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Enlightened Self-Interest

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Londo Mollari: During the Shadow War, Sheridan risked his life and the lives of every human on this station to help save our worlds. Would the Gaim have done that for the Pak'ma'ra? Would the Drazi have done that for the Narn? No. That sacrifice must be rewarded.
G'Kar: Since the war, we have begun working together as never before. In the past, we had nothing in common. But now the humans have become the glue that holds us together.
Londo: If Sheridan's forces are defeated, then Earth will turn in upon itself. They will become isolated, or they'll turn against the rest of us. Politically, it is very wise.
G'Kar: Morally, it is even wiser.
Vir Cotto: Politics and morality on the same side? That doesn't happen every day, Delenn.

Enlightened self-interest is a concept in ethics that doing things that benefit others also provides tangible benefits to the do-gooder.

Whether it's a big corporation sponsoring their local PBS station, getting ad time in exchange for helping provide a public service, a nation-state providing humanitarian aid to another in hopes of later reciprocation, or just ordinary people trading favors, the idea is relatively simple: you do well by doing good. It differs from pure altruism in that the do-gooder is actively seeking tangible future benefits (i.e. they're not doing it to make themselves feel good or otherwise being selfless), but is still usually on the optimistic side of the Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism.

Bread and Circuses is this trope applied to The Empire's management of its own populace, treating them well so they won't rebel. A Hegemonic Empire may be formed through a nation practicing this trope.


Compare The Golden Rule, where you treat others the way you want to be treated. Contrast Realpolitik, where nations do underhanded things to serve their own self-interest. Contrast also Selfless Wish and Keep the Reward, both of which involve a character doing something without seeking repayment. May overlap with Pragmatic Villainy and Jerk with a Heart of Jerk in cases where the villain/jerk helps the heroes because their interests coincide with his own, or with Pragmatic Hero when the hero makes a decision to act heroically because it advances his interests rather than because it's "right". See also Secretly Selfish, for when an otherwise altruistic character has an unexamined (or not) selfish ulterior motive.



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    Anime & Manga 
  • The Genius Prince's Guide to Raising a Nation Out of Debt (Hey, How About Treason?): Prince Wein is the acting regent of the impoverished kingdom of Natra and his soldiers are technically loyal to his father and the country rather than himself, so he has to be a benevolent ruler if he wants to avoid a coup and slowly gain their loyalty. He plans to use their eventual loyalty to convince them to allow the Earthworld Empire to annex Natra, allowing him to retire. He also has to choose the most diplomatic means of solving problems because using too much military force will send his country's budget into the red.
  • In Puella Magi Madoka Magica, most of the Puella Magis who made a wish with Kyubey think of this when they make their wish: they wished for someone to prosper so that they will somehow benefit from it as well. The common source of despair in this series is that they often don't get those benefits in the end.

    Fan Works 
  • Discussed in From Bajor to the Black. Kanril Eleya notes an ulterior motive to the orders given by Starfleet Command to the USS Betazed, upon which she served as a gunnery officer, to provide humanitarian aid on request to Romulan worlds regardless of what the Nova Roma government thought about it. Sure, they do it because they're the good guys, but if they can sneak a few planets away from the Romulan Star Empire by doing it, it hurts one of their regional enemies.
  • A Rabbit Among Wolves:
    • After undeservedly gaining a reputation of a brutal murderer, Jaune proceeds to reform the White Fang, give charity to the poor, and attack Vale's corrupt institutions. Jaune has no genuine desire to do any of these things at first, but wants to improve his reputation.
    • Realizing that Jaune is crafting a benevolent image for himself, Ozpin responds with his own PR campaign to help discredit the White Fang and enhance Beacon's reputation. Ruby notes with some frustration that Vale's attempts to help the faunus isn't being done out of altruism, but to discredit Jaune himself.
  • With This Ring: * Enlightened Self-Interest is a main idea of Paul's philosphy for the Orange Lantern Corps. The better an Orange Lantern understands the reasoning behind their desires, the better they can act upon them. Especially in the interest of furthering the Corps' interests, of which an ethical approach to their goals is mandated. Self-actualization and Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs also apply.
    • "As an Orange Lantern, this is something you must be aware of in yourself. An Orange Lantern's ability to use their ring is dependent on understanding and working towards the realisation of your desires." ... "There are an almost infinite number of approaches a person can take to almost anything. But if you've taken up an orange power ring, you have to proceed in a particular way or you cripple yourself." - Back Door (part 4)

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Comes up a few times in Miracle on 34th Street:
    • In Kris' role as the mall Santa Claus, rather than push Macy's overstocked toys on visitors as he's been told to do, he tells them where they can go to get what they actually want, even if it's some other store. When Mr. Macy realizes the unorthodox practice has boosted consumer confidence and actually increased business, he has it implemented in every department of every store in the city. When their chief competitor notices all the good publicity Macy's is getting, they respond by implementing the same practice in every store nationwide. Taking this trope to its most comical extreme, this eventually becomes an Escalating War between Macy's and its main competitor. By the time it's over they two stores are fighting each other for which one can donate medical supplies to a local retirement home.
    • It happens again during Kris' hearing when the judge is reluctant to rule against "Santa Claus" since he knows the public backlash will likely cost him reelection. He therefore allows a lot of leeway for the defense's Courtroom Antics. Also, the post office workers sending the letters to Kris (which won his case) weren't trying to show their support, they just wanted to clear out the dead-letter office. Even the prosecutor can't bring himself to stand up to the Courtroom Antics that much, complaining that the newspapers are making him out to be a heartless monster. He's afraid if he's too earnest in trying to convict "Santa Claus" it would break his son's heart.

  • Honor Harrington:
    • In The Honor of the Queen, the Star Kingdom of Manticore gives a massive tech bump to Grayson and several other planets at great expense and financial risk (huge Crown loans that may or may not ever be repaid) because they need allies and forward operating bases for the upcoming war with Haven. Haven did essentially the same thing, although because of their bad reputation they frequently had to settle for worse options like Masada (they would've preferred Grayson but the Manties got there first and Protector Benjamin was distrustful of their track record anyway), to whom they gave a City-class destroyer and a Sultan-class battlecruiser.
    • The Anderman Empire is known for realpolitik (they're modeled after Prussia, which codified the concept), but they're just as known for expanding their empire by helping out planets in need. This was in fact how they got their start when mercenary Gustav Anderman (who thought he was the reincarnation of Frederick the Great) happened across the struggling planet Kuan Yin and fixed their problem with native microbes killing Terran crops in exchange for their crowning him Emperor and renaming the planet Potsdam.
  • Judge Dee has a scene where Ma Jong is talking with two casino guards, one of them explaining that the place remains stable and prosperous thanks to the three major merchants (the casino owner, an antiques dealer, and a whorehouse owner) recognizing that it's better to make less money in the short term by working with the other two (if a player loses big, he can always sell off an antique or a concubine, if he wins big, he'll want to exchange it for something easier to carry around or a more visible status symbol) than get rich quick via dishonest dealings.
  • Rihannsu: The Romulan concept of honor, mnhei'sahe ("the Ruling Passion") can align with this. Your actions are supposed to be taken in service to you and your own honor first and foremost, but ideally the action will benefit everyone else involved as well. The conflict of the book series is driven mainly by the fact that the political leadership of the Star Empire has forgotten or ignored the second part of that statement.
  • In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Prof. Slughorn has this as his characterization: being a Nice Guy from the otherwise unsavory and self-interested Slytherin House, he often helps people he thinks would have potential to become great so that he will gain some benefit some way or another later. This backfired with Tom "Lord Voldemort" Riddle, to whom he provided information on dark magics such as the Horcrux, and he regards it as My Greatest Failure. However, Slughorn is surprisingly lax with his requests from his old proteges, usually being sports tickets, sweets or such modesties. Granted, he was retired by the start of the series so it's likely he had no real ambition by his age except to enjoy his golden years in comfort (at least until Dumbledore convinces to come out of retirement and return as a professor).
  • In the anthology of short stories Litmus (literature dramatising and explaining advances in science) author Maggie Gee offers the story "Living With Insects". This deals with the work of real-life biologist Bill Hamilton, who theorised and demonstrated that Nature does not have to be red in tooth and claw. Hamilton dealt with social insects, and in particular was seeking to resolve issues with "gender-neutral" species that even Darwin admitted could not be resolved according to his concept of evolution. Hamilton not only created a framework for resolving Darwin's enigmas, but he also demonstrated that the social insects offer a new route to evolutionary progress that might be even more efficient than "survival of the fittest" via continual competition. Hamilton suggested the social altruism practiced by ants, bees, etc., offers a co-operative method for societies to evolve and grow for less effort expended—therefore much more efficient. "Hamilton's Law", in biology and zoology, condenses this into c < br.note 
  • In the short story "A Woman's Work'' by Tanya Huff, the Evil Overlady builds hospitals and schools for her citizens, as this makes her popular and less likely to be assassinated. It also enables her to influence what the kids are taught, and who gets to be healed.
  • In Time Enough for Love, Lazarus Long observes, "Never appeal to a man's 'better nature'. He may not have one. Invoking his self-interest gives you more leverage."
  • The protagonists of Safehold tend to lampshade those occasions when doing the politically expedient thing coincides with also doing the right thing. Specific examples include providing much needed food to the civil war-torn Republic of Siddarmark, which also nets them an equally much needed mainland ally, and not assassinating the Earl of Thirsk, which is decided both because he's a Worthy Opponent who deserves better and because removing him presents the risk of someone less willing to oppose the Inquisition replacing him.
  • Atlas Shrugged is a novel about what happens when the Creator class (geniuses, innovators, entrepreneurs) defies this trope, which they realise is a lie that allows the Moocher class (everyone else) to steal value from them. Instead they choose to 'shrug' the burden of supporting all the worthless people in human society and act completely selfishly for a change, not only allowing the Moocher class to die but speeding up their inevitable demise through acts of sabotage and piracy. This is portrayed as a good moral choice for the Creator-class characters who choose to do this because these particular people are shown to have No Sympathy for the Moochers. Ergo, if these Creators acted to save the Moochers' lives (when they didn't want to) then that would be immoral since it went against their inner drives. Ayn Rand was quite clear on the point that while helping other people was not immoral per se, it was if you didn't want to.
  • In The Truce at Bakura, the Rebel Alliance intervenes in an Alien Invasion of the Imperial planet Bakura despite having suffered heavy casualties mere days earlier at the Battle of Endor. Getting an Imperial world to switch sides so soon after Emperor Palpatine's death would have enormous propaganda value, and moreover Bakura is a mid-scale supplier of repulsorlift engines and components, a Boring, but Practical but rather important strategic resource.
  • A rather important theme of The Lost Fleet series, as recently-defrosted Human Popsicle John Geary struggles against the Alliance Navy's habitual disregard of the laws and customs of war. The Syndicate Worlds treated its prisoners of war poorly even from the beginning, which led to retaliation by the Alliance, which led to retaliation by the Syndics... rinse and repeat for a century of all-out war. Geary frames his argument for breaking this cycle in terms of this trope and is ultimately proven right: At one point late in the series, a group of his subordinates who were briefly captured by the enemy report that some Syndicate Space Marines disobeyed orders to kill them before they could be rescued explicitly in return for Geary having refused to Sink the Lifeboats during a previous engagement.
  • In The Irregular at Magic High School, Tatsuya gives Masaki (a piece of the) weaponry that could effortlessly make him a war hero. Tatsuya does this because- aside from their country being in danger on multiple fronts- he is currently the target of a media swarm that makes it impossible for him and his fiancee to leave the house. Masaki's new status as a celebrity- which he minds much less than Tatsuya did- diverts the journalists' interest.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Babylon 5 name-drops the concept a number of times, though it should be noted the show goes up and down the Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism depending on the episode, with member nations of the Babylon 5 Advisory Council engaging in both enlightened self-interest and Realpolitik.
    • Discussed by G'Kar in season one's "Survivors". Garibaldi has been framed for plotting to assassinate President Luis Santiago (this is well before he actually was assassinated), and G'Kar offers to grant him asylum on Narn in hopes of making use of his skillset. (Garibaldi declines, instead choosing to Clear My Name.)
    • In the first half of season four, G'Kar and Londo Mollari make a pact of mutual benefit: Londo will end the Centauri occupation of the Narn homeworld if G'Kar helps Londo overthrow Emperor Cartagia, an Omnicidal Maniac.
    • In season four's "Between the Darkness and the Light", G'Kar and Londo Mollari convince the Babylon 5 member governments to throw their militaries behind Sheridan's war against President William Clark. The two of them note that it's both the morally upright choice and a sound decision from a foreign policy standpoint: if Sheridan's rebels should lose, Clark's anti-alien regime means they'll lose the humans as trade partners and potentially gain one of the region's major superpowers as an enemy.
      Vir Cotto: Politics and morality on the same side? That doesn't happen every day, Delenn.
  • In the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Whom Gods Destroy", the insane Garth tries to convince Kirk and Spock that they should be friends (with the implication that the other option would be "or I kill you").
    Spock: On what, precisely, is our friendship to be based?
    Garth: Upon the firmest of foundations, Mister Spock. Enlightened self-interest.
  • In the first season Blue Bloods episode "Officer Down", The Mafia helps out when the NYPD goes on a Cop Killer Manhunt against a suspect with mafia ties. Grandpa Henry Reagan explains that when he was on the force the five families actually had explicit rules that cops were off-limits because dead officers are even worse for business than live ones.
  • Discussed on Friends, when Joey argues to Phoebe that there's no such thing as a selfless good deed since everyone expects something good in return, even if just the feeling of having done something good. Phoebe spends the episode trying to prove him wrong, with no success. It culminates in her making a $200 pledge to PBS, which she took no pleasure in doing (as it reminded her of the time in her life from right after her mother's suicide), though acknowledging that there were children out there who benefited from the channel in terms of its educational value. Unfortunately, her donation was picked up by Joey, who was participating in a PBS telethon at the time, and the size of it got him the television exposure that he had sought in the first place.
    Phoebe: [excitedly] Oh, look, look, Joey's on TV! Isn't that great? Hey, my pledge got Joey on TV! Oh, that makes me feel so- Oh, no!
  • In Madam Secretary, title character Elizabeth McCord often appeals to enlightened self-interest as leverage to achieve policy goals that for her are altruistic.
    • In "The Call" she tries to get President Dalton and his chief of staff Russell Jackson on board with stopping genocide in Africa with the idea that doing so protects a supply of bauxite (aluminum ore, for non-geologists). Subverted in that she's clearly grasping at straws, which Jackson lampshades, and she gives up on that approach.
    • In "Face the Nation" she and Mike B get a nonprofit to buy up a big chunk of the Ecuadorian Amazon so that the Chinese don't get it. What seals the deal is that it also lets the nonprofit's owner piss off a powerful oil magnate.
    • In a flashback in "There But for the Grace of God", she authors a memo to stop "enhanced interrogation" which focuses on torture's inefficiency rather than its immorality (the part she's more concerned about).
    • In "Sea Change" she talks President Dalton into closing the Navy base in Manama, Bahrain after it's damaged by a cyclone and moving its assets to Tunisia. For her it's about supporting a fledgling democracy and screwing the human rights-abusing Bahraini government, while Dalton gets to flip the bird to a campaign donornote  who jumped ship to his primary opponent, resulting in his loss.
  • Community episode "Advanced Gay" has Racist Grandpa Pierce Hawthorne embrace the fact that Hawthorne Wipes has become an icon in the gay community. Mostly because of the increased profits.


    Tabletop Games 
  • Warhammer 40,000: This is the theory behind the Tau Empire's philosophy of the Greater Good, that multiple species can work together and still attain their own goals. For example, the Kroot seek new enemies to diversify their genetic material, so they work with the Tau as frontline troops to get plenty of meat and DNA. Like every slightly positive aspect of 40K, it's best not examined too closely, as it's possible the Tau use mind-control devices to make sure their allies don't forget about the "benefits everyone" part.
    • Commissar Cain note  claims that this is why he treats his soldiers with respect and at least appears to care for their lives: Commissars that are too unpopular and maintain order with BLAM-ings tend to find themselves on the wrong end of lasguns carried by the people they terrorized. Of course, whether he's being coldly pragmatic or a Humble Hero is all up for debate.

    Video Games 
  • Basically every The Legend of Zelda game ever has Link doing sidequests for people and being rewarded with Heart Containers or other useful items. Taken even further in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, where doing these quests results in their gratitude crystallizing, and taking these physical emotions to a demonic-looking man under the city dispels his curse (and he rewards you with larger wallets).
  • In Star Trek Online, Chancellor J'mpok's motivation for throwing the Klingon Empire's support behind D'Tan's Romulan Republic is that it's a way to conquer one of the Empire's bitterest foes, the Romulans, without firing a shot: they get the Republic as allies and hurt the still-hostile Romulan Star Empire.
  • BioShock doesn't mention the concept by name, but deals with it (unsurprisingly, as it's largely a critique of Objectivism, mentioned under Literature and Real Life). Like Ayn Rand, Andrew Ryan seems to dismiss the notion offhand, refusing to contract any kind of social benefits or safety nets in Rapture. On the other hand, gangster Frank Fontaine builds poorhouses and other amenities for the poverty-stricken inhabitants of the city, and consequently when he decides to rise up against Ryan, he's got a veritable army on his side. Both of these cynical viewpoints are counterbalanced by Dr. Tenenbaum, who genuinely wants to help both the victims of Rapture.
  • BattleTech:
    • The Magistracy of Canopus bankrolls Kamea Arano's efforts to retake the throne of the Aurigan Coalition after her uncle Santiago Espinosa overthrows her in a Military Coup. Kamea is a genuinely decent person, but the Canopians are more interested in the fact that her uncle's saber-rattling is ramping up tensions between The 'Verse's superpowers, and they have no appetite for another galactic war. It also puts a neighboring third-tier star nation in the Canopians' debt and gives them a forward base on the border of the Taurian Concordat.
    • Backfires somewhat when the Taurians join the Proxy War, but that in itself is an example: the Taurians were duped into thinking Kamea had massacred civilians and was being helped by the Taurians' Arch-Enemy the Federated Suns. When they learn it was an Espinosa False Flag Operation, they pull out and leave the Espinosas to their fate.
  • In The Outer Worlds, Sanjar Nandi is a rare example of an Honest Corporate Executive in a setting where almost every corporate higher-up is either corrupt, incompetent or a combination of both. His corporation espouses such values as worker's rights and not putting profits over lives, with Sanjar noting that not only are happy and healthy workers more productive, his employees also happen to be his customers so it's in his best interest to keep them happy.
  • Mega-Corp Empires in Stellaris are a Mechanically Unusual Class that encourage this mentality to some degree. Corporate empires tend to have certain job variants that generate extra Trade, and with the Trade League Federation that they can create, they can easily generate large amounts of luxury goods and foster a thriving corporate culture, which makes it easy to enable Utopian Abundance living standards for their population, bringing a high Approval Rating and thus high Stability. They can also open Branch Offices on planets belonging to other empires, which generate Energy Credits for the Megacorps based on how thriving said planet's economy is, so they are encouraged to help these economies to thrive just to collect the massive dividends this would bring them. Their Branch Offices also allow them to build unique Corporate buildings, which gives resources to the Corporation, but also creates local employment (creating resources for the local authority).

    Real Life 
  • An insincere example of this was Italy during the First World War, which declared neutrality at the start of the conflict. Italian Prime Minister Antonio Salandra called his policy "sacro egoismo" - "sacred self-interest." In practice it meant seeing who would pay more to have Italy join the war on their side.
  • Most of the funding for PBS and NPR actually comes from companies that make big donations to fund the networks and stations in exchange for being name-dropped on air. Likewise, Viewers Like You most often donate during pledge drives not just because they enjoy the programming, but because of the goodies that they get in return.
  • At the outset of the Cold War, with much of Europe, especially Germany, in ruins from World War II, President Harry Truman enacted the Marshall Plan, tasking the United States with rebuilding western Europe. Truman's ulterior motive, of course, was that getting western Europe back on its feet would stop them from electing communist governments and/or seeking Soviet (reconstruction) aid.
  • His predecessor did the same before and after the US entered World War II, selling the UK war materiel, food, and other commodities at reasonable prices (or even on-loan) partly because it was profitable and helped the USA's economic recovery, partly because it saved Anglo-Saxon civilians' lives, and partly because it helped keep Hitler at bay.
  • This is the gist of crowdfunding services such as Kickstarter: if the product doesn't end up being Vapor Ware, the pledges receive some goodies as well.
  • Under Otto von Bismarck, Imperial Germany implemented some of the first social welfare policies in the world. But this was not out of any sympathy for socialism or the workers, but because Bismarck wanted to deter socialist revolution.
  • Objectivism is this philosophy turned Up to Eleven. It posits that helping others to materially benefit yourself is the only moral way in which a selfish person can act altruistically and that helping others without materially benefitting from doing so is both objectively irrational and morally wrong for selfish people. Oddly, Objectivism — as defined by its creator Ayn Rand — asserts that helping others to immaterially (reputation, gratitude, etc) benefit yourself is morally wrong because your interests are not advanced in an objectively quantifiable way. Psychologists speculate that this oversight stems from Rand's reasons for developing the philosophy, namely to "rationalise"/justify her emotional desire not to be beholden to her (loving, supportive) family and her friendless background. Since her death, Objectivists have moved towards accepting immaterial versions of this trope.
  • In theory, this is a core tenet of capitalism. Since all economic exchanges are voluntary, buying and selling only occur when both parties feel that they benefit from the deal. Companies are incentivized to provide the best possible product at the lowest possible cost, and to keep their customers happy, solely because doing so maximizes their profits. Conservation of scarce resources and development of new technologies and techniques come with clear economic benefits, so even entirely selfish people will do so. How well this works out in real life can be debated elsewhere.


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