Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Why Self-Interest Is Utilitarian

Posted by Michael Dickens on September 11, 2010

Utilitarianism is commonly misunderstood as mandating that we value others above ourselves. In fact, it means we should value others equally to ourselves; not above, and not below.

According to Utilitarianism, we ought to maximize overall happiness. This could mean our own happiness, or it could mean the happiness of others. But there are quite good reasons why we should be interested in our own happiness.

You have better knowledge than anyone about what makes you happy. I have better knowledge than anyone about what makes me happy. Since I don’t know what makes you happy as well as you do, my efforts to make you happy will inevitably be less successful than your efforts to make yourself happy. I don’t have as good of knowledge about what makes a person happy as that person himself does, but I have excellent knowledge about what makes me happy. Therefore, the best thing — the Utilitarian thing — to do is for each of us to expend most of our efforts trying to maximize our own happiness. That way, overall happiness will be benefited more than if we all tried to work towards someone else’s happiness and ended up doing a sub-par job.

Of course, it’s often possible for me to make you happy in a way that you couldn’t have made yourself happy. In that case, the best thing would be for me to make you happy in that way. But any such effort will be inefficient. Perhaps there’s something that I think will make you happy, but it really won’t be as effective as I had hoped. I should still spend some time trying to make you (and others) more happy, but I should spend most of my time working on myself because that’s where I have the most power. YOU are the one with the most ability to make yourself happy, so that’s where your focus should lie.

In addition, personal growth is just that — personal. No one else can give it to you; you have to find it for yourself. As personal growth is one of the highest forms of happiness, it makes sense to spend much of your time working towards your own enlightenment. That’s actually one of the best ways to maximize overall happiness.

I am not advocating selfishness. Rather, I am advocating working towards overall happiness — and reminding you to include yourself in the measure of overall happiness.


One Response to “Why Self-Interest Is Utilitarian”

  1. A relevant quotation:

    Each of us is intimately familiar with our own individual wants and needs. Moreover, each of us is uniquely placed to pursue those wants and needs effectively. At the same time, we know the desires and needs of others only imperfectly, and we are not well situated to pursue them. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that if we set out to be ‘our brother’s keeper,’ we would often bungle the job and end up doing more mischief than good.

    – James Rachels

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