1-what, if anything, are the limits of self interest?7
2-could it be possible for capitalism not to create large economic discrepancies?5
3-what do we think of "otherkin"?6
4-should the socrates cafe limit speakers to two minutes?3
5-in light of the American ambassador's death in Libya, what ought we do about our Middle Eastern ties?4
what, if anything, are the limits of self interest?
[At this point the batteries in my keyboard died. I'll try to write a synopsis of what we had to say. My apologies to those I may misrepresent or fail to mention.
This was my question. Its inspiration is the BBC documentary "The Century of the Self". The basic issue presented is that both politics and business have changed their view of what American citizens are. They used to be workers; they've become consumers. It has resulted in frequent use of focus groups for determining the best ways to sell products and the best ways to run political campaigns and governments. Focus groups ask people what they want. These people are not asked what they are willing to do to get what they want. This, for example, is how Americans simultaneously want all the infrastructure and safety net benefits of government yet are unwilling to pay the taxes necessary for maintaining those goods. I once heard a Tea Party protester yelling "keep government's hands off my Social Security!" This disconnect between what we want and what it costs/how to get it is the direct result of the various powers-that-be in American history deciding during the 20th century to govern as though they were selling products, feeding our un-examined wants, not leading us to a better place.
All but one participant agreed that we are too self-interested. Emphasis was placed on the necessity of self-care, but that it doesn't mean our self interests are primary. Civilization, it was generally agreed, requires us to sometimes set aside our self interest in the interest of the greater good. Paying taxes to pay for what we want is a good example.
Siva argued that self interest is always good and should be first in our minds. When asked if this approach might ever result in conflicts between people with differing interests he decided this was a necessary by-product of this best way of life. He feels we spend far too much time worrying over the wants and needs of others -- unless one decides that is in their self interest!
Ron and Ike (?) both brought up evolution. They each discussed how this state of affairs has likely come to be in an evolution of human civilization and that if it is too destructive our cultures and societies will evolve away from this model for the optimistic or this approach will lead to a more permanent decline overall for the pessimistic.
Eric emphasized how much his life had improved once he decided to sometimes focus on what he could do for others, not just himself. He described how until recently this was not his view, but after some painful learning experiences he'd come to realize that he, in addition to being an individual, was a member of a culture, a neighborhood, a nation, a rugby team (!). And all those things have interests which need to be balanced.
My personal example of how self-interest trumped my interest in the greater good came from near the end of my college career. This was back in the 80s when Affirmative Action employment efforts were first underway. When a roommate informed me that in my post-college job search I may be passed over for a job I am qualified for if there is a non-white applicant with equal qualifications in competition.
At first I was outraged! My self interest is for me to get a job, not for non-white (or, anyone other than me) person. As time went by the Greater Good argument seeped into my mind. I realized that it surely is harder for non-white Americans to get jobs in the US than it is for white Americans. And though I may lose one job possibility, my whiteness would likely grant me many more opportunities other than that one. Opportunities most not-white job seekers would not enjoy.
Art advocated mandatory service of some kind. A kind of draft wherein young Americans would serve either in the military, the Peace Corp, Community services, etc. He felt this will help us appreciate how healthy community is fundamental to our success. He argued that serving either self or community interests to the exclusion of the other is wrong, that the best way support individuals is to maintain the communities/infrastructures we live in.
All said, I remain convinced that we have fooled ourselves into thinking what we want is all we need to concern ourselves with. I feel embarrassed at the ways I have lived my life in support of that emphasis. May the focus group facilitators start asking us how to get what we want!