Explain the difference between self-interest and selfishness in economics.

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It is one of the basic principles of economics that human beings are generally motivated by self-interest. This sometimes leads to the accusation that economics glorifies or encourages selfishness. However, the two concepts are quite distinct. Selfishness refers to a lack of consideration for others. A selfish person cares unduly...

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It is one of the basic principles of economics that human beings are generally motivated by self-interest. This sometimes leads to the accusation that economics glorifies or encourages selfishness. However, the two concepts are quite distinct. Selfishness refers to a lack of consideration for others. A selfish person cares unduly for himself or herself at the expense of other people's welfare. Self-interest, however, simply refers to promoting one's own welfare. This is a rational thing to do and will generally include promoting the welfare of others.

For instance, suppose a selfish man has a wife and children. His selfishness means that he cares only for his own advantage, not for theirs. He is quite happy to live comfortably while they are miserable. Most of us, however, do not want to be surrounded by miserable people. In this sense, selfishness is a pathology, a defect in character which prevents the subject from having the normal amount of compassion and concern for others.

A psychologically normal man who is self-interested will not want his wife and children to be miserable. His happiness will include theirs. He will therefore try to ensure that they are happy as part of his self-interest. It is worth noting that both selfishness and a complete lack of self-interest are pathological states. Someone who does not take any trouble to look after himself will clearly not be able to look after anyone else.

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