The Problem of the Self in Economics and Business

As a student (and later as a professor) of economics and business I was not ready to accept the centrality of self-interest in motivating business actions and evaluating the performance of companies. I have never shared the belief of mainstream economists and businessmen about the benefitial effects of the “invisible hand” of the market. I always felt that something fundamentally wrong with the self-interest doctrine.

Buddhism provided me with a revelational insight. Buddhism poses a radical challenge for mainstream economics and business because denies the existence of the self. Its basic doctrine is “anatta”, the “no-self”. Modern neuroscience supports the Buddhist view of the self. What neuroscientists discovered can be called the selfless (or virtual self), a coherent global pattern, which seems to be centrally located, but is nowhere to be found. The non-localizable, non-substantial self acts as if it were present, like a virtual interface.

If there is no such thing as the “self” in the Western sense, how can we develop a selfless economics and business? This question motivate my teaching and research activities for almost 20 years.

We know that economics and business students are more self-interested than others when they begin their study, and we also know that studying mainstream economics and business make them to belief that self-interest is the only legitimate and rational motive of human action. The real challenge is to try to convince economics and business students and professionals that they should do the opposite what they feel to most natural thing to do.

However, a selfless orientation in economic and business life is not entirely hopeless. We are able to demonstrate to our students the detrimental ecological, social and psychological effects of the self-interested behavior of today’s businesses. When I show the actual figures of the ecological overshot (i.e. ecological transgression) of the most advanced (and most self-interest based) economies, my students usually are shocked. USA, Canada, and the Scandinavian countries exceed 500-600 % of their fair ecological share. In addition, these advanced countries produce considerable “welfare malaise” and social dysfuntionality.

If we are not able to undermine the culture of self-interest in economics and business there will be no future for humanity and nature. Sustainability and human prosperity is not possible any more using the old-fashioned model of producing and trading things.

In more than 200 years ago in his Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith praised self-interest in the following way: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages”. (Book I, Chapter II, para 2) I think that contemporary results of behavioral science and positive psychology show that there is a place for care and compassion in doing business. We can say that it is not the self-love the butchers, the brewers and the bakers will bring sustainable food for us but their love of producing quality food and their respect for the land and communities which they are embedded. Passion for good may triumph self-interest.

The interdisciplinary and culturally diverse learning environment what we develop for almost 15 years in various programs of CEMS – Global Alliance for Management Education has a promise that a different world is possible. A world where – paraphrasing John Maynard Keynes – its is not valid any more that the selfish is good because it is useful.