Law in Contemporary Society

Addressing Societal Evils By Promoting Egocentrism

The Problem

We live in a nation with persistent inequality, discrimination, and abuse. The United States is marked with persistent wage inequality, high rates of homelessness, vast gender pay gaps and occupational gender segregation, vast racial gaps within education and high-skilled occupations, persistent housing segregation, stagnant income mobility, and absurdly high incarceration rates and class bias within the criminal system. Despite these iniquities, we have adopted the philosophy that if it does not affect us, it does not exist. We only care about ourselves—our safety, comfort, and satisfaction, to the detriment of our neighbors.

Egocentrism as a Solution

In an ideal world, we would stop focusing on our own interests and instead focus on how we can best promote social benefits. Unfortunately, our consistent refusal to do this indicates that such a change is unlikely to happen. If we are going to make any progress, which is vital if we ever truly want to live in a democratic, humane society, we need to start somewhere. Since we are incapable of a complete ideological overhaul, we must start with the easiest method: we need to take advantage of our egocentric focus on self-preservation and self-promotion to begin addressing inequality, discrimination, and abuse within our society.

What Does This Mean?

If our egocentric desires are exacerbating these problems in the first place, how can they solve it?

1: Combating Incarceration

Our societal push to harshly punish criminals is based on self-serving interests. We feel safe when criminals are locked up and vindicated when they face a lifetime of penalties. These selfish interests are better served through alternatives to incarceration. If we want personal vengeance and safety, we need to change criminals, not lock them up temporarily. We can best achieve our self-interests by advancing rehabilitative and welfare programs, fines, and community service. This improves the lives of those in the criminal system, while allowing society to continue its self-centered pursuits.

2: Encouraging Pro Bono Work

Most big law firms promote the amount of pro bono work that they do in order to self-justify their main focus on big businesses and the elite. By claiming a commitment to pro bono work, they feel better about themselves. Encouraging pro bono work increases access to quality lawyers for those who truly need it, while allowing attorneys to continue their self-centered pursuits of wealth and validation.

Criticisms and Defining “Self Interest” and “Social Benefit”

We can mold our selfish interests into useful actions that target societal problems. However, this is not a complete solution. The issue becomes how we define “self-interest” and “social benefit”. The solution I present does not resolve the fact that we disassociate and ignore endless evils. It does not eliminate our selfish, self-promotional focus nor will it eliminate criminal activity. It does not perfectly guarantee that every self-interested individual will define their interests and pursuit of such in the exact way we need to attain desirable outcomes for the majority. But, regardless of individual preference and potential criminality, self-interest achieves desirable social benefits.


People may prefer alternative methods of obtaining societal goods. An attorney might not reflect at all on positives he derives from pro bono cases, and instead uses his paid work, his relationships, and his hobbies, to foster happiness and self-satisfaction. A robbery victim in a high-crime neighborhood might not care at all about incarceration or rehabilitation of the criminal, and instead obtains safety only through locks on her doors and a camera outside her front porch.

In these instances, the self-interested individual does not see my proposed solutions as the answer to their needs. However, this is not detrimental. The attorney, regardless of what he personally derives from it, continues to take pro bono cases because his boss expects him to. Even though he may not identify pro bono cases as a self-interested pursuit, it becomes implicit, in that it is an expectation of his job, and he subconsciously seeks to perform positively in his work, so as to ensure an income and security for himself and his family. He continues to produce socially beneficial services; he just does not explicitly identify his self-interested actions as his means for achieving his desired outcomes.

“Social Benefit”

Similarly, the issue of criminality hinges on our definition of “social benefits”. Crimes can benefit society. Prisoners provide labor, and fines paid in retribution of crimes help fund the system. Robberies, for example, might increase manufacturing jobs in order to replace stolen goods, while general crime increases law enforcement jobs and legislative work. Not only that, but a criminal himself may benefit from receiving food and shelter while incarcerated. These are all social benefits, in the broadest definition of the term. It is when we begin to narrow the definition, into benefits that are derived from positive actions, for example, that my proposed solution becomes problematic.

Ultimately, we may want to find a way to encourage positive pursuits of self-interest, while limiting detrimental pursuits. How that may be achieved, I am not yet sure. My proposed solution is broad, and assumes that all pursuits will be in the interest of society—it fails to consider instances where a person might pursue wealth, for example, by stealing or killing another. Thus, the path forward must consider these implications and identify how we can best foster positive pursuits.


We should take advantage of our egocentrism in promoting social benefits. However, we must also recognize the limitations of such pursuit, and identify how we define “self-interests” and “social benefits”. It likely does not matter whether an individual explicitly or implicitly identifies his actions as in pursuit of his needs; all that matters are the residual effects the actions have on society. We do, however, need to work on isolating and encouraging positive self-interest pursuits, while simultaneously continuing to work on ideological shifts and a growing focus on the importance of addressing discrimination, inequality, and other issues within society.


Webs Webs

r3 - 01 Jun 2017 - 17:44:45 - MaeghanMurphy
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM