Amartya Sense is making a reasoned choice of a piece of fruit from a basket passed around at a dinner party. Filling in the background circumstances as required, catalogue a range of bases on which his selection might be made and examine what role, if

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Amartya Sense is making a reasoned choice of a piece of fruit from a basket passed around at a dinner party. Filling in the background circumstances as required, catalogue a range of bases on which his selection might be made and examine what role, if any, self-interest could be held to play in each of them. Do you think that there is a clear relationship between choice, preference and self-interest?


9235 DS

Essay no. 3 for Paper 14, Philosophy of Economics

Submitted in part-fulfilment of the requirements for the MPhil in Development Studies at the Univeristy of Cambridge


The classical thinkers have been seen as postulating that self-interest is the sole motive for all actions. You choose what you prefer; you prefer what you choose, as it augments your self interest. Amartya Sen differs from this argument. He postulates that people’s actions are guided by a variety of motives, of which most have strong shades of self-interest, while some may be devoid of it. Choice and preference don’t always coincide, sometimes you don’t choose what you prefer, and forgo a potential gain to yourself.

He elaborates through an example. At a dinner party a basket of fruit is being passed around. You prefer a mango to an apple. But if you incorporate different circumstances you will not necessarily choose a mango. Some of the reasons for not choosing the mango will contain elements of self-interest while you may also choose not to opt for the mango for reasons that infer that you are not pursuing self-interest.
To catalogue a range of bases on which a selection from the fruit basket might be made: The basket contains multiples of both fruit. There are a number of people present. Most have the same preference as you. Since the number of mangoes is more than one you choose what you prefer, your self-interest being directly served as you pick the mango.
Or: There is only one mango and many people, but the hostess insists that you take the mango: here the value of the mango has not been tarnished by the price of rudeness, you gladly pick the mango, you choose what you prefer, and serve your self-interest.
Or: If there are a number of people present with only one mango and the rest apples and you don’t know their preference, you still choose the mango, as the elements of sympathy and commitment cannot be introduced, due to lack of information.
Or: If there is only one apple and one mango with only two people remaining at the dinner party and both of you prefer the mango to the apple, the number of possible actions will be:

  1. You take the mango- you choose what you prefer, directly serving your self-interest. You choose the mango but it now has a decreased value. The other person might regard you as rude, greedy; you risk your reputation by being seen as the fruit grabber. Your self-interest is served here, but only partially as you now pay a price of rudeness by choosing the mango.

  2. You don’t choose the mango. You don’t choose the mango due to sympathy. You care about the other person and seeing his pleasure at attaining the mango makes you happy. Here when you don’t choose what you prefer you still serve your self-interest as the outcome results in augmenting your self-interest.

  3. You participate in a game concerning strategic nobility. You pass the basket to you dinner partner, and hope that his decision is based on sympathy, that he will choose the less preferred fruit and pass on the mango to you. Here though you may look gracious in passing on the basket without picking the fruit, in reality you can be seen as serving your self-interest by hoping that you will have the opportunity of attaining the guilt free mango.

  4. You forgo the mango and pass it on to your dinner partner as your reputation is of more consequence than attaining the mango. Here again you are serving your self-interest by not choosing what you prefer, as it is important to you that you are viewed as a gracious and considerate person by society.

  5. Another reason would be guilt. You feel that your greed is unacceptable and you feel guilty about pursuing such an impolite action. The situation is complex here. If your guilt is more overwhelming than the pleasure attained at eating the mango then you are pursuing a larger degree of self-interest. If pleasure from eating the mango is more than the prospective guilt then there can be seen a glimmer of commitment in the guilt, because you feel it is the right thing to give it up. So then you pursue a lesser degree of self-interest.

  6. Convention rule following can be another reason as postulated by Sen. “Where one is simply following an established rule of ‘proper behavior’, rather than being influenced by direct welfare effects, or by reputation effects, or even by any self conscious ethics”1. Here if you are following the norms because you feel uncomfortable about being out of step, here the ‘feel comfortable’ feeling can replace the guilt discussed earlier, then you are following your self-interest. But you may also do the action automatically, without weighing the pros and the cons. The situation regarding the degree of prevalence of self-interest is complex here.

  7. The least shade of self-interest is prevalent when the decision to pass on the mango is based on commitment. Without being overwhelmed by potential guilt, you think it is not morally right to grab the last mango, at the cost of depriving others. This is where the departure from self interest takes place, Sen postulates. You feel that it is your duty to sacrifice enjoying the mango, in order to be a part of a society that puts the interest of others before their own. Your commitment in this case is only serving your own self interest to the degree that it is ‘your’ commitment, except for that there is an element of self-sacrifice present, when you don’t choose what you prefer.

Relationship between choice, preference and self-interest
This is the crux of the debate. Is self-interest being served in every action or are there sometimes other reasons for choosing an action. Is commitment also a part of serving your self-interest as it produces the ‘feel good’ feeling?
Are all actions motivated by self-interest? From Darwin’s theory of evolution we can borrow the dictate that self-interest is paramount for survival. So the struggle of the primitive man to survive might well be based on self-interest. It was the survival of the fittest. He had to constantly adapt to the changing environment to ensure his survival. His primitive instinct might then be governed by self-interest; it was a battle of him against the environment. But now when man has instead of adapting to the environment, has altered the environment to suit his survival, he now has the luxury of decreasing threats to his survival. He now has fashioned a society where self-interest is no longer the only paramount dictate. We now have social relations in terms of a fellow human being, a citizen, a parent, a spouse, a teacher, a philanthropist, where self-interest is no longer the prime governing feature in choosing an action, even if we have a preference for it, otherwise how do you explain the prevalence of self- interest in the following actions?

  1. A man dives in to save a child from drowning in the river. He is alone at the moment; there is no one present to applaud him a hero, so no self-interest is being served. He dives instinctively, immediately without weighing the pros and cons of how he will live with the guilt if he does not jump to save the child. In this action he is apparently not serving his self-interest. It is an action based on commitment, where there is no direct connection between the chosen act and self-interest.

  2. A married man who is unhappy with his wife, and is in love with other women does not indulge in an affair, even if having the guarantee that the wife will be unable to find out, is committed to his principles. This is self-sacrifice on his part where the action chosen is not one, which he prefers and does not serve his self-interest. (The true judge of commitment is how you would act if you were sure that you would never be caught!)

  3. Hausman and McPherson recount an experiment in which wallets containing cash and identification were left in the streets of New York. Nearly half were returned to the owners intact, despite the trouble and expense of doing so to their discoverer.(Hausman and McPherson, 1996, p.58). The effort expended and apparently unselfish behavior demonstrated by those who returned the lost goods, as Hausman and McPherson assert, reflect a manifest commitment to societal norms over egoistic desires. Many researches have found the same phenomena (Dawes and Thaler, 1998, Elster, 1990, frank 1988).2

  4. Another example where self-interest and commitment can part ways is manifested in the relationship between a parent and a child. Where a parent can sacrifice his own self-interest for the interest of the child. Thought the debate is hard to resolve whether the parent realizes his/her interest through the child.

An interesting contribution to the notion of commitment and how it negates self-interest is made by Elias L khalil in his paper ‘sentimental fools: a critique of Amartya Sen’s notion of commitment’. He recognizes the complexity of commitment and tries to solve it without appealing to the ‘multiple self view’ proposed by Sen3. He does so by ‘distinguishing two kinds of commitment and explains how each relates differently to interest—a necessary distinction to discern admirable acts from sentimental foolishness.’

He explains the difference between the two types through examples. If one is impressed by the creative art involved in French cooking and takes on the commitment to try to become the best chef in the city. This would incorporate ‘non-binding’ commitment. It entails a promise that cannot be obligatory as the agent is uncertain if he can fulfill it. Non-binding commitment is about ambition, it bolsters welfare. On the other hand ‘binding commitment’ would entail the commitment which he makes to only use fresh ingredients, not cheat, be honest. Here the agent is sure that he can fulfill his commitment. Here his ability is not in doubt; the reason behind his commitment is therefore to counter the opportunistic gain, which would arise from cheating. This can diminish his material welfare. Another example would be: while the ability to climb a mountain is contingent on an uncertain ability and hence is non-binding, the commitment to rebuff bribes is not contingent on ability and is binding. Sen does not distinguish between the two types of commitment, but lumps them together, and opposes both of them to self-interest. His postulate that commitment negates self-interest makes sense only if he talks about binding commitment, non-binding on the contrary can augment self-interest.
The problem is that authors may confuse the two kinds of commitment. This leads them to separate commitment from interest. This separation entails that the agent is constituted of multiple selves, which makes it impossible, as Khalil concludes ‘to distinguish sentimental fools from rational sentimentalists’.4

Is there always a clear link between choice, preference and self- interest? The answer has to be no.
You may choose an action, which you don’t prefer (addiction, weak will, against your principles, self imposed choice constraints, strategic nobility etc), Sometimes our choices can be mistaken due to misinformation or expectations may prove to be wrong. We also make choices on principles and not for gain as we may choose due to binding commitment, which may undermine our self-interest.
Maybe the major constraint in solely seeking our self-interest would lie in the fact that as rational individuals our tendency to maximize our material welfare at the expense of others is inhibited by a deeply ingrained set of moral values.

This is all true if self-interest will allude to all the meanings we understand by the word but will not contain the ‘feel good’ after feeling5. For if you include that feeling then one can argue that there is absolutely no action devoid of self interest and one is augmenting his self-interest in every action.

I would like to add here that there are various manifestations of self-interest. There are so many complexities involved in just choosing a piece of fruit from the basket; other decisions in life are so much more complex. Where the choices, the preferences, the consequences and degree’s of self-interest are uncertain and difficult to classify.

Amartya Sen, 1999. Development as Freedom. Oxford University Press
Amartya Sen, 1979, ‘Rational fools: A critique of the behavorial foundations of economic theory’ in Philosophy and economic theory (eds.) F. Hahn and M. Hollis. Oxford University Press.
Amartya Sen, 2002. Rationality and freedom. Harvard University Press.
Elias L.Khalil ‘Sentimental fools: A critique of Amartya Sen’s Notion of commitment’. Working Paper.
Charles K. Wilber ‘Economics and Ethics’ in The Elgar Handbook to Economic Methodology (eds.) John B. Davis, D.Wade Hands and Uskali Maki
Dale T.Miller, 1999 ‘The norm of self interest’ American Psychologist, vol.54, no.12.

1 Sen., 1997.

2 Charles K.Wilber, ‘Economics and Ethics’ for the Elgar Handbook to Economic Methodology (eds/) John B.Davis, D.Wade Hands and Uskali Maki

3 The multiple self approach treats non-binding commitment as not differnt from binding commitment .

4 Elias L. Khalil, ‘Sentimental fools: A critique of Amartya Sen’s notion of commitment’

5 The feel good after feeling you acheive after commiting a benevolent act, or an act based on commitment.

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