Motivation: the role of self-interest

In much of traditional thought about human action the most basic of all differences in types of human motivation has been held to be that between "egoistic" and "altruistic" motives. Correlative with this there has been the tendency to identify this classification with the concrete motives of different spheres of activity: the business man has been thought of as egoistically pursuing his own self-interest regardless of the interests of others, while the professional man was altruistically serving the interests of others regardless of his own. Seen in this context the professions appear not only as empirically somewhat different from business, but the two fields would seem to exemplify the most radical cleavage conceivable in the field of human behavior.

If it can be shown that the difference with respect to self-interest does not preclude very important institutional similarities in other respects, a further possibility suggests itself. Perhaps even in this respect the difference is not so great as our predominantly economic and utilitarian orientation of thought would lead us to believe. Perhaps even it is not mainly a difference of typical motive at all, but one of the different situations in which much the same commonly human motives operate. Perhaps the acquisitiveness of modern business is institutional rather than motivational.

Returning to the professions, however, study of the relation of social structure to individual action in this field can, as it was suggested earlier, by comparison throw light on certain other theoretically crucial aspects of the problem of the role of self-interest itself. In the economic and related utilitarian traditions of thought the difference between business and the professions in this respect has strongly tended to be interpreted as mainly a difference in the typical motives of persons acting in the respective occupations. The dominance of a business economy has seemed to justify the view that ours was an "acquisitive society" in which every one was an "economic man" who cared little for the interests of others. Professional men, on the other hand, have been thought of as standing about these sordid considerations, devoting their lives to "service" of their fellow men.

There is no doubt that there are important concrete differences. Business men are, for instance, expected to push their financial interests by such aggressive measures as advertising. They are not expected to sell to customers regardless of the probability of their being paid, as doctors are expected to treat patients. In each immediate instance in one sense the doctor could, if he did these things according to the business pattern, gain financial advantages which conformity with his own professional pattern denies him. Is it not then obvious that he is "sacrificing" his self-interest for the benefit of others?

The situation does not appear to be so simple. It is seldom, even in business, that the immediate financial advantage to be derived from a particular transaction is decisive in motivation. Orientation is rather to a total comprehensive situation extending over a considerable period of time. Seen in these terms the difference may lie rather in the "definitions of the situation" than in the typical motives of actors as such.

Perhaps the best single approach to the distinction of these two elements is in the question, in what do the goals of ambition consist? There is a sense in which, in both cases, the dominant goal may be said to be the same, "success." To this there would appear to be two main aspects, a satisfactory modicum of attainment of the technical goals of the respective activities, such as on the one hand increasing the size and improving the business portion of the firm for which the individual is in whole or in part responsible, or attaining a good proportion of cures or substantial improvement in the condition of patients. The other aspect is the attainment of high standing in one's occupational group, "recognition" in Thomas' term. In business this will involve official position in the firm, income, and that rather intangible but none the less important thing "reputation," as well as perhaps particular "honors" such as election to clubs and the like. In medicine it will similarly involve size and character of practice, income, hospital and possibly medical school appointments, honors, and again reputation. The essential goals in the two cases would appear to be substantially the same, objective achievement and recognition: the difference lies in the different paths to the similar goals, which are in turn determined by the differences in the respective occupational situations.

There are two particularly important empirical qualifications to what has been said. In the first place certain things are important not only as symbols of recognition, but in other contexts as well. This is notably true of money. Money is significant for what it can buy, as well as in the role of a direct symbol of recognition. Hence in so far as ways of earning money present themselves in the situation which are not strictly in the line of institutionally approved achievement, there may be strong pressure to resort to them so long as the risk of loss of occupational status is not too great.

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