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Virtue is a grace

Modern economics is founded on the assumption that human behaviour is driven by rational self-interest. How then can it explain real acts of generosity and selflessness? Matt Ridley considers a new economic model of the emotions which shows that altruistic behaviour is a superior form of enlightened, long term self-interest

By Matt Ridley   December 1996

A curious thing has happened in re- cent years. Economists who founded their whole discipline on the question “What’s in it for the individual?” have begun to back away from rugged individualism. Much of recent innovation in economics has been based on the discovery that people are motivated by something other than immediate material self-interest. Just as biology shook off its woolly collectivism and donned the hair shirt of gene-based individualism, economics has begun to go the other way: to try to explain why people do things that are against their apparent interests.

The most successful of those attempts is…

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