C. ROBUST SELF-INTEREST
My sympathies are with the more robust accounts of wellbeing. Interestingly, they suggest that economic realists may fail to take national self-interest seriously enough. For instance, “being in the national interest” is typically an honorific label, signaling a normative achievement that can be endorsed by ethical analysis.27 Importantly, for something to count, it must satisfy at least some appropriate standards. Consequently, governments that genuinely pursue their peoples’ long-term interests face real intelligibility constraints on how they understand those interests (e.g., some climate impacts would violate most reasonable conceptions of national self-interest, such as the United States losing Florida to sea-level rise). For instance, to my mind, we might expect ethical guidelines such as the following.
First, robust accounts of national self-interest would require governments to be much more concerned with establishing effective intergenerational institutions than with dubious short-term economic calculations. Second, over the very long term “national self-interest” may cease to have any real content independent of a sense of the global interest of humanity as such. (People migrate; countries break up. Over centuries and millennia, the world moves on.) Consequently, governments that adopt a rigidly nationalistic perspective may undermine their own objective, as well as their citizens’ longer-term aspirations for who they are and aspire to be.
More generally, we should expect accounts of national self-interest to be ethically demanding. Even in the case of individuals, making sense of self-interest requires integrating a complex set of goals, needs, desires, and constraints. Consider, for example, asking the average high school freshman what kind of life she thinks best for her in the long term. This requires her to integrate a complex set of goals, desires, and ambitions, many of which are not yet well formed, and some of which flow from dubious assumptions and limited experience of the world. At such an age (and often much later), most of us would find the question daunting, not least because we have yet to figure out “who we are” and aspire to be.
Arguably, such problems are even more challenging when it comes to nations. The concept of national self-i nterest requires integrating the goals, needs, rights, responsibilities, and so on of many millions—sometimes billions—of individuals across space and time. It involves saying what matters about the lives of very many, often very different, kinds of people (and similarly diverse community projects and values) over a history that lasts hundreds— sometimes thousands—of years. On the face of it, this is not only a nontrivial task, but one likely to involve substantial moral and political philosophy. We need to ask serious questions about what matters to us, how competing values are to be reconciled, and so on.