Contemplative Economics: Towards a New Model of ‘Self’-Interest

Daniel Barbezat

Daniel Barbezat – pioneering contemplative economics

That individuals will always act rationally, in their own self-interest, was once a basic economic assumption. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky ruptured that cozy notion, utilizing psychological insights to enrich the economic understanding of human behavior. Kahneman and Tversky cast a new light on Adam Smith’s invisible hand, portraying it not as a mechanism that aggregates mass self-interest into social utility, but as a bundle of subconscious cognitive biases to which we are all victims.

But just as economics was revolutionized only when the budding claims of psychology gained enough steam to overturn the antiquated economic model of rationality, a new field may now be nearing the threshold to disrupt an even deeper tenet of economic thinking: self-interest.

The emerging discipline of what may be called contemplative science – fueled by surges in: neuro-imaging technologies, psychedelic research, revitalized interest in spiritual practices, dialogue between philosophy of mind and cognitive science, and thirst for a secular spirituality grounded in something more than material gain – is questioning the rigid notion of ‘self’ in whose interest we act. Once considered a discrete entity, the ego, the “I” whose life we’re living, serving as the unquestionable ground of our subjectivity, may not be the sturdy foundation for a life well lived we once thought.

If it turns out that we don’t have a firm answer to the question of what the self actually is, then the entire notion of a rational economic decision, ones that are predicated upon a fixed idea of self-interest, comes into question. Utility is increased when self-interest is most efficiently served. But if the self is enigmatic, then so too is the utility derived.

Why are you unhappy?
Because 99.9 percent
Of everything you think
And of everything you do,
Is for yourself – 
And there isn’t one.”
~ Wei Wu Wei, Ask the Awakened (1963)

We needn’t enter the unruly terrain of claiming there to be no self. There’s certainly a body with an associated mind that thinks about, and for, itself. But recent debate veers more towards the idea that ‘self’ is a representational model, a conglomerate of cognitive processes that bundle together to create a coherent experience – a useful evolutionary strategy. The self becomes more like a virtual reality composed by our brains than an underlying, existent thing in the world.

The economic implications here are vast. Self-interest is the basis of utility. Utility is defined by Merriam-Webster as, “fitness for some purpose or worth to some end.” This end has traditionally been self-interest, which evolved within the context of survival motives. For the majority of human development, brain’s were tasked with piloting their bodily vessel amidst a challenging environment that demanded a certain egotistical nature in order to survive. But what if this evolved model of self is now antiquated? Developed over 200,000 years under the survival imperative, this existential creed to which self-interest is bound may now be, for some of us, dangerously outdated. In this spirit, renowned economist John Maynard Keynes notes:

Thus we have been expressly evolved by nature – with all our impulses and deepest instincts – for the purpose of solving the economic problem. If the economic problem is solved, mankind will be deprived of its traditional purpose…Meanwhile there will be no harm in making mild preparations for our destiny, in encouraging, and experimenting in, the arts of life as well as the activities of purpose”

~ John Maynard Keynes, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (1930)

Beyond the economic problem, as Keynes notes, we may find ourselves at quite a loss regarding how exactly we ought to live. Though Keynes regards the “arts of life, as well as the activities of purpose” as humankind’s destiny, remaining uncritical of our self-models keeps us locked into a notion of self-interest that is becoming more and more outdated. Economist Richard Layard calls this “cultural lag”:

Market democracies, by the logic of their own success, continue to emphasize the themes that have brought them to their current position.”

But if the “arts of life” are to become anything other than a luxury for the wealthy, it will take more than a redistributive tax plan. We must change the decisions we make in the marketplace. Capitalism is a system that reflects values acted upon in the market, not ones paid lip service to. “Every dollar is a vote” is not just a political platitude, but an opportunity to participate in the collective sculpting of capitalist values.

This asks of us nothing less than a total rethink of how we live, and how we ought to. To reconsider our actions in the marketplace is to reconsider the very nature of desire itself. Why do we do what we we do? Who, or what, is the subject, the self, to which we can best orient our action and bring about the highest degree of wellbeing? Mirabai Bush, co-founder of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, and among the ‘freshman class’ of Americans who first traveled to India and tried to bring back the contemplative values discovered in intensive meditation practice, emphasizes the role and structure of our minds in determining how we conceive of, and thus act upon, self-interest:

If you don’t know your own mind, you don’t know what’s in your own self-interest, and you much less understand the no-self and the interconnectedness of everything, and that if you’re not acting in the interest of all beings, that there’s a way in which you are acting against your self-interest.”

~ Mirabai Bush, The Secular Buddhist Podcast, Episode 156

Daniel Barbezat, professor of economics at Amherst college, leads his introductory economics students on walks through the local mall, tasking them to mindfully observe how their desires are triggered, and subsequently fade away. Such transient desires are at the root of many economic decisions. Yet contemplative practice tends to reveal such impulsive desires as illusory, impermanent, and ultimately unsatisfying. A life built upon appeasing desires, which generally takes the form of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain, is shown to be a mere palliative – far from an existentially enriching blueprint.

In economic terms, this variety of desires depicts two competing self-models. The first tends to be more impulsive, it wants things instinctually, and is very tuned into the exterior environment. Well advertised meals, flashy cars, and sex all stir this self up. The second wants to want things, like a healthy lifestyle, productive reading habits, and vibrant relationships. Daniel Kahneman referred to these as two different modes of thinking, System 1 (unconscious, impulsive self) and System 2 (conscious, reasoning self). This exploration of the self still doesn’t get at the basic question of what a self is, but it does challenge a basic tenet of modern economics: that all tastes are created equal.

Modern economics prides itself on remaining value-neutral; it doesn’t judge what you spend your money on. The only rubric for success is economic wellbeing, in which an acquisitive ideology flourishes – more is always better.

The shortcomings of this creed needn’t be laid out. They’ve already been addressed as far back as E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful (1973), leading into Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy (2007), and reinvigorated for today’s landscape by UC Berkeley economist Clair Brown’s Buddhist Economics (2017).

In questioning the nature of our desire, as both Barbezat and Bush call us to do, we are inevitably led into the existential uncertainties of self-enquiry. We may become progressively unsure as to what exactly we want, or who it is that’s doing the wanting. However, this ambiguity doesn’t suggest practical impotence. In facing and owning the essential ambiguity beyond survival motives, we can contrast this with the tangible value in assisting others beyond the struggle for subsistence; inviting them to partake in the confrontation of the unknown that marks the human experience.

This is in accord with Keynes’ vision, that economics will evolve not as a system that maintains its relevance by encouraging ceaseless growth, but as a mechanism that lifts all participants up to a particular threshold of economic wellbeing, enabling more and more of society to transcend the economic problem and fiddle around with the arts of life:

The course of affairs will simply be that there will be ever larger and larger classes and groups of people from whom problems of economic necessity have been practically removed. The critical difference will be realised when this condition has become so general that the nature of one’s duty to one’s neighbour is changed. For it will remain reasonable to be economically purposive for others after it has ceased to be reasonable for oneself.”

This is precisely where the rupture of self-interest as a solid and existent thing can so profoundly shift economic models and mentalities. The impulsive self will always want more. Desires do not diminish with increased material wellbeing. If anything, they increase to fill the void beyond our “traditional purpose”, as Keynes calls it. Becoming more familiar with the nature of our desires – whom do they serve? – and evaluating them so that we don’t remain in endless service of transient and insatiable wants offers an economic entry-point for contemplative practice.

The question raised is how high does one’s income need to rise before the utility derived from additional income becomes negligible to one’s wellbeing? At what point does a higher taxation rate on huge incomes, which redistributes percentages of these gains directly towards those in poverty who continue to struggle with humankind’s “traditional purpose”, deliver greater overall welfare than keeping higher portions of income for oneself? Is there a cutoff where it “will remain reasonable to be economically purposive for others after it has ceased to be reasonable for oneself”, or was Keynes wrong?



These crucial questions of economic policy can be enriched by a thoughtful enquiry into the self of self-interest. If a culture of self-enquiry is to emerge in modern industrial environments, it will be imbued and enriched by the fruit of scientific inquiry, a practice that now suggests the self to be an evolutionary adaptive model – a cognitive strategy – rather than a real existent thing. Such insights liberate us to cultivate our self-models towards more desirable states than their default configurations. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz writes:

We are, in sum, incomplete or unfinished animals who complete or finish ourselves through culture—and not through culture in general but through highly particular forms of it…Man’s great capacity for learning, his plasticity, has often been remarked, but what is even more critical is his extreme dependence upon a certain sort of learning…”

Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (1973)

Russian mathematician and philosopher, P.D. Ouspensky, expounds upon that critical sort of learning:

. . . that man as we know him is not a completed being; that nature develops him only up to a certain point and then leaves him, either to develop further, by his own efforts and devices, or to live and die such as he was born, or to degenerate and lose capacity for development. Evolution of man … will mean the development of certain inner qualities and features which usually remain undeveloped, and cannot develop by themselves.”

~ Ouspensky, The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution (1951)

To assist us along this path is the potential of economic systems, and culture at large. The Buddhist scholar and practitioner Stephen Batchelor refers to Buddhism as, “the culture of awakening”, lamenting the overemphasis upon timely religious forms rather than the timeless value in practicing self-enquiry. He imagines a modern culture, of economic mechanisms and social institutions, with:

…an internally consistent set of values and practices that creatively animates all aspects of human life. The challenge now is to imagine and create a culture of awakening that both supports individual dharma practice and addresses the dilemmas of an agnostic and pluralist world…How to create an authentic community, which provides a sound basis for the emergence of a culture while optimizing individual freedom, may be the single most important question facing those practicing the dharma today.”

~ Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs (1997)

A modern impetus to dharma practice – self-enquiry – could be the contemplation of the scientific insight that we needn’t live in the self as it is biologically endowed to us. Humans have the unique ability to question and cultivate the very architecture of their self-models. As professors Gerrans and Letheby write in the context of psychedelic therapy:

Theoretically we should be able to re-engineer the mechanisms of our self-model, and so change the way we organise and interpret our experience.”

~ Philip Gerrans and Chris Letheby, Model Hallucinations, Aeon Magazine

To approach a contemplative economics, the work rests on each and every one of our shoulders. We’re tasked with confronting the most basic of existential questions – who am I, what really matters? – to participate in the creation of an economy that vivifies these uniquely human questions, rather than crowding them off into our dwindling free time. Examining and re-engineering these mechanisms, these self-models, is precisely the terrain of contemplative practice – an umbrella term that seeks to impose no particular practice upon the world. No meditation technique will suit everybody, and yet everybody presumably has some access point into that inner sanctum of stillness.

Doing so may provide experiential support to the economically decisive possibility that self-interest, in terms of individually acquisitive attitudes, is a malleable illusion. Gerrans and Letheby again:

When the self falls apart and is subsequently rebuilt, the role of the self-model seems to become visible to its possessor. Yes, this offers a psychological reprieve – but more importantly, it draws attention to the difference between a world seen with and without the self…Ego dissolution offers vivid experiential proof, not only that things can be different, but that the self that conditions experience is just a heuristic, not an unchangeable, persisting thing.”

These fleeting moments of ego dissolution, where we glimpse the world without a self, are the stuff of ‘awakening’, ‘self-enquiry’, or ‘contemplative practice’, whatever term floats your boat. They offer a brief, felt-experience into the interconnectedness of all things, and thus the interdependence of self-interest. There is no separate self whose interest can be considered independently of all other interests. Self-interest is a collective, unifying term. My self-interest is no other than our self-interest. Our self-interest is no other than my self-interest.

Contemplative economics begins with a pointed individual effort of self-enquiry, and doing so could spur the next great evolution in economic, and thus existential, systems. If economics is to continue aiding humankind’s evolution towards a wiser, kinder, flourishing species, it must cease clinging to its traditional purpose and humbly strive to marginalize itself.

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