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

Justin Schwartz jschwart at freenet.columbus.oh.us
Mon Apr 10 19:46:47 MDT 1995

On Mon, 10 Apr 1995, Howie Chodos wrote:

> 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"),

Seems to me that the non-paternalist moral point about allowing people to
do what they like, other things being equal, is quite independent from the
point about what's good for them. Nonpaternalism means that people may
make misztakes and do things which are not good for them. But to be able
to say this, we need an independent notion of what is good for them. I
agree with Howie and J.S. Mill that in general people should (and do) have
the right to "judge their own interests," but that doesn't mean that what
peoiple judge to be in their interests is in fact good for them. White
workers may think that opposing affirmative action
is good for them, and while this may be
true in the short term or qua whites or individuals, we might think they
are mistaken insofar as AA might create conditions for class unity between
minorities and whites or women and women in the struggle against capital.
In short, we don't want to throw the theory of ideology overboard on moral
grounds. Nonpaternalism is good ethics, but not a social theory.

 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.

All of these are distinct. "Preferences" are something cooked up by
rational choice theorists to explain behavior. Wants are one of a range of
commonsense conative states which we use to explain simple actions in folk
psychology--there are others, like loves and hates, cravings, wishes,
hopes, fears, and lots of other things. (Preferences are arrived at by
abstracting everything from these states but a "pro" or "con" attitude
towards an outcome.) Needs are things the lack of which will harm us. This
is obvioiusly closely linked to interests: it is in our interests to get
the things we need, against our interests to be deprived of them.

(You see, I used to do philosophy of mind....)

> 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.

Well there is more to need than self-preservation. Things can harm me
without threatening my life. But more, I have interests (and needs) as a
member of the groups I belong to or identify with. Self-sacrifice, so
called, may involve harm to my individual interests but promote my group
interests. (Actually, Lisa, it is because this is so common that I think
that group interests are primarey over individual ones.) But I would not
identify my needs with my individual interests. Capitalists need profits.
That's a group interest.

 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.
The relkation between ideals and interests is very delicate. Living up to
one's ideals may be in one's interests, if, say, life would not be worth
living if one didn't. Since ideals are generally constituted by group
membership--e.g., being honorable or brave or heroic or whatever--this
suggests even more strongly that needs should nbot be understood merely in
individualistic, biological terms. Incidentally ideals may be deplorable.
The SS had an ideal, "My honor is loyalty" (to the Fuehrer), which is
comtemptable. We find the ancient Greek ideal of thye warrior hero
horrific: if you met Achilles, you'd thgink him a vainglorious homicidal
psychopath. Or think of the American Marlboro Man ideal of being "a real man."

> 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.

Quite right. It is a further question whether some set of interests tends
to predominate in the long run. Marxian class analysis depends on the
truth of the proposition that in the long run and in general--not always
and not necessarily in the short run--class interest will win out.

 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.

An aggregation is not a group. See Marx on why the French peasantry isn't
a class--this in The Class Struggles in France.

 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.

Well, if socialis, is feasible and would be better, then it is in their
interests. But Howie here raises an important point: it may not be in
their interests to struggle for it. This turns on what rational choice
theorists (game theorists in particular) call a public goods problem.
Giving the costs to each worker of the struggle and the fact that all will
enjoy the benefits (socialism) of its success, it may be rational for each
of us to let everyone else struggle for socialism while we free ride. If
we all do that, then we don't get struggle or socialism. How to beat this
problem is a key one for socialists. (See here Alan Buchanan on
"Revolutionary Motivation and Rationality" in his Marx and Justice.)

While I'm suggesting reading, on ideals, see Liz Anderson, Value in Ethics
and Economics.

--Justin Schwartz

"In the interests of the workinbg people." (The masthead of The Masses,
pre-WWI radical paper.)

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