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To Act in My Own Interest, Or Not?
How Humans Deal With Conflicts of Interest (Part 1)

Published December 15th, 2010
MINE: To Act In My Own Interest, Or Not?

For several years now, I've been troubled by how humans define the concept of "conflict of interest." My concern has grown as I've realized the importance humans seem to place on avoiding "it", or, at times, even the "appearance of it." The more thought I've given to the topic, the more confused I've become. My confusion stems from the observation that whether or not someone has a conflict of interest seems to depend on who is asking the question, what the context is, and whether or not the answer is in that person's own interest or not.  

Even more confusing is the paradox whereby humans believe that allowing a conflict of interest can be wrong in case A but right in case B. Again, the paradox may only be resolved if one assumes that the perspective of the believer is what determines the judgment of right or wrong.

Let me be a little more specific.

In most situations where humans raise the spectre that someone may have a "conflict of interest," the implicit notion is that having such a conflict is bad and should be avoided. Examples here are cases where a judge may issue a ruling that is in his own interest but not necessarily that of the conflicting parties. Or where a public official makes spending decisions that stand to benefit himself—or his friends, family, supporters, etc.—but not necessarily those who are supposed to benefit from the spending.

Most people I've talked to seem to think that this notion is obvious—that weighing such conflicts of interest in one's favor is wrong and should be avoided. As will become plain later in this essay, I certainly do not disagree with this notion.

On the other hand, either consciously or unconsciously, most humans in modern, West-European-modeled societies entertain notions of conflict of interest that, to my Martian mind, seem antithetical to the the one they espouse publicly. In this less-than-conscious notion, acting in one's own interest is something that society, instead of outlawing, should actually encourage, since acting in one's own interest is a natural human tendency that can't be legislated away. Not only that, but acting in one's own interest is viewed as ultimately the same as acting in everyone's interest.

This belief is the very basis of the dominant economic system of what are called "Western" societies. Capitalism would be far less effective, it is argued, if people were encouraged to consider anything other than their own interest in making personal choices, such as purchase and investment decisions.

In reading literature that explains the rise and rationale of Capitalism, texts keep returning to a writer called Adam Smith, whose 1776 book, The Wealth of Nations, was particularly influential. Phrases from that book are frequently quoted to explain why the motive of self-interest is so beneficial to a strong Capitalist system. For example:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.

The most famous quote from Smith's book on this subject puts the notion of self-interest in a macro foundation he famously labeled "The Invisible Hand":

By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was not part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.

Smith's promotion of self-interest as a core virtue in economic transactions became one of the central concepts of Capitalism. Unfortunately, the most influential modern spokesmen for Capitalism seize on self-interest as the rallying cry, neglecting various other central ideas Smith expounded in building his argument. Clearly, it is in the self-interest of the wealthiest and most powerful of a Capitalist society to argue that greed (which itself relies on blind self-interest) is a virtue (or, euphemistically, as a "necessary evil"), but it seems surprising that even humans of modest means agree with them. And none of those who subscribe to this argument perceive the central Martian concept that making the pursuit of one's personal interest the foundation of a society's culture is ultimately—and, apparently to most humans, unintuitively—counter to one's ultimate interests.

Again, though Smith is pilloried by many humans who oppose laisse-faire Capitalism, he is hardly the demon of self-centered greed that most of his ardent followers are today. In his first major book, The Theory of Moral Sentiment, which he “always considered ... a much superior work to his Weaith of Nations,” Smith explains that the pursuit of wealth and power is not a worthy goal in itself. Referring to the universal human desire for respect and acclaim by one's peers, Smith writes:

Two different roads are presented to us, equally leading to the attainment of this so much desired object: the one, by the study of wisdom and the practice of virtue; the other, by the acquisition of wealth and greatness. Two different characters are presented to our emulation: the one, of proud ambition and ostentatious avidity; the other, of humble modesty and equitable justice. Two different models, two different pictures, are held out to us, according to which we may fashion our own character and behaviour; the one more gaudy and glittering in its colouring; the other more correct and more exquisitely beautiful in its outline: the one forcing itself upon the notice of every wandering eye; the other, attracting the attention of scarce any body but the most studious and careful observer. They are the wise and the virtuous chiefly, a select, though, I am afraid, but a small party, who are the real and steady admirers of wisdom and virtue. The great mob of mankind are the admirers and worshippers, and, what may seem more extraordinary, most frequently the disinterested admirers and worshippers, of wealth and greatness.

When Smith was formulating his philosophy in the late 18th Century, Christianity defined the dominant moral code in Western Europe—in both religious and political spheres of society—so his ideas naturally reflected that influence. And the idea at the core of Jesus Christ's teachings is that humans should reject self-interest and embrace an affection for one's neighbors and fellow planet dwellers as the highest virtue. At least in his writings, Smith states a contrary, more truly Christian view, which clearly counterbalances the promotion of self-interest in his overall life view:

And hence it is, that to feel much for others and little for ourselves, that to restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature; and can alone produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole grace and propriety. As to love our neighbour as we love ourselves is the great law of Christianity, so it is the great precept of nature to love ourselves only as we love our neighbour, or what comes to the same thing, as our neighbour is capable of loving us.

That the core teachings of Christianity run so contrary to human nature explains how so many humans can call themselves Christians while simultaneously worshiping at the altar of self-interest, working feverishly to accumulate personal wealth and power—seemingly to the exclusion of all other concerns. Many vocal leaders of the Christian churches provide an easy, self-interested rationale to justify this hypochrisy.  In particular, a recently deceased evangelist called Oral Roberts is often cited as the founder of televangelism, based on the notion that there is no moral conflict between the pursuit of wealth and a belief in the teachings of Christ. Roberts apparently based his misguided philosophy on this passage from the Bible's Third Epistle of John:

I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.

Roberts wasn’t shy about sharing the story whereby as a struggling 29-year-old pastor, he read this passage, decided it meant that being rich was a worthy goal, and, as if to celebrate, bought himself a new Buick the following day.

How could any Christian take Oral Roberts seriously? On Mars, it's clear that a philosophy such as Roberts’ is nothing but a self-serving misdirection from the teachings of the religion's founding prophet. What I didn't understand until recently is that humans who choose to follow ministers like Roberts and his many emulators are simply not interested in being Christians, except in name. Such are delighted to realize that their religion spares them the agony of always keeping their self-interest in check.

This essay is the first of a series that will explore some specific cases where Western societies legislate to prevent "conflict of interest," and perhaps more interestingly, where they do not. The cases will be examined in the light of the way self-interest is perceived by individual humans, as well as by humans grouped into various, possibly overlapping, personal and business relationships. 

In reporting these ideas to my Martian peers, I am particularly interested in trying to sort out how humans rationalize the conflict between their own personal interests and the interests of broader layers of society. Is there a boundary that defines the point at which a human will give up pursuing his own self-interest and throw his lot in with the interest of a larger group? If so, there are probably different boundaries for the human clusters of increasing size that radiate outward to encompass the entire planet. 

Is there a point beyond which the majority of humans will not pass if it means abandoning their own interests? Or does everyone eventually perceive the point at which personal interests become irrelevant, and mutual interests merge?

Some humans reading this will undoubtedly argue that all of this is perfectly obvious, and such an exploration a waste of time and an unworthy intellectual pursuit. 

To those I say, please understand how we Martians think. On a fundamental level, Martian culture reflects some notions that are viewed as "naive" by humans who express their thoughts charitably, or as "sucker-bait," "gullible," or "dupable" by those who don't.

  • Before making any decision, from the personal level on up, Martians are expected to consider the decision's possible repercussions on fellow Martians and on the planetary resources on which they depend. The idea of having to make laws to enforce the runaway pursuit of one's self-interest is quite foreign.
  • Outside of the pursuit of pleasure, knowledge, and family harmony, the primary motivation of Martians is finding a life's work that suits one's personal gifts, and then working as hard as possible to make sure that the products of one's labor reflect the highest quality one can achieve. It is believed that in this way, one will naturally be rewarded by success and by enough wealth to ensure happiness.

Possible future sources of inquiry in this series include:

  • Consider a case where a private company is awarded a contract by a national government agency to help fulfill part of its basic mission. Clearly, the agency's interest is in fulfilling its mission as best it can within the constraints of its budget and its spectrum of resources. The agency's interest, however, is not the same as that of a private contractor, whose primary interest is in maximizing profit.
  • When lawmakers for the U.S. Congress make laws, whose interests are they serving? If their expensive campaign was financed by certain private groups, companies, or industry associations, isn't it in the lawmaker's interest to promote the interests of these financiers? If so, what impact does the interest of the broader mass of the legislator's voters make in decisionmaking? What if the lawmaker disagrees with the views of those who financed his campaign? And to what groups does the lawmaker refer when he inveighs against the "special interests"?
  • Suppose you're a Congressman who is asked to vote on a law that would reduce your income opportunities, while also restricting your access to fundraisers and lobbyists? If the majority of legislators were to make self-interest the guidepost of their decisionmaking, such a law would never be passed.
  • Is it appropriate for a profit-motivated company to be responsible for activities whose purpose is to promote the general welfare? This is a fairly common arrangement in the United States, as far as I can see, but it strikes me as a potentially disastrous conflict-of-interest situation. Obvious examples are private companies engaged in providing basic health care or education to the public.
  • What about the widespread situation where a monopoly company, or an oligopoly of companies, fulfills societies basic needs for infrastructure—such as electricity, inter-networking, water, and services distributed by radio waves? How about roads, bridges, airports, rail systems, and air travel? To what extent can these infrastructure requirements be compromised if fulfilled by companies motivated solely by profit?

That's it for now. More later.

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