I examine the place of self-interest in political life as given by a conception of politics that invokes ethics. This conception portrays each citizen as an individual with unique hopes and desires who is at the same time joined with others—part of, and continually giving shape to, a shared social and political life. It sees in political diversity and controversy not just conflicting interests but also competing claims about what “we”—unique individuals, linked to particular others through social roles and relationships, and together forming a single citizenry—ought to do or seek. Research that simply adopts a broad conception of utility or interest to admit nonselfish preferences or that employs typologies contrasting self-interested with non-self-interested motives will reveal neither the significance nor the limits of self-interest in this politics. Rather, we must explore how citizens' interests are both championed and challenged by the understandings of “good” and “right” to which our politics gives voice.
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