Enlightened Self Interest

In today’s world it is easier to get a book published with outlets for self-publishing and small boutique publishing firms. As a result, we have thousands of books every year that could catch our attention and be a good read. One such book is my Godspeed and Guideposts, another is a book by Nathan Wagner, Achieving a Better World for Every Person. His book provides “pathways and processes” to help each of us reach our goals, but he stresses that all actions required are our own.

I met Nate as he was the lead investor in the startup company where I worked prior to COVID. The lead investor isn’t the one who necessarily invests the most money, but the one that the other investors lean on for detailed insight. At 90+ years old, Nate is a remarkable and sage individual.

One of his tenets, if not his biggest, is enlightened self-interest. Recognizing that our own self interests are best served in win-win situations where all parties benefit. The self-interest we seek for ourselves, can best be attained when we help others to concurrently enhance their own self-interest. We must use every opportunity to elevate the self-image of those around us.

Enlightened self-interest is a philosophy in ethics which states that people who act to further the interests of others ultimately serve their own self-interest. It refers to the understanding and trust that what a person does to enhance another’s quality of life enhances one’s own quality of life to a similar degree. It is often simply expressed as “do well by doing good.” It is also related to the Golden Rule: “treat others the way we want others to treat us” or “what goes around comes around.” Enlightened self-interest means that everybody wins.

Enlightened self-interest does not mean acting in the interest of others at the sole expense of our own interests or future benefit, that is pure altruism. Altruism comes from good intentions, but the consequences may not always be positive and could have undesirable effects. An altruistic act is an unenlightened one.

Adam Smith’s 1776 landmark book, The Wealth of Nations, set our country on its economic path of growth and it applies enlightened self-interest as the preeminent principle. According to Smith, enlightened self-interest can serve to unite us with the broader family of humankind, given a proper framework for voluntary trade and exchange. Smith’s notion of the “invisible hand” is, in so many ways, a symbol of how one individual’s self-interest can find common cause with another person’s self-interest to produce collective rewards. It also shows how blatant selfishness and greed—with no respect to neighbor—can cause society to struggle. When people act according to their own myopic selfishness, the group suffers. There is less cooperation and productivity, with more conflict.

Enlightened self-interest by a large percentage of the population is critical to a positive outlook. It creates a bottom up movement instead of looking for a top-down effect from government and leaders. “We the people” are the ones striving for a more perfect union. The well-being of society is a result of the choices and actions of mankind.

A key to any strong partnership, especially a marriage, is that each partner derives great satisfaction in supporting the other completely.  It is not a “give to get” co-dependent relationship, but rather caring for each other. This enlightened self-interest is what makes someone a leader versus a boss or manager. A boss once told me, that my role was to make him look good to his boss and the people I managed were to make me look good to him. That was an unenlightened statement. I didn’t last too long in that environment and fortunately have been able to work for true leaders these past several years.

Love is the ultimate form of enlightened self-interest and the most important and fulfilling dynamic on earth. Love, family, relationships should be emphasized the most, every person is deserving of respect. Love manifests itself in acts of self-sacrifice, of saying no to our selfish pleasures and personal preferences out of love. I greatly appreciate what Nate wrote about it, “love is the only factor that grows when divided amongst greater numbers of people” yet he also notes love is very underutilized.

The Bible constantly encouraged us to look with enlightened self-interest. Christians strive to do things for others that don’t particularly help themselves, possibly at a personal inconvenience. I previously referenced in my blog about the role Christians played during the Plague of Cyprian. They served the sick without regards to their own health. They did what Jesus would have done and the world is different today because in the middle of devastating despair, those who followed Christ saw their opportunity to shine. People could not ignore the actions of people who loved God so passionately that they would be willing to give up their lives in service to God.

There is true value in this effort as the “something” in return is a spiritual reward. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is mentioned once in the Old Testament (Lev. 19:18) and seven times in the New Testament (Matt. 19:19, 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27; Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14; James 2:8). It is the core Christian ethic for relating to others.

Rather than deny the nature of human behavior, Jesus based His message on the superiority of God’s Kingdom in its ability to meet man’s fundamental needs and deepest desires. Love is the ultimate form of enlightened self-interest and love manifests itself in acts of self-sacrifice. We must mirror the love and sacrifice Jesus showed for humanity, with our love and sacrifice for Him and our neighbors. Enlightened self-interest means that everybody wins.

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