What are the values behind the co-operative principles? I call the cooperative ethic is self-interest, which may come as a surprise. Bear with me.

Self-interest is understanding that by helping others, I help myself. The patron saint of this ethic is St Martin of Tours. The story goes that he shared his cloak with a beggar, by slicing it in half. God approves because God loves Martin and the beggar equally.

We must not confuse self-interest with selfishness. The latter is where I act solely out of what I perceive to be my own interests. Many people on the right believe “Greed is Good”. They confuse self-interest with greed. Self-interest understands putting the interests of others first to be most beneficial to me.

Altruism is not morally superior to self-interest for several reasons. It does not seek mutual benefit but assumes moral superiority of the altruist. However, self-interest accepts we all have mixed motives and it is effective because it seeks the benefit of all.

Self-Interest in the Marketplace

Self-interest actually applies to the conventional market, not just mutuals.  A mutual is a formal type of organisation, designed to embody self-interest. However, you don’t need a mutual organisation to act out of self-interest. A small business builds relationships with its customers because all concerned benefit from that relationship. As it grows a mutual business structure may help it to maintain its ethical basis.

The marketplace at its best embodies the principles of self-interest. The exceptions are fraudulent operations and larger businesses that accumulate massive wealth in the hands of very few people.

Accumulated wealth does not benefit everyone because it restricts money flow (trickle down was always a myth). The current UK government’s austerity policy restricts the flow of money and so everyone suffers apart from those who hold onto mountains of wealth. In these circumstances trust breaks down and the market can no longer function.

The internet contributes two contradictory trends. First, capital concentrates into fewer hands. Think of the big players such as Google, Facebook or Amazon. On the other hand it has undermined the old marketing methods, such as advertising. Online marketing gives away information to build trust with potential customers. The earliest people to cotton on to this, sometimes known as gurus, have made massive fortunes. I don’t see how this can continue for everyone. On the other hand, it does suggest it is possible for more people to make a living from online marketing based on self-interest.

Do you agree self-interest is a superior ethic in the marketplace? If not, what would you suggest is the best ethic?

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About the Author

I've been a community development worker since the early 1980s in Tyneside, Teesside and South Yorkshire. I've also worked nationally for the Methodist Church for eight years supporting community projects through the church's grants programme. These days I am developing an online community development practice combining non-directive consultancy, strategic management, participatory methods and development work online and offline. If you're interested contact me for a free consultation.

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