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

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

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 not clear that this act is carried out from a sense of duty. If this person is spreading joy and happiness for the sake of their own satisfaction, Kant maintains, it cannot be said to be a fully moral act.

Kant asks us to imagine the following:

Suppose, then, that the mind of this philanthropist were overclouded by his own grief, which extinguished all sympathy with the fate of others, and that while he still had the means to benefit others in distress their troubles did not move him because he had enough to do with his own; and suppose that now, when no longer incited to it by any inclination, he nevertheless tears himself out of this deadly insensibility and does the action without any inclination, simply from duty; then the action first has its genuine moral worth. [3]

This grief-ridden philanthropist gets no joy from their actions; and so for the first time, as Kant sees it, we can be sure that this person is acting out of duty.

Salvaging self-interest

However, the more you think about this, the weirder it becomes. Is it, in fact, even possible to spread joy and happiness if your actions are performed only from duty?

This tendency to see self-interest and duty as somehow opposed has led other philosophers to claim that morality is a sham and that everything we do is born out of self-interest — however apparently altruistic our acts may seem. If we give money to somebody in need, these gloomy philosophers claim, it is not because we really care about improving their lives. Instead, it is because we want to be seen by our peers (or even by ourselves) as the kind of person who gives money to those in need.

But perhaps a degree of self-interest is not such a terrible thing after all. In fact, perhaps self-interest is a necessary component of ethics.

Emile Friant La Toussaint 1888. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Imagine the following scenario. Down on your luck, you find yourself homeless. Having no other option, you need to beg for money to buy food. On the first day of begging, you meet Mahmoud. He is cheerful and friendly, and he stops to ask how you are. You say you are hungry, so Mahmoud gives you ten dollars. Then he has a chat and goes away with a spring in his step. Mahmoud clearly feels better about life — and about himself — as a result of his generosity. And as you watch him leave, you not only feel good about the ten dollars, but you also feel good that Mahmoud is feeling good.

The next day, Miriam stops by. She has been reading Kant all morning, and so when she sees you, she gives you ten dollars, recognising that it is her duty to do so. But, because she is a faithful follower of Kant, she is careful not to derive any pleasure from her gift, out of the fear that this might taint its moral worth. As she leaves (heading back from her lunch break to continue reading more Kant), you watch her departing shoulders, hunched in misery. You feel bad for her. And somehow — for reasons you can’t quite put your finger on — you feel worse about life in general.

In other words, for a great many altruistic acts, an element of self-interest — an element of feeling good about acting well — makes these acts more worthwhile (and probably more sustainable as well). When Mahmoud gives you ten dollars, he also gives you the gift of knowing that he feels good about his gift. Mahmoud and you both feel better about life. The presence of self-interest turns a dutiful transaction into a win-win situation, one that augments the value of the gift.

The self-interested reader

There’s a lot more I could say about self-interest in general, and why it is really such a bad thing. But what I’m interested in here is the idea of what it means to read self-interestedly.

Self-interested reading is an approach that side-steps our sense of duty (to ourselves, to others, to the gods of philosophy), and that instead looks for other kinds of pleasure or fulfilment. When reading philosophy, it’s easy to feel burdened with a heavy feeling of dutifulness, with the idea that we should read in a particular way, for particular purposes. And, of course, it may be that there are pressing demands on us, demands that we cannot escape: perhaps we are reading Kant because we are studying for exams, and so we have to read him in a particular way to get a good grade. But beyond these instrumental concerns, reading dutifully can also become a habit, particularly when it comes to philosophy. And when we have acquired this habit, we can start to approach all philosophy books with the burdensome sense that we are in the presence of Great Minds, and that our job, lesser mortals that we are, is to submit to this greatness.

But reading dutifully risks us forgetting to ask, What’s in it for us? And when we forget this question, we risk dulling our sense of life and fun and enjoyment. When we read dutifully, we put our own individuality and our own interests as readers to one side. And if our interests are not at stake when we read, we will be less alert to the possibilities of this new encounter, less lively, our reading less creative.

Self-interested reading is in everyone’s interest

So if you want to get the most out of your reading, perhaps it is in your interests to take your own interests more seriously and to read self-interestedly. But it is not only in your interests. It is in my interests as well, because when you read with greater self-interest, I too stand to gain.

The good thing about self-interested reading is that our interests are all so very different. And this means that the way you read will be different from the way that I read. So, even if we read the same thing, if we read with sufficient self-interest, you will almost inevitably bring things to light that I will miss. You will discover things that I have overlooked. And you will come up with ideas that I couldn’t possibly have come up with myself.

A community of self-interested readers is the kind of community of readers to which I want to belong. Because a community like this is going to be much more richly productive of new ideas and perspectives than a community of dutiful readers. And if we are lucky enough to find ourselves in this kind of community, then when we sit down to talk to our peers about what we have been reading, our conversation will be rooted in the things we care about most, and in the richness of our different experiences of the world.

So, the next time you pick up a philosophy book if you feel that prickling of duty, that sense of obligation to read the book in a particular way, put the book down and take a short break. Then ask yourself, “Why do I want to read this book? Which interests of mine are at stake? What’s in it for me?” When you have a clearer idea of what’s in it for you, what you want to get out of it, pick the book up again, and get started — alive to the things that matter to you most.

This article is part of a series about how to read philosophy differently. Read the earlier pieces in the series here:

7 Ways of Reading Philosophy: An Introduction
7 Ways of Reading Philosophy: #1 Reading Like Napoleon
7 Ways of Reading Philosophy: #2 Reading haphazardly


  1. Immanuel Kant (translated Peter Heath), Lectures on Ethics (Cambridge University Press 1997), p. 3
  2. ibid. p. 229.
  3. Immanuel Kant (translated Mary Gregor), Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (Cambridge University Press 1998), pp. 11–12.

This piece first appeared on Looking for Wisdom: Philosophy for the Insatiably Curious.

Writer & philosopher. PhD philosophy. Stories & ideas to make the world a better place. Next book Hello, Stranger (Granta 2021). Twitter @willbuckingham

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