There’s an interesting section in Infinite Jest from pages 424-430 that talk about the difference between a society motivated purely by self-interest versus a society motivated by the interest of the greatest-good. All wrapped in a highly entertaining analogy about a single serving can of soup that two people acquired from a man who spontaneously died. What stops them from trying to bonk each other on the head with the soup and run away with it all for themselves?
We each are raised to believe that there is some self-interest in kindness, in treating others with respect. Maybe because in order for us to expect others to treat us kindly, we must treat others kindly. Or else word will get around and people will feel motivated to treat us with the same disrespect that we treat others. So, we clump together in groups of agreed upon mutual respect in order to get the respect that we want in return, and outcast those who don’t play by those same rules.
And so self-interest becomes indistinguishable from interest of the group. This is what happened with single-cell organisms to become multi-cellular. And the topic of self-interest versus group-interest sort of becomes moot.
It’s in our self-interest to sometimes even put the group’s interest above our own immediate interest. We become dependent on the group to exist, because the benefits of belonging in a community and society outweigh the benefits of being on our own. David Foster Wallace coins it as “enlightened self-interest“.
Then it becomes a game of how long can you stretch the period of delayed gratification (the pay-it-forward karma-like hope that by assisting the group that the group will in turn assist you). A day? A year? A lifetime? Could you also expect some returns to come past your lifetime (yes, if you consider your reputation or legacy as part of your own self-interest).
And also, who is in the group whose interest you’re assisting? Is the group your family? Your company? Your country? Your gender? Or is is the entire world? The bigger the group, the longer the return.
The bigger the group, the more self-interest is eventually asssisted, and therefore the more “enlightened” your self-interest.
The enemy of self-interest is getting burned. Allowing people in the group who have more myopic self-interest in mind creates self-interest sinks that break the return cycle from self to group and back to self.
And so people have this battle, a fear of letting the group get too big. It can only get as big as your own trust that the cycle of self-interest is actually a stable system of self-interest return. But, our imaginations sometimes can’t hold such a complicated system in memory, and therefore we find our limit and our self-interest enlightenment eventually finds a smaller-than-the-world but bigger-than-the-self group to be self-interested in.
To the extent that we have that limited-sized group, we become self-interest sinks to people outside the group who include us in their group. If that makes sense. So there’s this constant tension that, as a society, we participate in by expanding our enlightened self-interest and contracting it when we get burned, and then burning others, and then maybe eventually expanding again.