xid-5366656_2 - The benevolence of self-interest Critics of...

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The benevolence of self-interest Critics of economics often accuse the discipline of viewing people as mere optimising machines, as ethical nonentities. The charge would be serious if it were true—but it is in fact false Dec 10th 1998 HOW can economists expect to be taken seriously, non-economists are given to complain, when their model of man is so patently inadequate? Mainstream economics assumes that people are driven by the rational pursuit of self-interest. But, as everybody knows, people are not rational and they often act selflessly. Where in this view of man as desiccated calculating-machine is there recognition of the centrality of love, duty and self-sacrifice in human conduct? What use is a purported science of social behaviour that is blind to the necessary conditions for social behaviour? These questions would be telling if “rational” and “self-interest” meant what these critics take them to mean. But they do not. In mainstream economics, to say that people are rational is not to assume that they never make mistakes, as critics usually suppose. It is merely to say that they do not make systematic mistakes—ie, that they do not keep making the same mistake over and over again. And when economists talk of self-interest, they are referring not just to satisfaction of material wants, but to a broader idea of “preferences” that can easily encompass, among other things, the welfare of others. Even when the terms are properly understood, “rational pursuit of self-interest” is a simplifying
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This note was uploaded on 04/05/2012 for the course ECP 3302 taught by Professor Staff during the Fall '11 term at Florida State College.

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xid-5366656_2 - The benevolence of self-interest Critics of...

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