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Why Self-Interest Makes Relationships Valuable

Daniel Tippens argues that our self-interestedness has a positive side after all.

In Socrates’ culture of Fourth Century BCE Athens, if someone awaiting execution was actually executed, it could look pretty bad for his friends. It could look like they hadn’t tried hard enough to save him.

In Plato’s dialogue Crito, Socrates has been imprisoned and does await his execution. As expected, Socrates’ wealthy friend Crito goes to see him to inform him that arrangements have been made smuggle him out. However, Socrates refuses Crito’s assistance to escape, on the grounds that if he were to evade his sentence he would be violating his tacit agreement with the state to abide by its laws and penalties, which would render his escape unjust. Instead, Socrates decides he must stay and receive his punishment. So Socrates was executed, and Crito was left to face the social repercussions.

Most discussions about this dialogue revolve around what just actions are and whether or not Socrates’ death was just. But when I first heard this story, I was curious about two other things. First, was Crito’s attempt to break Socrates out of prison driven primarily by the self-interested desire to uphold his reputation? Second, if Socrates believed that Crito was acting primarily out of self-interest, how would this make him feel?

We sometimes find ourselves, or see others, in situations at least somewhat analogous to the one I ascribed to Crito. We see doctors prescribing ineffective or overpriced drugs in order to stay on some pharmaceutical company’s payroll; or we see people networking – that is, appearing to help others in order to advance their own career. We even have the expression ‘nothing in life is free’, capturing the belief that nobody is ever going to do something just to improve your well-being – they will at best only appear to do so. Perhaps most actions people perform are ultimately self-interested.

In this article I would like to highlight the bright side of believing that most of peoples’ actions are self-interested. To be more specific, I think that believing that most actions are not driven by purely altruistic desires has a bright side to it: that this fact makes true friendships and loving relationships much more valuable. If our motivation-distribution were any different – that is, if we always acted altruistically or we always acted out of self-interest – these putatively valuable kinds of relationships would lose something that gives them a lot of value.

First, I will draw a few helpful distinctions to hone in on the relevant concepts. Second, I will look at some reasons for believing that most of our actions don’t stem from altruistic motives. Finally, I will explain how this makes friendships and loving relationships more valuable.

What Are Self-Interested Actions?


Two commonly conflated concepts are selfish desires and self-interested desires. Let’s say I want to go to college to improve my chances of future employment. Most would say that this isn’t selfish of me; however, it is self-interested. That is to say, desiring to go to college doesn’t evidently mean I desire to limit or harm others in order to bring myself benefits; rather, it means I desire to benefit myself, whilst being neutral with regards to the effect on other people. By contrast, a selfish desire is a desire to benefit myself through limiting or harming another. We can all agree that if I steal from you, I’m being selfish – my benefit came at your cost. With this in mind, I will use ‘self-interested’ to include both self-interested actions and selfish actions. However, this definition of ‘self-interested’ is still too narrow for my purposes. Although it will seem counterintuitive at first, I am going to broaden what I mean by ‘self-interested’ even further. In order for me to do this, we will need to consider two common kinds of non-self-interested desires that many of us intuitively think we frequently act on the basis of.

The first kind of non-self-interested motive is purely altruistic: a desire to benefit another without desiring any benefit in return. A soldier who jumps on a grenade to save the life of his brethren-in-arms is intuitively acting from an altruistic desire. The other kind of non-self-interested desire would be a principled desire; this is a desire to uphold some principle for its own sake, despite your belief that you will receive no benefits. In this you act out of principle. Socrates would have been acting on a principle: he wanted to perform the just act of accepting his execution – despite possibly knowing that it would bring neither him nor anyone else benefits.

For the purposes of this article, I will consider principled desires as being self-interested. It may seem odd to call a principled desire self-interested, since when you act out of principle you aren’t necessarily acting to benefit yourself in any way; but I will consider it self-interested merely for convenience. However, what will matter for my argument is that most of our desires don’t stem from altruistic motives – from the desire to help others. So for convenience, principled desires that are not desires to help others can be grouped together with self-interested desires, as non-altruistic.

Are Most Of Our Actions Self-Interested?

I don’t know about you, but when I am reflecting on the fact, I find that I act out of self-interest a lot more than I would otherwise care to admit. For instance, I find that I network frequently – meaning that I may appear to act altruistically whilst really acting to advance my career. Of course this doesn’t prove that most of our actions are self-interested, so let me cite some empirical evidence to support that claim.

Jesus told a parable commonly known as ‘The Good Samaritan’. In this parable, a severely injured man left on the side of the road is passed by a priest and a Levite. Priests were supposed to be moral: they were expected to behave altruistically more often than not. Levites, who were the practical assistants to the priests, were expected to act similarly. However, both of these people passed by the injured man without coming to his aid. Yet a Samaritan – a member of a group of people hated by Jesus’s target audience – came by, took pity on the injured man, and helped him.

In their article ‘From Jerusalem to Jericho’ in JPSP #27 (1973), social psychologists J.M. Darley and C.D. Batson speculate that perhaps the explanation for the actions of the holy men in comparison to the Samaritan, was that the Samaritan had the time to help the injured man, whilst the priest and the Levite did not; the holy men were in a hurry to get to the Temple. More generally, they argue that whether or not people behave altruistically may depend on whether or not they have some other self-interested desire to satisfy, and that the self-interested desire will frequently trump the altruistic desire.

To test this idea, in 1973 Darley and Batson told two groups of subjects studying for the (Catholic) priesthood that they had to give a talk in a nearby building on either seminary jobs or the Good Samaritan. In both groups of subjects, different ‘hurriedness’ conditions were applied: some in either group were told that they were already late for the talk, whilst others were told that they had a few minutes to get to the talk, and should head over. On their way to the other building, a ‘victim’ was slumped, moaning and coughing in a doorway the subjects had to pass through.

Strikingly, Darley and Batson found that the primary factor that determined whether or not subjects would stop to help the victim was how much in a hurry the subjects were: when they were in a hurry, they were much less likely to stop and help the victim. The topic of the talk didn’t make any difference! Even when subjects were told that they were going to give a talk on the Good Samaritan, this didn’t cause increased altruism. Generally, for most subjects, the self-interested desire trumped whatever altruistic desires they may have had. Given that in this case in particular it should seem obvious that we should act altruistically, and we don’t, surely it follows that we wouldn’t act altruistically in many situations that don’t so obviously demand it? Accordingly, it seems reasonable that in most situations, our self-interested desires trump our altruistic desires in a similar way.

What about that subset of non-altruistic desires I called ‘principled’ desires? Do we frequently act out of principle? A famous experiment known as the Ultimatum Game seems to support the idea that we do.

The experiment goes as follows: Two players are placed in locations that prevent them from seeing each other. One player is allocated $100 by the experimenters, and the other player is not given any money. Call the person who gets $100 John, and the person given nothing Sarah. Sarah is told that John has been given $100. John and Sarah are both told that John must make an offer to Sarah before he can keep any money. He is to offer Sarah some portion of his money, and should Sarah accept his offer, she keeps what she was offered, and John keeps the rest. However, should Sarah reject his offer, both participants will leave with nothing.

The rational thing for the Sarahs to do is to accept the offer no matter what it is (as long as it is more than nothing). After all, whatever John offers her, she will walk away with more money than she would otherwise have had. However, it turns out that if the Johns low-ball the Sarahs by offering anything below about $30, most Sarahs will reject it. This suggests that Sarahs are acting from some principle of fairness – that although neither Sarah nor John will benefit from Sarah’s rejection of a low offer, Sarahs feels that a low offer is unfair and decline it out of principle. It is possible that the Sarahs are suppressing their immediate self-interested desires with the instinctive hope of satisfying a higher-yield self-interested desire for John to offer more money, even though the experiment is set up so that this isn’t an option. But even if this were the explanation, it doesn’t help the claim that most of our actions stem from altruistic desires, and indeed, offers support against it.

The Principle of Rarity

It looks like the claim that most of our actions result from non-altruistic motives has some convincing empirical support. You might feel some concern for humanity if you accept this conclusion, but I want to argue that it has a bright side to it.

First, I want you to think about a principle that makes some things valuable, which I call the principle of rarity. Then I will try to show why the fact that most of our actions are self-interested allows the principle of rarity to make our friendships and loving relationships more valuable.

The principle of rarity is a bit of a mouthful:

The principle of rarity: For any given thing X which is neither intrinsically bad, nor practically bad, nor morally bad, X is more valuable if it is rare. Or put positively, if X is morally good, or is intrinsically or practically good (but not morally so), then X is more valuable if it is rare.

This needs a bit of unpacking.

First, what does ‘intrinsic value’ mean, and why does it matter?

If something is intrinsically bad, for example, this means that it is bad for its own sake. In other words, absent any over-riding pragmatic reasons, we will want to avoid it. For example, many have claimed that an experience of unpleasantness is intrinsically bad insofar as we all want to avoid it as long as there is no overwhelming practical reason for us to want it. So suppose an evil surgeon captures me and says that he’s going to perform a potentially painful and unpleasant operation on me. He gives me two options: either I can choose to have a painless operation, or I can choose to endure painful surgery. All of us would opt for the absence of the pain since it wouldn’t benefit us in any way. Even though in some circumstances pain can bring us benefits, such as causing us to care for an injured part of the body, when there is no practical reason for it, we don’t want it. The experience of unpleasantness is intrinsically bad. This matters here because if something is intrinsically bad, then the fact that it’s rare would not add value to it. For instance, our olfactory experience of a skunk’s spray is rare, but its scarcity in our lives does not add value to the experience when we do have it.

Now by ‘no intrinsic moral value’, I mean something that has no moral value at all. For example, rocks don’t have any moral value. Indeed, it would be a category mistake to think that they do; a rock isn’t the kind of thing that could have moral standing. Yet non-moral things can still derive value from the principle of rarity. The Grand Canyon, Greek statues, or Roman triumphal arches might all be considered non-moral, yet they are valued more because there is a paucity of them. Or again, rare intrinsically good (that is, pleasant) gustatory experiences, say of a rare dessert, are more valuable than other more common intrinsically good gustatory experiences.

Now you might think that what determines the higher value of all of these things is the fact that they have aesthetic value, but I don’t think that’s right. Many flowers are beautiful; but the rare middle-mist red flower is even more valuable because it is rare.

What about the ‘non-morally bad’ condition in the principle, and why does it matter? Well, we intuitively think that for morally bad actions, the possibility that they are rare wouldn’t make them more valuable. For example, the actions of the Ku Klux Klan are rare, but that certainly doesn’t make us value them. Since the actions of the KKK are morally repugnant, they aren’t in the class of things that could have value added to them by rarity. By contrast, morally good things can have value added to them due to their rarity. For example, in addition to the fact that we value them for their moral goodness, the morally praiseworthy actions of Martin Luther King or Gandhi are even more valuable to us because they are rare. So things that are good, both in moral and non-moral terms, can derive additional value when they are rare.

The principle of rarity shouldn’t come as a surprise to us, as we seem to adopt the principle in our day-to-day lives. Zoos capitalize on it. We even come up with words to denote things that derive much of their value from the fact that they are rare, such as ‘delicacy’.

Where Much of the Value in Relationships Comes From

So we’ve endorsed the principle of rarity’s claim about what kinds of things can have more value due to their rarity. Assuming you’re on board with this, I now turn to the question of why friendships and loving relationships are valuable. For simplicity I am going to focus on friendships, but will extend my argument to loving relationships briefly at the end. As you have probably guessed, I think that what at least partially constitutes the value of these kinds of relationships is that there’s something rare about them.

Some have claimed that what constitutes friendship is consistent altruistic behavior toward the friend. We can at least say that friendship obtains when we act on the basis of desires to benefit the other without desiring some return significantly more frequently than normal. Call this the skewed altruism view. On this view, what constitutes a friendship is that each member in the relationship acts on the basis of an abnormally-skewed-toward-altruism ratio of altruistic to self-interested desires. Even if you don’t think skewed altruism is what constitutes a friendship, it does seem at least that friendships consistently yield skewed altruism, and so this can still be a cause of value in our friendships. Indeed, I frequently go out of my way to help my friends, and they tend to do the same for me.

Many readers might be thinking that, actually, friendships are constituted by what is known as reciprocal altruism. However, in reciprocal altruism, one may benefit another with the ultimate desire to have some benefit returned. This is a self-interested motivation. Networking could be an example of this sort of reciprocal altruism. Genuine altruism, on the other hand, is characterized by the desire to benefit another without expecting to be benefitted as a result. If the benefit is reciprocated, then all well and good; but it doesn’t expect that reciprocation, nor is it motivated by any such expectation.

Now it’s very difficult to test whether or not someone is acting from genuine or reciprocal altruism. After all, any putative case of genuine altruism could be reciprocally-motivated altruism in disguise. Consequently, introspective arguments and intuitions must suffice to support the claim I’m going to make about genuine altruism. I hope I can convince you with these tools.

Imagine that you have a best friend called Brad. Without you knowing it, tragically, Brad has become paralyzed and mute. Now imagine moreover that you are a subject in the Good Samaritan experiment, and that when you are sent off to give your talk, the victim moaning on the ground in your path is Brad. You see him coughing and expressing pain. I can’t be sure about you, but I would immediately assist Brad without expecting any return. Indeed, even after I recognize that due to his condition Brad cannot bring me any benefits in return, I would still want to help him. I wouldn’t even ask myself, ‘Should I help him out of principle, since he is a friend?’ before rushing to help. No! I would behave with genuine altruism toward Brad, principles or self-interest be damned. This itself shows that friends seem to behave genuinely altruistically more frequently toward each other than toward strangers. This isn’t to say that we never act from the expectation of reciprocal altruism in friendships; it is only to show that we behave out of genuine altruism significantly more frequently than normal. I contend, then, that friends demonstrate a rare frequency of genuine altruism toward one another.

Altruistic actions are thought to be morally good, and so they are candidates for the principle of rarity. Most of us believe that altruism is morally good. I suppose if you thought that altruistic actions were always morally bad, then my argument wouldn’t go through for you; but I am willing to bet that most of you, if not all, won’t bite that bullet. You might also think that perhaps the fact that we act out of principle much more frequently in friendships – we act on the principle that we ought to help our friends – makes friendships more valuable. However, as we have seen from the Ultimatum Game, acting out of principle happens frequently, so the principle of rarity wouldn’t apply here. Also, acting out of principle isn’t unique to friendships. We act out of principle in countless situations, so it is hard to see why principled actions would make friendships in particular more valuable.

What makes friendships valuable, then, is rather that they contain a higher-than-normal frequency of genuine altruism, and genuine altruism is extremely rare. In this world of mostly self-interested behavior, when Jon or Nathaniel consistently behave genuinely altruistically toward me, and I toward them, I value these friendships so much more. The same applies to loving relationships. If I love Jenny, then I will behave genuinely altruistically toward her much more frequently than I would with other people, and she will do the same to me if she loves me.

This is a way to see the glass as half full. Sure it’s the case that most of the time we act to satisfy self-interested desires; but this makes our friendships and loving relationships rare havens for altruism – haven that we should, and I think do, cherish deeply.

© Daniel Tippens 2016

Daniel Tippens is a research technician in the S. Arthur Localio laboratory at New York University School of Medicine. He is also an editor for the online magazine The Electric Agora.

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