The idea of self-interest has played an extremely important role in theories and ideologies that advocate liberty. Advocates of freedom have frequently contended that liberty would benefit all people, thus claiming that it is to each person’s benefit to enact policies that enhance freedom. In this way, they have appealed to the self-interest of their audience. Sometimes, however, they have appealed to the altruistic impulses of those whom they are addressing, arguing that they should embrace liberty because it is good for their neighbors. In that case, the argument is that one should support a free society because it is in one’s neighbor’s self-interest. For either sort of argument, the idea of self-interest is an important one and raises similar issues. In particular, it raises the issue of what self-interest is: What is it for something to be good for a person?
To this question, libertarian thinkers have offered two broadly different sorts of answers, two families of theories that are separated not only by their content, but also by their widely different historical ancestries, each located in different intellectual disciplines. On the one hand, for several centuries, there has been a strong tendency to define the interests of the individual in terms of the facts about the individual’s own motivation: what is in one’s interest. The motivation involved, depending on the form one’s theory takes, might either be ex ante or ex post: One can say that what is in your interest is getting whatever it is you want before you managed to get it or, more plausibly, that it consists in possessing those things you have gotten and that you are satisfied with once having experienced the consequences of having gotten them. This approach has its roots in the innovations in psychology introduced by British philosophers of the post-Renaissance period, especially Thomas Hobbes and the empiricists. Its appeal is further enhanced by the influence of Immanuel Kant, who was in these matters strongly influenced by the British. The view is extremely widespread among economists.
This approach, which might be called “the desire or preference satisfaction view,” has been rejected by other theorists, among them many philosophers. They point out that it is easy to want or prefer things that are not good for the person who wants or prefers them. People who are satisfied with what they have may therefore be living in a fool’s paradise. What suggests that this view is plausible is that the pain of unsatisfied desires is not the only thing that can spoil a person’s well-being. It also can be spoiled by the fact that one’s general level of functioning has been damaged or degraded in some way. Plato asks his readers whether they would be willing to be transformed into so many fully contented oysters. If not, then maybe well-being, as they understand it, does not consist simply in the pleasure of satisfied desires or preferences.
The alternative approach takes as its starting point the notion that there is a mode of functioning that is appropriate to human beings, which in most versions of the theory includes thinking and/or acting rationally. What is really in one’s interests is, most crucially, to function in this way as well as one can. The most frequently cited instance of this sort is no doubt Aristotle’s notion of eudaimonia, variously translated as “happiness” or “flourishing.” The historical roots of this tradition are to found in the tradition of ancient Greek philosophy that includes Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics.
Many libertarian thinkers have been suspicious, with good reason, of the visionary view, as this approach might be called. Historically, many of the defenders of this perspective, including Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and Karl Marx, have failed to be sympathetic to individual freedom. We can see one likely reason for this lack of sympathy by contrasting this view with the subjective preference view. If we suppose that people should, as far as possible, attain what is in their interests, then the desires or preferences view seems to immediately create a presumption in favor of liberty. After all, desires and preferences are likely to differ from one person to the next. Individuals are likely to know more about their own wants and preferences than is some master-mind who wishes to plan their lives. The most likely route to their getting what is good for them would seem to be to leave them free to act on their own impulses. Suppose, in contrast, that a major component of well-being is to carry out a mode of functioning that is appropriate to human beings in general. That supposition does not seem to have the same libertarian implications: If there is an “appropriate” mode of functioning, then it does seem to be the sort of thing that some philosopher might have a better grasp of than would people who have no outstanding knowledge or mental skills. At least on the face of it, it would appear that this view could be used to empower the philosopher to force this mode of functioning on everyone. Some people will not like it, but one’s likes and dislikes are not, according to the visionary view, the whole story concerning whether something is in one’s best interests. Whether one’s way of living is suitable to a human being is more important.
Still, it is not easy to say that libertarians should simply drop the visionary view altogether in favor of the subjective preference view. To the extent that the case for liberty rests on an appeal to people’s understanding of what is in their interests, the latter view suffers from an obvious rhetorical disadvantage. To promise people that they will get what they want, regardless of what it is that they want, seems less inspiring; indeed, it seems positively ignoble, compared with the promise that they will be able to live in a way that is commensurate with their standing as human beings. It is perhaps for this reason that the proponents of liberty who have had large followings, who have influenced numbers of people outside the narrow confines of some academic specialty (such as economics)—proponents like John Stuart Mill, Henry David Thoreau, and Ayn Rand—have all to one extent or other made use of the visionary conception of self-interest.
Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. H. Rackham, trans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1926.
Mill, John Stuart. “On Liberty.” The Philosophy of John Stuart Mill: Ethical, Political, and Religious. Marshall Cohen, ed. New York: Modern Library, 1961.
Rand, Ayn. The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism. New York: Signet, 1964.
Rasmussen, Douglas, and Douglas J. Den Uyl. Liberty and Nature: An Aristotelian Defense of Liberal Order. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1991.
Schlick, Moritz. Problems of Ethics. David Rynin, trans. New York: Dover, 1939.
Smith, Tara. Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Originally published .