7 Ways of Reading Philosophy: #3 Reading self-interestedly

Why be a dutiful reader, when you can read self-interestedly?

Will Buckingham
8 min readMay 19, 2021

Image: Women reading by Suzuki Harunobu c. 1770. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In the last article in this series on different approaches to reading philosophy, I talked about the rights of the reader to plot a course through whatever they are reading in whatever way they wish — doubling-back, skipping, haphazard and unsystematic, leaving books unfinished.

A reader who does this might seem, to their more sober peers, to be wilfully irresponsible, or failing in their duties as a reader. But in this article, I want to push the virtues of non-dutiful reading a little further, and I want to argue that one fruitful way of reading philosophy (and, for that matter, anything else) is to read out of self-interest.

Self-interest vs. duty

We are often suspicious of the idea of self-interest. It seems unrespectable, even blameworthy. And there is a long philosophical tradition that sees self-interest as a profound moral problem. If we act in our own interests, the argument goes, we are by definition not acting fully in the interests of others. And if we are not acting in the interests of others, we are defaulting on our moral duties and obligations.

One philosopher who sees a gulf between self-interest and morality is Immanuel Kant. For Kant, acting in accord with our ethical duty involves putting self-interest to one side. Kant is not wholly against self-interest: in his Lectures on Ethics, he says that “As needy beings the creator gave us self-interest in our own perfection.” [1] Self-interest is a starting point; but for Kant, it is trumped by the disinterested concern for others. In a later lecture, he goes on to say,

It is intrinsic to moral perfection, that an action be done without any advantage or self-interest, solely from the concept of duty. [2]

This is quite a common view. But it leads us into quite weird territory. In his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant challenges us to imagine somebody who takes satisfaction in spreading joy and happiness among their peers. This is no doubt a good thing, and Kant argues that it is an act in conformity with duty. But this does not necessarily make it a moral act. Why not? Because it is…

Will Buckingham

Writer & philosopher. PhD. Stories & ideas to make the world a better place. HELLO, STRANGER (Granta 2021): BBC R4 Book of the Week. Twitter @willbuckingham