Friday, Jun 14, 2013, 11 AM

Stephen Holmes

Self-Interest as Self-Delusion

Remarking that rational-choice theorists (he called them English psychologists) claimed that all human behavior was motivated by rational self-interest, Nietzsche asked what motivated them to make this claim. His answer was not rational self-interest, of course, but rather a desire to make all other human beings seem to be as insipid and colorless as they, the rational-choice theorists, knew themselves to be. The fundamental inadequacy of the rational self-interest postulate, which assumes that all human beings naturally maximize utility, can be exposed most “economically” by drawing attention to four empirical facts about the human mind: human desires are unstable and contradictory (we often want and do not want the same thing at the same time); human beliefs about the world are unstable and often mutually inconsistent; desires irrationally shape beliefs (wishful thinking, fearful thinking); and beliefs irrationally shape desires (we often cease desiring what we are taught to believe is unobtainable). Taken together, these four components of motivation explain human behavior more straightforwardly than convoluted fantasies about the prisoner’s dilemma or attempts to reconcile the self-destructiveness of observed behavior with the empirically implausible hypothesis that human beings are naturally oriented toward benefiting themselves.

After receiving his Ph.D. from Yale in 1976, Stephen Holmes taught briefly at Yale and Wesleyan Universities before becoming a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in 1978. He next moved to Harvard University’s Department of Government, where he stayed until 1985. That same year he joined the faculty at the University of Chicago, with positions in the Political Science Department and the Law School. From 1997 to 2000, Holmes was Professor of Politics at Princeton University. In 2000, he moved to New York University School of Law, where he is currently Walter E. Meyer Professor of Law and faculty codirector of the Center on Law and Security. In 2000/01 he was a fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. His publications include Benjamin Constant and the Making of Modern Liberalism (1984), The Anatomy of Antiliberalism (1993), Passions and Constraint: On the Theory of Liberal Democracy (1995), The Cost of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxes (with Cass R. Sunstein, 1998), and The Matador’s Cape: America’s Reckless Response to Terror (2007).

The event will be held in English