People generally act out of what they perceive to be their own self interest.

Self-Interest, the Leviathan of Moral Sentiments; i.e. Self-Interest is the Main Driver of Human Action (Ethical or Not)

It isn’t true that everyone acts out of self interest, but generally people tend to act out of perceived self interest and “moral sentiment.”[1][2][3]

That is, people generally act out of what they think to be their self interest (their needs, wants, and moral sentiments; AKA their basic instincts and needs, their feelings, wants of happiness, needs of social approval, drive for competition and cooperation).

This is true even if they have been indoctrinated by the interest of another, even if what they perceive to be their self interest is not actually in their interest by some measures (for example if their interest is moral, but it would hurt them financially), even if that interest doesn’t align with a general hierarchy of needs (even if they put pride before healthcare for example),[4] and even if that interest only concerns one single thing another might find unimportant (like putting Duty or Friendship over the interest of accumulating vast amounts of wealth, or conversely, like putting $20 before Duty, Friendship, or Honor).

Humans are generally driven by their moral sentiment, but not every human has the same moral hierarchy. Some love the aesthetics, some are lovers of wisdom. Who are we to judge? The idea of democracy is that, when uncorrupted, the law of averages and large numbers kicks in to make free systems work. The problem isn’t there, the problem is instead with corruption.

Still, problems aside, the core concept here, that people act out of perceived self interest, is demonstrably true (to the extent studies can prove such things; see citations below).

Below we explore self interest and its effects. From there we only need to consider competition and supply and demand to have a solid understanding of the basic moral and economic theory of thinkers like Adam Smith.

GENERAL CONCEPT: All people seek happiness. Thus, in terms of self interest, they will generally engage in actions they perceive will bring them happiness. Happiness can be base animal pleasures (those aesthetic and libertine pleasures), social pleasures like friendship and belonging, or higher human pleasures (like those found in selfless acts, moral duty, or seeking wisdom). Thus, self interest’s ends can generally be defined as “happiness,” and all human action can be generally defined as being motivated by a self-interested desire to seek happiness. Thus, we can say, “happiness is the ends behind self-interest, the true driver (the true invisible hand) of all social and personal physical, logical, ethical, and moral markets.” However, not everyone seeks happiness the same way, manipulators can change a person’s definition of happiness, and thus things get complex. Still, people will generally aim toward happiness of some form (or, the converse, reliving pain of some form, mental, physical, emotional, spiritual, including fear) by following what they perceive to be their self interest (even if their interest is say social and found in helping others). Learn more about happiness and the invisible hand.

Examples of Different Types of Self Interest

Consider, a person can act out of moral interest, but in the process do something illogical, empirically physically and financially disastrous, and even ethically wrong. In this case they would be acting out of their moral interest, but not their physical, logical, or ethical interest.

Consider the downright awful case of a honor based duel in 2017. Duels are illegal, so financial ruin is certain, there is a good chance of death, so physical ruin is probable, ethically it would be better to use words or the courts, yet this one moral sentiment, a sense of honor, is the interest that trumps all (for this imaginary duelist) and thus the duel is technically “in the interest of the duelist.”

Not all will understand it, but self-interest isn’t a thing for others to understand, it is a thing for individuals (it is a sentiment that arises from within to some degree; it isn’t a tangible thing).

For another example, a poor working class person who can barely feed their family might vote against a welfare program due to the sentiment that they don’t want assistance from government.

It is their self interest to be self reliant (another moral sentiment), their hierarchy of wants places their pride above even the proper care of their family. They are using their moral compass, not ours, this is about their perceived self interest, not our perception of them.

Their self interest places their fear of others getting a handout, or their fear of government being too powerful, or their fear of not retaining their pride above their financial interests.

Or consider, even if that person is just following the party line knowingly, they could simply be willingly putting their party interest is above their own financial interest.

Or consider, a shopper with choose brand loyalty who buys X brand even if they can get the same product cheaper from the competition.

Or consider, someone detained in questioning or sitting trial who chooses to blab instead of exercising their rights, it was not “in their interest” by almost any reasoned measure, but they were interested enough to open their mouth, that was their will, that was their liberty, that was their choice, that was their interest.

There are many types of interests, and “who are we” to tell a person what their hierarchy of wants and needs should be.

Most will choose their health above other factors, but not all will. Likewise, most will choose a reasonable hierarchy, but then again, is sentiment ever really all that reasonable?

The Invisible Sentiment

The claim is sentiment works on average as an invisible hand, not that each action is virtuous and sensical.

One can’t hold sentiment in their hand, but it drives us.

It is not directly empirical and quantifiable with certainty, but it is instead something that has a probabilistic nature.

We all generally understand our own sentiment, and we can all relate to the general sentiment of others, and this may compel us to act morally as a group, and we can quantify this to some degree via studies of social science… but ultimately, this core driver of human action is, a thing of metaphysics (counting “emotion” as a thing of metaphysics).

The Idea that People “Vote or Act Against Their Self Interest” is a Misnomer

When we say “people vote or act against their self interest,” this is a misnomer, what we are really saying is, “they are voting or acting against what we perceive to be their self interest according to specific measures we have laid out for them.”

The difference is our perception versus their perception.

One person might think joining the service is in no right minded person’s interest (the risk reward isn’t there for many, logically speaking), why be a low solider when you can trade stocks and pay the long term capital gains tax (economically speaking)? Yet, another may feel it their highest moral duty to serve their country (morally speaking).

The action didn’t change, the actor did.

Some may act with justice, some may act with honor, some only do it for the money, some love pleasure and beauty.

A model showing logic, physics, ethics, and metaphysics as “spheres of human understanding”.

It takes all kinds to make a world, and in fact, the idea that people should be free to seek their own ends is essentially the whole concept of liberty and individualism.

In words, Adam Smith’s main hypothesis from his theory of moral sentiments is generally true (that is, moral sentiment creates an invisible market that runs itself, so to speak), we just have to understand it with nuance and factor in:

  • The fact that perceived self interest of a person is not the same as our perception of their interests.
  • Not all interests are physical, logical, economic, political, moral, or ethic, etc. Interests span the many spheres of [what I call] Physics, Logic, Ethics, and Metaphysics.
  • Not all interests are conscious; nor are all biases against (some interest isn’t an interest at all, but a bias against another interest).
  • Not all interests originate with the interested (propaganda is designed to change interests without the interested knowing; one can manipulate a person for something or against something).

The Problem With Propaganda and Politics

And of course that brings us to the problem, that is, the incentive of a good number of people is to manipulate other people.

A politician must get votes, it is her capital, it is her highest need.

Her whole gambit is to use rhetoric to get funding and votes, to get funding, she needs votes, to get votes, she needs funding.

If she were a logical machine, her highest good would be votes. If she were a moral machine, her highest good would be civil service.

Either way, she organizes a machine behind her, and she organizes herself into a machine, it is in the shared interest of the machine to manipulate (for moral or social-economic ends, in moral and social markets).

If she manipulates, she engages in propaganda, if she engages in rhetoric and propaganda, she changes the interests of others. She helps them redefine their ends, their meaning of happiness.

This is no different for a brand or any other entity.

The above essentially explains why democracy and free markets works very well when their isn’t corruption, but explains why democracy works very poorly when their is corruption (and thus why mixed-Republican governments are better for large systems – PEROID).

That is, if manipulators of public opinion can convince enough people to change their interests (to change their pathways to happiness and definition of happiness), then the self interest of the many can actually be the results of a specific or corporate interest.

The Jelly Bean Experiment

  1. If 10,000 people with no bias toward a number (and with a prize incentive to guess correctly) guessed the number of jelly beans in a jar, their average would be close to correct. The more who guessed, the closer the results would get (very roughly; see the rule of large numbers).
  2. However, if the most clever Bernaysian could convince a room of a 10,000 that the jelly bean jar had less jelly beans than it did, that only “others” would dare to guess high numbers, they could with ease force an inaccurate mean (they could, speaking loosely, corrupt democracy).

An Inference Using Basic Logic

This is to say:

  1. People tend to act in their own self interest.
  2. People’s self interest can be manipulated.
  3. Therefore pure democracy doesn’t work (nor does pure capitalism, pure free markets, or pure any large system subject to manipulation).

Instead of pure systems, mixed systems that can glean the general will, but can resist manipulation, are the best.

Also, we should stop acting like people we don’t understand are voting against their self interest, it isn’t human to act against your perceived self interest, what is human is being subject to manipulation and authority to a dangerous extent (especially via the manipulation of strong emotions like fear).

Maslow’s Needs, Bias, and Self-Interest

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is generally true (as a rough metaphor), but once a person isn’t starving to death (and sometimes even if they are) moral sentiments like belonging, love, and esteem become top priorities for many.

Things are complex, as for some money is the greatest need (with it “buying” love, belonging, esteem, etc), for others, different moral sentiments come before all else.

Some seek selfish ends, some seek selfless ends, some seek the ends of others, but all generally seek happiness at some level (it is just that everyone has a different pathway to happiness).

This only gets more complex when not only the needs and wants, but the order of needs and wants, is manipulated by others.

With that we have to consider not only explicit wants, but implicit biases (either bias for or bias against, either natural or programmed, with either good or bad intent).

From this lens, implicit bias (from hardwiring and experience) is the biggest driver, this is our moral sentiment (our inner devil and angel; our morals and feelings and sentiments; what we “know” subconsciously), and then explicit bias (choice) is the second biggest driver, this speaks to our physical and logical needs (housing, money, health, helping an old woman cross the street, etc; or just generally making conscious decisions).

Bias can be programmed by a manipulator of opinion, but where explicit conscious bias can be combated with logical debate, subconscious moral bias is near impossible to weed out once it has its talons in a person.

We can’t always convince a person actively starving they aren’t hungry, but we can get darn close.

The ability to toy with people’s needs and wants is a major corrupting factor of democratic systems.

Some people are naturally good, some naturally are not, and over the many this averages out to make the invisible hand work.

However, when a good or bad person indoctrinates a large flock, it skews averages and begins to break the invisible hand.

A broken free-market is not a free-market, it is a corrupt cesspool set to breed a oligarchy… and that is where things get complex.

This is to say, the free-market, democracy, pure capitalism, direct voting, etc are all systems of the Highest Good… until the pure liberty and equality devolves into tyrannical oligarchy. At that point it is tyranny and not democracy, and it is thus, “not good.”

Or at least, that is the opinion of Plato and I.

TIP: To end on a nice note, I’ll reiterate what was already said. This theory relates directly to the theory of happiness. In that theory we lay out not Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but instead define the ends of all needs as “happiness” and then discuss related theories and how to understand the hierarchy from that perspective. Psychological egoism can have nasty effects, but it can have nice ones too. That is the main point, actually the main point is that “people are generally acting in their own interest” and that point naturally leads us to the mother of all theories, the theory of happiness and its enlightened liberal related cousins.

Learn more about self interest by readingThe Norm of Self-Interest Dale T. Miller Department of Psychology Princeton University ABSTRACT or Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments.


Some people might say “people don’t act out of their self interest,” but the overriding sentiment seems to be that they do.

The idea that people always act out of their own self interest is a little too broad to be true, but a nuanced version (that realizes that interests can be manipulated) is close to being true.

At the end of the day we are talking about social science and things we can’t know for sure, but we can generally assume that say 1/2 of the country is not voting against their self interest and is rather voting in what they perceive to be their self interest (even if the other half of the country can’t perceive it). It is then a matter of happiness, moral sentiment, liberty, individuality, and perception (or lack there of).


  1. ‘Everyone acts out of perceived self interest’ = myth
  2. The Norm of Self-Interest Dale T. Miller Department of Psychology Princeton University ABSTRACT
  3. Psychological egoism
  4. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

"People Tend to Act Out of Perceived Self Interest" is tagged with: Adam Smith, Collective Intelligence, Competition, Cooperation, Individualism and Collectivism, Liberalism and Conservatism, Liberty, Markets, Morality, Perception, Propaganda, Social Engineering, Virtue Theory

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macsnafu on
Supports this as a Fact.

Hmm…the emphasis on democracy and manipulation in relation to perceived self-interest, while understandable, seems a little over-stated. In a related vein, Public Choice Theory is all about the fact that politicians act in their own self-interest.

Also, I’m not sure that the statement “Instead of pure systems, mixed systems that can glean the general will, but can resist manipulation, are the best” is really well-supported here. It may be true, but it seems like it should be in a separate subject or topic as it doesn’t really support this topic.

Thomas DeMichele
Thomas DeMichele on

Good thoughts. I’ll consider the feedback. Thanks!