophy, people use the term
"interests" as a way of referring to what's good for a person.  So what's
in a person's interest hovers between what she morally ought to do, and
what she just wants to do.  As far as I know nobody says that something
could be in your interest just in virtue of its being the morally right
thing to do, even if it is.

And practically no one says that what's in
your interest is just what you prefer at the moment -- except those who
want to reduce everything normative to preferences.  There seem to be too
many obvious, compelling cases of things that you want but aren't in your
interest, and things that you don't want but are in your interest.  (You
might make a factual mistake about how to pursue a goal you've got, for

About your question, Lisa: if our interests are what's good for us, then
what _is_ good for us?  I take it no completely general answer to that is
possible, because what is good for you will depend in some way on what
sort of person you are -- what goals you've got, and so forth, or on what
goals you would have in some idealized situation.

Of course, once you accept that we don't always know what's in our
interest, it becomes possible that others could know our interests better
than we do.  Which is how paternalism is often justified -- those to be
paternalized just don't see what's in their interests, perhaps due to
decades of being buried under mountains of capitalist (or
patriarchal, etc.) propaganda.

I think the language of interests is important, in part because it
provides one possible way of saying what's wrong with various systems of
oppression, and so why we should oppose them.  It's wrong for women to be
oppressed because it's not in women's interest to live under conditions
of oppression, whether or not women recognize this.  Similarly with the
working class.


John D. Walker
jwalker at

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