Self-Interest – A vital ingredient of Capitalism

A capitalist system cannot survive, not to mention thrive, WITHOUT a leader’s intrinsic drive to pursue their own self-interest.

I have witnessed and participated in many debates and arguments about this term down through my career. I have often seen people in spirited arguments with each other, using very blunt language. In most cases the vocabulary used never enabled them to accurately represent their points of view. Lots of buttons get pushed when leaders use blunt language full of trigger words. These words simply serve to accelerate the engagements to a negative downward spiral, often based on a misinterpretation, bad assumptions or people attacking/defending VS listening.
So in an effort to bring some clarity and support a more healthy discourse, I decided to define what I believe is meant by self-interest. To contrast it I also define selfishness, which I regard as its somewhat sinister next door neighbor.

Self Interest: Being mindful of and pursuing one’s needs and desires while being guided by a calibrated societal moral compass that minimizes the exploitation of others.
Selfish: Being excessively obsessed and pursuing one’s own needs and desires, void of a moral compass and with little empathy, sympathy, or concern for the impact on others.
Almost any student of capitalism and business would not argue against the position that Self-Interest may be one of the foundational or vital ingredients that gives life and vibrancy to a capitalist system.

A leader’s inner drive and ambition to pursue one’s dreams and goals are inextricably linked to the pursuit of one’s self-interest.We all do (or do not do) things because there is a pay-back for us. I dare say that every psychologist or social scientist in the world would agree with this.

When one’s dream, cause or goal is big and important to an individual, he/she will constantly strive to make passionate progress towards that goal. This passion is often the VITAL source of energy that has a knock on and energizing effect on others to join in. When done right, there is space for others and in these cases leaders are guided by some calibrated societal moral compass which informs the groups values that help influence ALL decisions.

However, where this can breakdown is when people cross over into the space of pursuing SELFISH interest.
It is pretty obvious from the definition above what the difference is. There is usually NO moral compass. There is then little to no concern for the welfare of other constituents or stakeholders that are touched by the capitalist endeavors when leaders behave selfishly. This behavior can sometimes enable some short-term success if the leader has a strong position of power, or has some exclusive access to resources that only he/she controls. But even when that is the case, success is not sustainable over the long term as people get disenfranchised easily.
So we offer the definition as a tool to enable unapologetic conversations about the virtue of self-interest and about it being a critical source of vitality for the healthy functioning of the capitalist system. We also offer the definitions to enable people to be more clear about the distinctions between both concepts.


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