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Is our economic order based on a misunderstanding of 'self-interest'? Literally, self-interest refers to the interests of the self. However, this seems somewhat ambiguous, given the lack of clarity around both words. Historically, the elisions of meaning and interpretation may have contributed to the transition from Adam Smith's meaning of 'self-interest' and today's likely interpretation.

The meaning of 'Self'

Arguably, the notion of 'self' was less individuated (e.g. more family oriented) in the 18th century, when compared with the 21st century context of the citizen as individual consumer. The ancient story of Narcissus reminds us that, in ecological terms, the long-term survival of an autonomous (e.g. solipsistic) self is unlikely, if not impossible. But 'Helper theory' (helper therapy principle) was first described by Frank Riessman (1965) in an article published in the journal Social Work. It argues that when an individual (the "helper") provides assistance to another person, the helper may benefit.

The meaning of 'Interest'

As there is no one, clear timescale implied by the term 'interest', it may refer to either a short-term, or a long-term interval of time.

square-50cm-spacer.jpg SHORT TERMLONG TERM
SINGULARImmediate, personal gratificationLong life of an individual
PLURALSocial panaceaPromotion of biodiversity

The Idea of Social Capital

In what Robert Putnam called 'social capital', (Putnam, 2000) high quality governance is shown to depend on long traditions of civic engagement - e.g. networks of organised reciprocity and civic solidarity. The cycles of behaviour measured by individual-centred language, followed by collective-centred language. Derived from Google text analyses the shifting ratios of 'I' to 'we' show quite extreme swings (mainly in USA) from the end of the 19th century and through to the present (Putnam, 2020).

A Field-Centred Approach

The syntax used by Putnam is agent-centred, even though it appears to map the obverse of 'self' interest in the idea of a 'collective' interest. This is not the only way to depict the social terrain, as shown by Asian concepts such as the Korean word jeong (c.f. Wood, 2017). Here, the presence of an intense and localised form of (loosely) 'social capital' appears to be defined from within the field itself, rather than from the agents involved. This implies that 'self-interest' is not seen as the primary purpose of the reciprocal bonds of affinity that pertain.


  • Putnam, R. D. (2020). The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and how We Can Do it Again. Simon & Schuster.
  • Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: America’s declining social capital. In Culture and politics (pp. 223-234). Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
  • Wood, J., (2017), "From Products to Relations: Adding jeong to the metadesigner’s vocabulary", for A Handbook of Sustainable Product Design by Jonathan Chapman, Routledge, ISBN-10: 1138910171, ISBN-13: 978-1138910171

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