Thomas Hobbes's political philosophy is founded upon a materialist view of human nature according to which self-preservation is the underlying motivation of all action. This self-interest view of human motivation was also widely assumed in the discipline of political economy. It was challenged by David Hume, Adam Ferguson, and others on several grounds. Humans were by nature social, so that no clear distinction could be made between self-interest and the interests of others. Ferguson particularly criticizes the association of interests with economic wealth and material possessions, arguing that virtues such as courage, honesty, and loyalty are much more highly valued attributes of the self, and so should take pride of place in any adequate account of interests.
Ferguson notwithstanding, the materialist tradition of conceptualizing interests primarily in relation to material wealth or political power and dissociating them from the sphere of values and principles has persisted, both in commonsense usage and in social and political science. However, a significant shift which took place in the nineteenth-century, especially in the context of the historical materialism of Marx and Engels, was the attribution of interests to hypothetical collective actors—social classes and fractions. This practice has subsequently been generalized in such fields as industrial sociology, political sociology, and the sociology of the professions, so as to apply to any group with identifiable common economic or social advantages to protect, or disadvantages to overcome.
The great utility of the concept of interests is its apparent ability to link analysis of the objective conditions of life of individuals or groups with their patterns of belief and action. It remains, however, a matter of dispute whether interests can justifiably be attributed to an individual or group without prior knowledge of their beliefs and intentions. If this cannot be done, then much of the apparent power of explanations in terms of interests dissolves into vacuity. Most sociologists would also argue that an individual's sense of social identity must precede his or her conception of self-interest—and for this reason interests can only be defined subjectively rather than (as some, especially certain Marxists, have claimed) objectively. See also CLASS INTEREST.
INTERESTS, or "vested interests," was an expression popularly used around the opening of the twentieth century to designate the colossal business corporations that dominated the American scene. Among these interests were the so-called money trust, sugar trust, tobacco trust, oil trust, beef trust, and steel trust, all of which became subjects for strong attacks by muckraking reformers, especially during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. These attacks, published in books, magazines, and newspapers and delivered from the political platform, inaugurated an era of reform at the local, state, and national levels that lasted until the United States entered World War I.
Hofstadter, Richard. The Age of Reform, from Bryan to F. D. R. New York: Vintage Books, 1955.
Erik McKinleyEriksson/c. w.