Timo Laine’s Journal

Taking life philosophically.

The selfishness of selfishnesses

22 July 2011

Like everyone knows, Adam Smith thought that by acting selfishly, people end up working for the common good. This is the famous idea of the invisible hand. The idea is commonly used to defend free markets and to justify selfishness.

In Finland — and as I assume, in other societies with a similar political culture — this idea has never been completely accepted. Even if the invisible hand mostly works, according to a Finn, it still needs a little help from the more visible hands of the government. Yet, it has become relatively acceptable to believe that selfishness is not always something totally immoral. This is why I was surprised to hear what the influential business coach Jari Sarasvuo said recently (article in Finnish).

Essentially, Sarasvuo believes that to keep Finland financially healthy, everyone needs to work more (even the children actually). Those who believe in the invisible hand would agree with him on this, and they would go on to say that people will work more once they are given enough selfish reasons to do so. However, Sarasvuo believes that selfishness itself is a part of the problem: he pinpoints the recent trend of “downshifting” as being nothing but selfishness.

It is important to keep things straight. Merely calling something selfish is not interesting, if it is not selfish in any interesting way. Sometimes selfishness is entirely justified. It depends both on the kind of selfishness it is and on the circumstances.

I believe that as a businessman, Sarasvuo has to be sympathetic to the idea of the invisible hand. Yet, he seems to make a significant qualification. Not any kind of selfishness is justified. According to him, the kind of selfishness we want is a kind of unselfish selfishness: we have a duty to be selfish to promote the common good. (Holy logical contradiction, Batman!) Downshifting is unacceptable because it is selfish selfishness, or being selfish for the wrong, selfish reasons, such as to spend more time with one’s family, on one’s hobbies or simply to relax.

I am guessing that the problem with selfishness was always that the competition between people would lead to strife. The invisible hand is a way to explain the fact that this is not always the case. However, with downshifting such fears are obviously not reasonable to begin with, as it can hardly lead to conflicts. Downshifters do not compete against each other for a limited resource; they merely take something that is already theirs — their time — and use it in the way they find the most meaningful.

In fact, if downshifting is motivated by selfishness, it is a kind of selfishness that is even easier to justify than the selfishness of the marketplace. It is selfishness aimed at understanding oneself, nurturing oneself, expressing oneself and connecting oneself with others. Without selfishness like this, even true, unselfish unselfishness is likely to be impossible.

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The journal of Timo Laine (contact information). Cultural commentary from the perspective of a philosophy student in Helsinki.

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