Thursday, 30 September 2010 00:00 GFP Columnist - Helen Briton Wheeler

Self interest as a fundamental of natural selection is seen by scholars as a root of evolution. As such, it is a vital life force. A reliable motive to produce good change. But is this universally so? Is there a balancing factor involved? I argue that there is.

In personal terms, self interest can steer people towards getting a higher education, going all out for a better job and making more money to provide for their families. It can motivate people to take better care of their health. All those are excellent outcomes. So Tick One for self interest as Friend.

However, it was also rampant self interest that led to a dangerous glut of sub-prime mortgages, the on-selling of risk (carefully disguised) and the global financial crisis. Tick One for self interest as Foe.

Can it be then that self interest is good in moderation and bad in excess? I believe so. Using self interest to provide better lives for ourselves and our families is indisputably good. Self interest as Friend. If, on the other hand, self interest leads to a lifestyle of unhealthy excess, to criminal behaviour of the Bernie Madoff kind, even drug running, then it’s Foe. There needs to be balance.

A couple of my heroes are high achievers who seem to have managed the self-interest balance exceptionally well. They are Bill (along with Melinda) Gates and Warren Buffet.

On the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation website, the pair look exceptionally well. They appear happy and healthy. (And not addicted to bling.) It seems that the wonderful grant-making activities that Bill and Melinda are involved in to help other people live improved lives is also returning happiness to them. So altruism – the opposite of self interest – brings pleasure, it seems. And medical studies indicate that pleasure and happiness have positive effects on our health.

Therefore, to look at it from a self-interest perspective, altruism is surely also a beneficial Friend.

On the Foundation website, one of the Gates’ stated Guiding Principles (it’s No 10) says: “We treat our grantees as valued partners, and we treat the ultimate beneficiaries of our work with respect.” That’s pretty humbling from two of the wealthiest people in the world. And it’s altruism put into practice.

Then there’s Warren Buffet, another high achiever who hasn’t let self interest lead to an excessive lifestyle. He’s moved from self interest to altruism too.

“I know what I want to do,” he told Fortune magazine’s Carol J. Loomis in 2006, “and it makes sense to get going.” What he wanted was to take a giant step in philanthropy and in consequence he has pledged gradually to give 85% of his Berkshire Hathaway stock to five foundations, five-sixths to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Giving money away apparently hasn’t been a painful extraction for him, for Buffett also said, “There’s nothing material I want very much.” That makes him a whole lot luckier than many people who worry about money: how to make ends meet if they haven’t enough of it; and how to protect it if they have too much. He’s escaped that syndrome where “money rules me more than I rule it”.

I believe there’s a real case to make that self interest of the best kind has made Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet rich, and that considered, targeted altruism is now making them happy. Respected, too. Our natural sense of justice, of right and wrong, tells us that giving financial support for global development, global health and public education is laudable and truly good, and so we applaud them.

When you have done something good – for example, given a thoughtful present, been generous in some way – haven’t you felt a glow of pleasure? That’s happened to me. And reading about feeling good (whether it’s simple “pop psychology” in a magazine or scholarly neurological research with the latest brain scanning devices) tells us that feeling good is physically beneficial. So good, in fact, it appears to be brain changing. So let’s vote for self interest as Friend, and its other face, altruism, as Friend too.

Image Courtesy of DayLife - Billionaire financier and Berkshire Hathaway Chief Executive Warren Buffett (L) answers a question next to Microsoft founder Bill Gates at a joint news conference in Beijing September 30, 2010. - Reuters Pictures

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