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The Dynamic Relationship between Self-Interest and Ethics in Human Motivation

Jul 4, 2023 | 0 comments

Jul 4, 2023 | Essays | 0 comments


According to Gagné (2014), everything people do in their lives, they do for themselves. Self-interest motivates most people to pursue different things in life for their own pleasure. Andre and Velasquez (2015) asserted that everything people do daily in their lives is ultimately done for their benefit. In some situations, it is obvious for personal gains such as praise or public admiration and in other circumstances, it is not. The argument that human beings act because of self-interest is not new. However, if it is true that people act from their egoistic motives, then talking about ethics is hard. This is because it is traditionally conceived that ethics is supposed to override human beings’ self-interest. If an individual has a moral obligation of doing something, then he ought to do it even when it is not in their interest (Ryan 2012). McKay (2014) argued that human actions motivate self-interest even in the charity acts since they occur so as the giver will assuage a guilty conscience or feel better or set a good example. Therefore, no matter how capable, honest, experienced or good an individual is, no one is exempted from self-interest.

According to McKay (2014), in most societies, money represents what will satisfy most people’s wants and need. Therefore, when a situation holds for a possibility for huge reward financially, people are normally more than willing to invest great efforts in the form of scheming, designing, thinking, and working. Therefore, an economic system that is grounded in every individual opportunity to gratify their desire for money and what the money represents really capitalizes on the constant, universal, and often compelling or intense self-interest motivations


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The conflict between ethics and self-interest in a competitive environment

The question that needs to be answered is why self-interest drives pressure people to cross the legal and ethical lines. McKay (2014) pointed out that if people perform actions that are both legal and ethical and avoid unethical behaviors in a competitive environment, they commit themselves to a serious disadvantage. Individuals who are willing to play near the lines of ethics and even cross it over increases their number of alternatives available to them. This always gives them a competitive advantage in the environment. Furthermore, the more alternative actions available, the greater the competitive ability. This explains the reasons why the urge of stepping over the line in a competitive environment can be strong

The virtue of greed

It can be called self-interest, selfishness, or greed, but the bottom line is that they are the human motivations that get things done. According to Williams (2015), this should not be confused that its concern or compassion. Adam Smith, who is considered the father of economists said that “it is not from the benevolence of the baker, brewer or the butcher, that people expect dinner, but from their consideration to their own interest.” Similarly, he also said that “I have never known much good that is done by the people who are concerned in trading for the good of the public.” In other words, Smith meant that the good of the public is promoted best by the individuals who are pursuing their personal interests. These people are not concerned with results but with motives (Williams, 2015).

A close examination of the Chinese and the Soviet economies, they collapsed because people or the citizens were not allowed to have personal enterprises where they can explore their capabilities maximally. The gains from individual initiatives and innovations being harvested as a communal or as a public good, productivity froze, and innovation ceased. This simply shows that the bottom line for human motivation is self-interest. For a pay to have to mean, it must be related to the performance. Without the relationship, the pay has no meaning and becomes just a mere entitlement.

Kohn (2013) stated that giving some people rewards necessitated the penalization of other people. Perhaps the best response can be the apt aphorism of Winston Churchill when he said that “the communism virtue is the equal sharing amongst people its misery, and the capitalism vice is the unequal sharing amongst people it is a blessing.” In simple terms, it is impossible to have outcome equality with the dynamic, robust economy everyone wants.

Ordinary citizens responsive to incentives is demonstrated in the economy daily. According to Miller (2015), the consumers will cut their consumption in response to the price increase “penalty,” and increase their purchase in response to the lower price “bribe.” The pricing system allocates scarce resources efficiently and precisely because it is rewarding the individuals who conserve and, on the other hand, penalizes the people who fail to respond

Self-interest, employee motivation, and reward systems

Employee motivation is the instructed enthusiasm by an employee and the drive to accomplish work. According to Baker III and Wolters (2015), self-interest reaches a point when employees keep asking themselves, what is in for them? What do they stand to gain from their exclusive job performance? Research shows that from the minute they ask themselves that question, they lose focus, concentrate on misplaced priorities, and begin to underperform bringing the organization down.

According to Kohn (2013), it is very much difficult to elaborate the extent to which the majority of company managers and their advisers believe that the power of rewards is redemptive. Certainly, the majority of companies apply different programs intended at motivating their effecting the rate of premiums. For instance, an insurance firm that operates with many employees by linking their compensation to specific performance indexes. However, what is striking most is the belief that is rarely examined that people will work optimally or do a better job in their companies if they have been given promises of different incentives. The practice and this assumption are widespread, but increasing evidence indicates a contrary view. According to several studies conducted in classrooms, workplaces, laboratories, and other settings, typically rewards undermine the same processes they are supposed to enhance (Crumpton 2013; Bryson & Tanguy 2012; Miller 2015). By the view of Kohn (2013), the findings from these studies suggest that any given incentive program failure is not because of the programming glitch but because of the inadequacy of the basal; psychological assumptions on such programs.

The question that the essay will ask is whether reward works in any given circumstances. Research indicates that, to a large extent, rewards are successful in securing temporary compliance. This implies that rewards do not create a commitment that is enduring to any action or value. They are temporary or merely change what people do, therefore, as Baker III and Wolters (2015) asserted, at workplaces, incentives simply cannot work.

According to Crumpton (2013), the best approach for business is to carve the workers into sharing a portion of the profit they contributed in making for the company. The profits for a company should be defined following the relevant terms of cash flow after all employed cost of capital is covered. This measure referred to as Economic Value Added provides companies and businesses operate with certain expectations and values. employees with three distinct incentives: to grow profitability, to improve profitability, and to withdraw resources from uneconomic activities. Additionally, it ties their energies and decisions to the net present value of their company directly.

Currently, companies are under high pressure to improve quality and efficiency while at the same time their resources are limited severely. It is appealing to many managers to fiddle with schemes for compensation as a cheap way of improving the performance of their companies by providing their employees with incentives to work harder. Bryson & Tanguy (2012) pointed out that in the United States, there is a long history of reliance on individual incentives as a way of motivating the workers to spur productivity. In the 1950s, the United States human resource model partly evolved in response to the current industrial psychology theories of the time. By designing schemes for compensation that recognize and reward differences among individuals, companies had expectations of reaping the rewards of improved job performance and increased employee motivation. This concept continues presently in informing thinking among managers.


In conclusion, self-interest is the bottom line of human motivation. The essay defined the concept of self-interest and its characteristics in humans. Furthermore, it discussed the conflict between self-interest and ethics in a competitive environment. Self-interest has also been shown to be perpetuated by the virtue of greed among people from a different perspective. Lastly, the essay discussed the reward systems managers apply and how self-interest manifests amongst the managers and the employees in companies.


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Baker III, G., and Wolters, D. (2015). Rethinking Rewards. [online] Harvard Business Review. Available at: https://hbr.org/1993/11/rethinking-rewards [Accessed 17 Sep. 2015].

Bryson, J. J., & Tanguy, E. J. (2012). Simplifying the Design of Human-Like Behaviour.

Crumpton, M. (2013). Keeping the motivation going. Bottom Line: Mg Lib Finances, 26(4), pp.144-146.

Gagné, M. (2014). The Oxford handbook of work engagement, motivation, and self-determination theory.

Kohn, A. (2013). Punished by rewards: the trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Co.

McKay, Q. (2014). The bottom line on integrity. Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith.

Miller, D. (2015). The Norm of Self-Interest. [online] Faculty-gsb.stanford.edu. Available at: http://faculty-gsb.stanford.edu/millerd/docs/1999amerpsyc.html [Accessed 17 Sep. 2015].

Ryan, R. M. (2012). The Oxford handbook of human motivation. New York, Oxford University Press.

Williams, W. (2015). The Virtue of Greed. [online] Econfaculty.gmu.edu. Available at: http://econfaculty.gmu.edu/wew/articles/99/nature-of-greed.htm [Accessed 16 Sep. 2015].

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