Self Interest

by Milo Clark

May 6, 2002


Self-interest, as such, is a reasonable approximation of human behaviors within scale. That is, self-interest is functional up to a point and dysfunctional thereafter.

Adam Smith was first and foremost a moral philosopher. Within a context of moral philosophy, western styles at least, self-interest has value, represents values.

Within scale, given the panoply of other than western styles, self-interest takes within itself a very wide variety of behaviors, organizing factors, constructs or concepts.

Given a scale within which 'self' is defined in terms of family, clan, tribe. . . community, that is something more than or rather than individual, focus shifts.

Given an operative actuality driven within, let us say, Buddhist concepts of wisdom and compassion, focus illuminates. Substitute any religions values and make them operative for similar outcome.

Two very large constructs are now presented: one, self-interest and two, value(s). Holding them only to questions of motivation and behavior, idea and action, direction is suggested, patterns converge, differences may emerge.

Self, in turn may be seen as one, individual and two, as some sort of collective along the lines of family, clan, tribe. . . community.

Value, in turn, may be seen as one, moral and two, philosophy. Look at them also in terms of inward-looking and outward-looking.

A key variable, a conditional variable that crosses and, in many ways, determines actualities is scale, size, numerical relationships. What are the operative actualities involved with scale? Arithmetic? Geometric? Exponential? Fractal?

One plus one equals two, no? No! One plus one equals two only within a certain mental construct seemingly based on observations hoary with tradition and given great weight by nearly everyone. Other constructs would see 'one' as beginning somewhere after 'zero' or nothing and ending somewhere less than more than one, perhaps up to the very edge of two. One plus one, in this construct, may equal nearly anything between more than one and less than two and extending a ways toward three. Silly? Also no.

Try Fibonacci for a while. Notice the fractal nature of actualities. Fibonacci is said to have realized his constructs through observing rabbits multiply. Familiar Fibonacci progressions begin at zero and move along by adding the next number to the previous number without repeating it. 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13. . . . Given form, these types of progressions make beautiful as well as pragmatic physical actualities. Walking the beauty way assumes actuality thereby.

That little excursion into what many would dismiss as abstraction, except for a possible basis in rabbit multiplication, is much closer to actualities in process than one plus one equaling two. If we collectively and individually are to break free of ourselves, a way may be through opening ourselves to other possibilities so that they may become probabilities.

Daniel Quinn (Ishmael, et seq.) notes that simple competition for space and food forces human history, human experience on this planet. Which is the sum of human behavior along lines available for examination through history. There appears to be a consistency of competition throughout recorded history which, please remember, is hardly a heartbeat in geological time. As with one plus one and two, try to visualize other possibilities as history: oral rather than written as only one example readily coming to mind.

Leopold Kohr notes that scale is the determinant of competitive outcomes. Scale in this sense is as much actual as thought and behavior as it is in terms of physical dimension. He concluded that when something is within scale appropriate to itself, it tends to 'work,' that is, be successful in accomplishing purpose. The present day buzzword is 'sustainable.' That, in actuality, presently dominant economic forms are unsustainable by definition describes our individual and collective being.

John Lukacs advises us to differentiate carefully between public sentiment and public opinion. Both nation and state as well as economy are recent human constructs, for example.

In terms of scale, it is possible although improbable that an individual as hermit, family as isolates, clan as deviants may, given very simple demands and needs, achieve some degree of self-sufficiency. Their success, if success that would be, most probably would be illusory in generational terms. It would, also, likely inspire envy or disdain. Amish and Mennonite come to mind. Hard to get MTV kids to stay down on the farm or ride a buggy along the highway.

It takes no great analytical skills to learn that much of what prevails, is dominant, at this moment in history is rooted in values of power more than morals. Its philosophy is that might makes right. Both power and might are cloaked in Orwellian terms as their opposites. The cloaking works.

Power uninformed by values, morals, ethics or philosophies based within them is as unsustainable within context as the presently dominant economic actualities are unrepresentative of individual, family, clan, tribe. . . community being for the vast majorities of humankind.

The cycles of history, rise, decline and falls of empires as well as local dynasties, also range through cycles of moral philosophy. Purity, if you will, inevitably gives way to impurity. The predictable outcome, nearly absolutely so, is rot. Rot is the self-fulfilling prophecies which make up history.

The links across successions may show that rot is the core of human experience. In market terms, it is hard to deny that rot has been a long-term best seller yet to become a mature brand.

With very rare, relatively isolated and quite transient exceptions tiny sparks of moral clarity fail to long enlighten humans as individuals or aggregations. Love thy neighbor as thyself plays out quite consistently as bugger thy neighbor. Christ and Mohammed, cross and crescent decorate war flags with impunity.

Conclusions, then, are rather simple to draw while difficult, if not impossible, to actualize.

Power, economics, politics, physical force uninformed by an outward looking moral philosophy remains unsustainable, transitory, illusory -- especially if it is you being victimized. When you are dead and yours destroyed, morals and philosophy are quite irrelevant.

Thus, Adam Smith, is known almost exclusively as the "Father of Capitalism" rather than as a moral philosopher.

There is nothing inherently wrong with Capitalism. It is the practices and those practicing which plague all but a tiny minority who benefit. It no longer serves the self-interests of more than a few. It is presently unenlightened by an outward looking moral philosophy. It now depends on a dominance of physical power for its survival.

As before, purity is adulterated. As has been said many times, many ways: Those who don't know, won't know history, are doomed to repeat it.


Passing note: it is reported that a current 'guy thing' on Oahu is to make a pilgrimage to the Arizona Memorial and Pearl Harbor exhibits near Honolulu. Similar pilgrimages are reported to the once twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.

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Milo Clark, a founding member of Swans, had it all: Harvard MBA, big house, three-car garage, top management... Yet, once he had seemingly achieved the famed American dream he felt something was missing somewhere. As any good executive he decided to investigate. Since then, he has become a curmudgeon and, after living in Berkeley, California, where he was growing bamboos, making water gardens, listening to muses, writing, cogitating and pondering, he has moved on to the Big Island in Hawaii where he creates thought forms about sunshine.

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Published May 6, 2002
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