Pursuit of Self-interest in Thought

face of a prisoner

Scholarly freedom means that the scholar is free to pursue whatever thoughts interest her or him. Scholars promoting their ideas usually claim that ideas are separate from interests. For example, John Maynard Keynes wrote in the conclusion of his book, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936):

I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. …soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.^

Patent law provides a legal mechanism for persons to acquire vested interests in ideas in the form of inventions. But vested interests in ideas are a much broader phenomenon than patents. In deliberative competition, vested interests in ideas have powerful, enduring effects.

Ideas that follow scholarly interests help to provide the material basis for scholarly work. Even extraordinary circumstances have produced interested scholarship. Under the Nazi regime in Germany:

many scientists voluntarily oriented their work to fit the regime’s policies – as a way of getting money and of exploiting the new resources that Nazi policies made available through, for example, the invasion of other countries. Most researchers, it turns out, seem to have regarded the regime not as a threat, but as an opportunity for their research ambitions.^ (more documentation)

A large body of uninterested scholarship, as well as uninteresting scholarship, surely exists. In addition, many persons behave altruistically apart from pursuit of ideas and knowledge. Pursuit of ideas and knowledge has no convincing generic claim to be more or less altruistic than other types of human activity, such as sewing.

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