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The morality of gregarious egoism.


I will here defend ethical egoism or what I like to call the moral theory of benign selfishness. What matters to me is to show ordinary people that they should act so as to make the most of their human lives.

It is evident enough, not in need of proof, that most people are not altruists; they live their lives mostly by attempting to take decent enough care of themselves. They eat breakfast, wash up, get dressed, etc., most mornings instead of rushing out to help other people (unless these are members of their immediate family or those faced with some emergency). Most of us earn a living so that we can spend the funds from this on what we need and want, not on others. We pay for membership at a gym so as to work out and become fit. We try to eat right so we are reasonably healthy. We pay to go to the movies so that they'd entertain us. We go shopping for items we believe we need or we want.

When some people facetiously claim that we live in an age of "Me, me, me and me," they are largely right but the truth of what they say is not morally objectionable. We do care for ourselves, first and foremost--which includes our loved ones--without much doubt, but in a benign way. We do not operate as if we lived in a zero sum world, so our effort to promote our own welfare isn't some campaign conducted against other people and theirs.

This is what I have in mind by benign selfishness. It is not what many cynical folks mean when they say, "Well, isn't everyone selfish?" that is, that everyone is embarking on an aggressive, forceful, fierce campaign to come out ahead of others, as in some kind of (rat) race. (The idea brings to mind how millions of people drive throughout the globe, mostly pushing hard to get to a place ahead of others! But this tends to occur mainly in public places, which is a result of a version of the tragedy of the commons. (1))

So I will be discussing how benign selfishness and the socio-political conditions that make it possible are desirable and nothing to lament or besmirch, the way many social philosophers appear to feel about them.

1. My Pitch for Some Solid Selfishness

Hardly anyone will dispute that most folks who chime in about ethics consider selfishness wrong. It is nearly axiomatic in movies, novels, sitcoms, etc. There have been exceptions in history and some of the most prominent ethical philosophers, such as Socrates and Aristotle, can even be said to have been ethical egoists or at least ones who championed the moral virtue of prudence as central for living a good human life. But after some significant changes in how human nature began to be understood, being selfish or self-interested --or even prudent--began to be scoffed at, treated as a moral liability, not worthy of praise but of blame. But here is Socrates, in Plato's dialogue, Crito, being asked, "When you are gone, Socrates, how can we best act to please you?" Socrates replies: "Just follow my old recipe, my friend: do yourselves concern yourselves with your own true self-interest; then you will oblige me, and mine and yourself too."

Of course, using one's common sense shows that being benignly selfish is what most of us are, normally, and routinely. When folks awake in the morning they proceed to begin to take good care of themselves before reaching out to help others. (Just as that announcement would have it on airplanes, first help yourself and then others in case there's loss of oxygen.)

But apart from such common sense support, selfishness gets little respect (other than perhaps from psychotherapists who usually don't advise their clients not to care about themselves!). Moralists, however, often scoff at it. (Among them in our time are the famous ethics writers Peter Singer and Peter Unger.)

So while selfishness is widely opposed by such official moralists as philosophers, priests, ministers, politicians, and pundits, most people will normally choose to be selfish instead of selfless. And by this they do not intend to be mean toward others, only to put themselves first on the list of their priorities.

And in that spirit, even if in opposition to the moralizers, I want to give support to the virtue of prudence or even selfishness (something only Ayn Rand had the chutzpah to affirm in her book by that title, The Virtue of Selfishness [New American Library, 1961]).

I am not here going to develop a full blown morality or ethics only to point out that in times of virtually daily disaster stories from all corners of the globe near or far, it is a very good idea to keep being focused on what will benefit one's life, how one can stay well and happy rather than distressed and frightened. Instead of being guided by news reports, one ought to focus on how to manage one's life well, prudently, successfully.

There is a severely negative bias in the way news reports depict the world. Just consider, as a test, that even if there is a horrible plane crash someplace or a bombing, thousands of other places are safe and millions and millions of people live peacefully and get to where they wanted to go without a hitch. But this is rarely mentioned on "the news," perhaps understandably given how those producing news media tend to believe that the public wants sensational reports, nothing mundane. But it does produce major distortions in reports of how the world is doing. (Steven Pinker lays out the case for a more optimistic assessment, in his recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined [Viking, 2011].)

So as a corrective, one needs the discipline and personal initiative to seek out some good news, some antidote to all the reports of crises. A little of this is achieved when one encounters advertisements, of course, since ads tend to focus on what is good about life, or travel programs which also report on what is desirable about various regions of the globe. Ads hope that their positive take on the world will stimulate some interest in the products and services being offered for sale. Travel shows incline toward being invitations to visit places and so feature what is pleasant about them.

The bottom line is simple. One needs to make sure that one knows of what is good and as much as possible make room for it in one's life.

This is my initial and simple pitch for rational selfishness, even while I know that it is not the full story. But I recommend that it be a significant portion of it for everyone.

2. Are All of Us Always Selfish?

The quite popular idea that everyone is always acting selfishly comes from the 16th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, mostly, although others have voiced it too. It is something that certain social scientists (mostly modern economists) voice, as well as lay people who claim to understand human nature.

For Hobbes we are all moved by passions, such as for power or wealth or conquest, which is the human version of the way basic matter behaves in the world. Everything moves forward unless stopped by something. The normal process is to go forward.

This idea was taken over by political economists, including in some measure by Adam Smith. They held that we are all eagerly motivated to gain wealth, to prosper.

This has come to be known as the profit motive and one learns of it in Economics 101. Also goes by the name "utility maximization," to drive to increase, as much as possible, what one wants or desires.

All of this isn't really up to us, it's automatic or instinctive, and not something anyone can choose or refuse to do, any more than one chooses one's blood to circulate or one's hair to grow or fall out. Many believe in something like this as they try to make sense of human affairs.

It seems former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan held this belief, along with many economists, leading to the notion that when this forward movement--this utility maximization process--proceeds undisturbed, the economy would just purr along nicely, correcting itself when encountering some missteps, just as everything else in the biological, zoological, or physiological realms does.

Clearly such a picture of human affairs precludes freedom of choice. That is just what many, many natural and social scientists, and a good many philosophers, believe in our day and have believed before. Free will had been and still is mostly something religious people believe in, except for some who believe that nature includes some (few) beings with that capacity. (This is the position I hold--see my book, Initiative: Human Agency and Society [Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2000.])

Thus the idea that we are always being selfish is really something that starts with very basic assumptions about the world, ones worked out by classical physicists (e.g., Newton, Galileo), and is then exported to how people need to be understood. This has come to be called scientism.

But is this correct? Well, common sense would dispute it, of course, since millions of human beings quite evidently act contrary to their best interest, quite unselfishly or even self-destructively. People often abuse their bodies, their psyche, undermine their marriages or careers and get into intractable conflicts with their fellows on all fronts which certainly does them no good. Selfish? Quite the contrary, it seems.

So why does this not convince? After all, newspapers, books, magazines, TV broadcasts and many other sources of reports about human life, including the bulk of history, seem to give evidence of how unbelievably self destructive people can be, how they mess up instead of proceeding nicely forward in life. Why then the persistence in the view by so many, especially in the discipline of economics, that everyone is selfish?

Maybe it is because the belief isn't based on evidence but on a powerful and promising theory that holds out hope that applying it will render everything clear and simple. Reducing all human affairs to appear as if they were just the same as the movements of atoms in space could serve the purpose of helping us explain ourselves more simply than the more involved psychological, moral, political and similar explanations seem to. And this idea is both very ancient and contemporary--all that exists are atoms or their equivalent --say tiny strings--the rest is merely illusion, sort of like those sand objects on the beach that have different shapes but come to nothing more than sand.

Take this small case: I once drove across an intersection and noticed myself speeding up to help those behind me make the green light. It's simple, but inconsistent with the universal selfishness idea. Why would I care?

These people, following me were not family, friends, and so forth. But I seemed to have acted generously toward them by speeding up so they wouldn't become delayed by the next red light. I won't even go into all the help some give to those in dire straits, contra-selfishness. It's elementary.

Yet the "everybody is always selfish" view makes no sense of this except by some tortuous reasoning--"I did it so in the future when I find myself following others, they would move and let me go through, etc., etc. Or I did it to feel good." But I didn't. I monitor myself well enough to know. (And if one wants to be skeptical about that, one will have to discount all testimony of witnesses or reports to doctors about one's pains and aches and memories, etc. It's too much to give up to save a dubious theory!)

Moreover, millions of people show generosity, charity, kindness, considerateness toward others, even if only once they have taken reasonably good care of their own affairs, so the "always" in that idea of Hobbes goes counter to what we know well enough about ourselves and other people.

Human beings have many and different motives for what they do and advancing their own interest is just one among these, even if perhaps it ought to be the main one since, (to begin with) otherwise they will risk neglecting something mainly they can work on. So, the notion that everyone is always selfish just doesn't cut it.

3. Egoism, Psychological Egoism and Ethical Egoism

a. Egoism

The term "egoism" is ordinarily used to mean "exclusive concern with satisfying one's own desires, getting what one wants." Dictionaries tend to support this. They call "egoism," for instance, "1. Selfishness; Self-interest. 2. Conceit." (2) The term "egotist" is often a substitute, although it's defined differently, for example, as "excessive reference to oneself." The ego is the self. But we should distinguish first between "selfishness," "self-interest," and "interest of the self." They usually mean, respectively, "concern exclusively ... for indulging one's desires," "consideration based first on what is good for oneself without the exclusion of others," and "that which motivates an autonomous person." These will help us appreciate what follows.

"Egoism" is also used in ethical considerations of how human beings do or ought to live. It is thus often qualified by such terms as "ethical" and "psychological."

So what determines the most sensible meaning of the term? It is crucial, first of all, what the ego is. If it is the unique identity of the individual human being or self, what exactly is this?

Some argue that everyone is, to use Karl Marx's term, a collective or specie being. Others, in turn, hold that the human being is first and foremost related to a supernatural God and has a body (which is of this earth) and a soul (of the spiritual realm) combined in one person. Some others say a human being is an integral and unique whole, comprised of many diverse facets.

Egoisms differ depending on which of these is taken to be true.

b. Psychological Egoism

Some hold that we are all automatically selfish, as we have already seen. So just as it is a constitutive part of us that we have certain physical organs and functions--a heart, brain, liver, blood circulation, motor behavior--so it is that we will act to advance our own well-being, that we will attempt to benefit ourselves at all times. We are supposed to be instinctively or genetically moved or driven to act selfishly. Here is one way of giving expression to what seems to be the gist of this idea: "[E]very individual serves his own private interest... The great Saints of history have served their 'private interest' just as the most money grubbing miser has served his interest. The private interest is whatever it is that drives an individual." (3)

The above idea, spelled out by the late great Milton Friedman, may mean nothing more than that we all do what we want to do, when we are free. But that's a tautology and not of much interest here.

Ethical egoism amounts to the imperative that we ought to benefit ourselves. To do this is to provide oneself with what one requires for flourishing, excelling, developing in positive ways along lines of Aristotelian eudemonism.

Different explanations of what that comes to can be given. For example, some hold that to benefit oneself is to become satisfied, that is, to obtain whatever one would like to have, or to do what one wants to do.

Here is how Thomas Hobbes put the point: "But whatsoever is the object of any man's appetite or desire, that is it which he for his part calleth good: and the object of his hate and aversion, evil.... For these words of good and evil ... are ever used with relation to the person that useth them: there being nothing simply and absolutely so; nor any common rule of good and evil...." (4)

Yet, the above paradoxically implies that if someone were to want to do or have something arguably self-destructive, the person would still be benefited. Being benefited, then, may be different from having one's desires satisfied or one's wants fulfilled. If so, then egoism would mean that everyone does what one benefits from in terms of some objective standard of well-being, not based just on what one desires or likes.

For example, if being physically healthy were the prime good--such that whenever one's physical health is enhanced, one would be benefited whether or not one chose it as a priority--then this Hobbesian egoism would imply that everyone is always acting to enhance his or her health. Whatever the standard of goodness or well-being or being benefited came to, egoism would mean that one is always motivated to act to fulfill this.

Yet this is problematic since people evidently do not always aim to benefit themselves by some standard of goodness or well-being. They slack off often. So this psychological egoism most reasonably implies that we do what we desire or want, quite apart from whether it in fact benefits us.

But might we make this more sensible by adding that what we desire or want is always something we take to be of benefit to ourselves? When we take a job, go on a vacation, seek out a relationship, or, indeed, embark on an entire way of life, we may be doing what seems to us best. Is this what is meant by the view that we are necessarily selfish?

Yet what is meant by "what seems to be best"? If one says, "This seems to me to be a vase," we know what is meant because we know what it is to be a vase. So could one tell what seems to be of benefit to oneself, seems to contribute to one 's well-being, without any standard independent of what one desires or wants determining what is to one 's benefit, contributes to one's well-being? No.

Some argue that despite its troubles, we can make good use of psychological egoism as a technical device, e.g., in the analysis of market behavior --of how people act when they embark on commercial or business tasks. By assuming that's how people act in markets, we can anticipate trends in economic affairs.

In fact, however, when these estimates are made, usually certain assumptions are invoked about what in fact is of benefit to us (e.g., prosperity). So even as an analytic device the psychological egoist position by itself seems to be difficult to uphold as a cogent doctrine.

c. Ethical Egoism

Ethical egoism states that one ought to benefit oneself, first and foremost. Yet, this by no means tells it all, as we have already seen in connection with psychological egoism. The precise meaning of "ethical egoism" also depends upon what the ego is and so upon what it is to be truly benefited.

Subjective Egoism: The most commonly discussed version of ethical egoism differs only in one basic respect from psychological egoism. According to this subjective egoism, the human self or ego consists of a bundle of desires (or drives or wishes or preferences) and to benefit oneself amounts to satisfying these desires in their order of priority, which is itself something entirely dependent upon the individual or, as it is often put, a subjective matter. Why this is still a type of ethical egoism is that everyone is implored to choose to satisfy the desires he or she has--that is, one ought to attempt to satisfy oneself.

Criticisms: But this view is said to have serious problems, too. First, if John desires, first and foremost, to be wealthy, next, to be famous, then, to find a beautiful mate, then, to please some of his friends, then, to give support to his country, then, to conserve resources, and finally to assist some people who are in need, John ought to strive to achieve these goals in this order of priority. But how John ought to rank these goals cannot be raised. (Here is where the position is similar to the first version of psychological egoism: the desires are decisive in determining what benefits John.) Yet that's crucial in ethics.

Next, a bona fide ethical theory must be universalizable (i.e., needs to apply to all choosing and acting persons), unambiguous (provides clear guidance as to what one ought to do), consistent (does not propose actions which contradict one another), and comprehensive (addresses all those problems that are reasonably expected to arise for a person). And this subjective egoist position fails to satisfy these conditions. For one, even for an individual, desires often oppose another. Mary may desire to be a conscientious mother as well as a successful physician, but both desires are not always possible to satisfy. Basing decisions on desires alone will, thus, not help her.

Any ethical theory has to avoid the problems cited above. Subjective egoism is, thus, often used as an example of a failed ethical theory. (See, for a discussion of this and other forms of ethical egoism, Tibor R. Machan, "Recent Work in Ethical Egoism," in K. G. Lucey & T. R. Machan, eds., Recent Work in Philosophy [Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allanheld, 1983], pp. 185-202.)

Classical Egoism: A more promising ethical egoism states that each person should live so as to achieve his or her rational self-interest. (I have called this "classical" egoism to indicate its pedigree in Aristotle. It is also captured by the term "eudaemonist ethics.") Accordingly, as living beings we need a guide to conduct, principles to be used when we cannot assess the merits of each action from the start. As living beings we share with other animals the value of life. But life occurs in individual (living) things. And human living, unlike that of other animals, cannot be pursued automatically. We must learn to do it. And the particular life we can pursue and about which we can exercise choices is our own. By understanding who and what we are, we can identify the standards by which our own life can most likely be advanced properly, made successful, become a happy life.

In short, this ethical egoism holds that one's human life, the basis of all values, is to be lived with the aid of a moral outlook. Since (the value of) one's own life is the only one a person can advance in a morally relevant way (by choice), each person should live it successfully within that person's own context (as the individual one is, within one's circumstances). Even more briefly put, people should pursue their own individual happiness, and the principles that make this possible are the moral principles and virtues suited for leading a human life. The benefit one ought to seek and obtain is, then, not subjective but objective: it is one's own successful, flourishing human life.

The prime virtue in egoistic ethics is rationality, the uniquely human way of being (conceptually!) aware of and navigating the world. Success in life or happiness for any human being must be achieved in a way suited to human life. Accordingly, being morally virtuous consists of choosing to be as fully human as possible in one's circumstances, to excel at being the human being one is. Each person is a human being because of the distinctive capacity to choose to think, to attend to the world rationally (by way of careful and sustained principled thought); therefore, to succeed as a person, everyone should make that choice. All the specialized virtues in egoism must be rationally established (or at least capable of such establishment).

Egoism, unlike other ethical positions, considers the proper attitude in life to be informed selfishness--not, however, pathological self-centeredness (egotism). Pride, ambition, integrity, honesty, and other traits that are by nature of value to any human life are considered virtues. It is with regards to the sort of self that is proper to a human being that one ought to be selfish, not just any sort of self. (Indeed, whether selfishness is to be thought of as good or bad depends on what the self is.) The worst, most reprehensible way of conducting oneself is to fail to think and exercise rational judgment, to evade reality and leave oneself to blind impulse, others' influence, the guidance of thoughtless cliches, and the like. Since knowledge is indispensable for successful realization of goals, including the central goal of happiness, failure to exert the effort to obtain it--thus fostering error, misunderstanding, and confusion--is most disastrous to oneself and, hence, immoral.

Finally, in classical egoism the goal, one's human happiness, is something that should be sharply distinguished from pleasure, fun, or thrills. This type of egoism sets as our primary goal to be happy, which is a sustained positive reflective disposition, resulting from doing well in one's life qua the individual human being one is. (See, for more, Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness [New York: New American Library, 1964; for a somewhat different treatment, see David L. Norton, Personal Destinies, A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976] and Tibor R. Machan, Classical Individualism [London: Routledge, 1998].)

Egoism is rarely advocated, yet, many act as if they accepted egoism for guiding their own conduct. People often strive to be happy, to succeed in career, school, marriage, and the numerous projects they undertake. Inventors are usually devoted to success, as are financiers, artists, scholars, politicians, doctors, and indeed most productive people. (There are some obviously mean-tempered people who also strive to succeed, but very often they try to achieve results without the work naturally required.) Being rational is often acknowledged as a significant virtue, as when people express dismay with unreasonableness and with their own failure to think, saying, for example, "I am sorry, I just didn't think!" and with thoughtlessness in general.

The details of any bona fide moral outlook are not amenable to philosophical discussion, somewhat along lines of the impossibility of giving specific medical advice in a medical treatise. Only very general principles can be identified which need to be interpreted and implemented by individuals who, thus, either gain or lose moral credit from how they act.

Criticisms: The critics have much to say about the ethical (classical) egoist's position. They condemn it for its allegedly naive view of human nature--the idea that we are born without destructive impulses (original sin?) and that we should simply go about achieving our natural goals. They say egoism leads to self-centeredness, egotism, the ruthless pursuit of wealth and power, prompted by the complex and often destructive motives that lie deep within us. (In a way, altruism is the criticism of egoism!)

On a more formal level, classical egoism as a moral theory is thought to disallow universalizability, not unlike we noted in connection with subjective egoism. If asked by another person what one should do, where in fact it would be in one's interest to take a job one also wants, could a consistent egoist give the correct advice? If so, will one have undermined one's own self-interest? If so, one will have shown that egoism cannot be universalized to everyone.

So egoism appears to send people on a warpath because it lacks a coordinating principle. The criticism charges egoism with generating contradictory plans of action: people both should and should not do certain things. Thus it has to fail because it leads to the view that what one should do just cannot be done!

A further objection pertains to the idea of happiness. Just what is this happiness, anyway? By saying that it is the awareness of ourselves as being successful at living as people--that is, rationally--this position prejudges that rational living will lead to something we ought to achieve. But is it not possible that something else besides this "happiness"--which seems very self-indulgent anyway--is worth pursuing! Could there not be far more important goals (e.g., political liberty, social justice, general welfare, being a productive member of society) that overshadow happiness? Furthermore, many rational people, scholarly and artistic achievers such as scientists, lawyers, and writers, have been notably unhappy. On the other hand, some of the most irrational, whimsical, and haphazard people seem to retire in luxury to Miami Beach to live out their lives in full bliss.

Rebuttals: The ethical egoist of the sort we have been considering will, naturally, have responses to these objections. Again, the reader will have to assess both the objections and the answers.

In response to the charge of naivete about human nature, the egoist will claim that egoism is concerned only with the essentials. The alleged naivete is in reality focusing on the morally relevant aspects of every person, the capacity to freely choose to think. The misery, neurosis, cruelty, and self-destruction that often characterize human life are explainable in terms of people's refusal to think through the requirements of their lives and their willingness to meddle in the lives of others (always for others' good, of course) or the obstacles to doing all of this over which they have no control, such as illnesses or disasters. Were people to stick to doing good for themselves, much of the disarray would disappear, at least as much as it's realistically possible. Also, such factors do not show inherent conflict in human nature. As long as there are well-integrated people who live with peace of mind and are happy, this possibility is established for all human life.

The criticism that advocating or publicly affirming ethical egoism is often self-contradictory is answered by distinguishing between conduct one undertakes as a moral theorist versus what one should do when embarking upon some contest or economic competition. The former role commits one to advancing the general truths of ethics, the latter does not. But if one rationally elects to be a moral theorist, then it will be to one's benefit to do so. No conflict need obtain.

Conflicts of desires and wishes aren't relevant, the egoist will say. If rationality is the first principle or virtue of egoism (because of human nature), the appropriate course is to deal with the question, "What should we do when our wants or desires conflict!" We should not preclude that conflicts are resolvable. Of course, if the rational answer is to cheat and lie, then so be it--that is what then would be the right choice. (Sometimes cheating and lying at least seem quite right, as when we cheat against a crooked poker player to teach him a lesson, or lie to a Nazi SS officer about where our best friend, a Jew, happens to be.) But it is very doubtful that lying would be rational in cases like the one cited earlier involving rival job seekers. The rational course could be to explain that the best candidate deserves the position, so let an honest attempt to gain it be made by both and then let the chips fall where they will.

The difficulty of defining happiness is not a problem of ethics but of epistemology. This difficulty faces any complex system of ideas. It is enough to note, according to the egoist, that being happy is different from being satisfied, pleased, contented, thrilled, or fun-filled--it is the realization (and its corresponding feeling) of having carried on well in life and of having lived as a human being lives best. To be successful in the broadest sense means to do well at what people are uniquely capable of doing: guiding their lives rationally. No more skepticism is warranted here than anywhere else we deal with difficult issues.

Egoists grant that rational conduct will not guarantee a long and happy life; accidents can happen. The position is rather that a rational life makes reaching success more likely than does any alternative. It is wrong, moreover, to compare one person's rational life with another's irrational life without making sure that the two people started from essentially similar points. True enough, some who have lived irrationally could be comparatively well off in contrast to those who live rationally but in extremely different situations. What is crucial to ethical egoism is that by living rationally each person would very likely be happier, and certainly savor a better self-concept, than by living irrationally. Moral theorists who advocate egoism propose that this is what needs to be examined so as to learn whether living rationally is indeed the most promising method for achieving happiness.

This is as far as we can go here.

4. Business Ethics and Egoism

Egoism is of concern in the examination of business ethics, both when we use the latter to refer to how people in commercial and business endeavors ought to act and what kinds of public policy should govern business and industry. To whit, capitalism, which arises from a legal system that respects and protects private property rights, is an economic system that is closely linked to versions of egoism. Adam Smith, the founder of modern economic science, advanced something like a psychological egoist position about human motivation (although arguably Smith was not thoroughgoing in this--for example in his The Theory of Moral Sentiments he advances a different position). Many neoclassical economists incline toward psychological egoism when they discuss why people behave as they do, although since they refer to "utility maximization" rather than "the pursuit of self-interest," it is not always simple to classify their position.

If there is something morally right about commerce and the profession of business, something along an egoistic principle must be included in the set of virtues human beings ought to practice. Thus I argue that prudence ultimately gives moral support to commerce and business. (See, Tibor R. Machan, "Ethics and Its Uses," in T. R. Machan, ed., Commerce and Morality [Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1988].)

Unless room is made for egoistic conduct as morally praiseworthy, commerce and business could be seen having nothing morally significant about them. In which case "business ethics" would be an oxymoron. (Many seem to believe just that, going on to require that corporate managers, executives or owners do their morally good deeds apart from business--unlike the case with physicians, artists or educators.) Indeed, in terms of classical egoism, commerce is a morally worthwhile undertaking and business an honorable profession. They are to be guided by both the general moral principles of human living and their specific professional ethics. The last posits the creation of wealth as its primary objective, to be pursued without violating principles of morality and through the effective achievement of prosperity with the appropriate enterprises selected accordingly. A banker ought to earn a good income from safeguarding and investing the deposits and savings of its customers, honestly, industriously, and with attention to the need to balance these undertakings with others that morality requires. So should an automobile executive, the CEO of a multinational corporation, or the owner of a restaurant. And this requires the institution of the right to private property and freedom of enterprise, lest the moral component--self-direction--be missing from how those doing business comport themselves.

5. Why Altruism is Prominent

The most popular ethical viewpoint clearly seems to be altruism. What does altruism amount to? As one philosopher, W. G. Maclagan, put it in The Philosophical Quarterly several years ago, "'Altruism' [is] assuming a duty to relieve the distress and promote the happiness of our fellows.... Altruism is to ... maintain quite simply that a man may and should discount altogether his own pleasure or happiness as such when he is deciding what course of action to pursue." W. G. Maclagan, "Self and Others: A Defense of Altruism," Philosophical Quarterly 4 (1954): 109-127.

Altruism means selflessness, unselfishness, and self-sacrifice. In most novels, movies, sermons, or political speeches, altruism is treated as virtually the same thing as morality or ethics. To be ethical is, as many who talk about ethics or depict ethical people, identical to being altruistic.

On the other hand, people are rarely altruistic in their daily lives. Sure, off and on they lend a hand to others, even to total strangers. This is usually in some emergency, when others are in dire straits or just could use a leg up. But in their normal doings most people concern themselves with getting ahead in their lives, with trying to benefit themselves and their intimates in their careers, family affairs, neighborhoods, and so forth. To all appearances people act more like moderate egoists; they are mostly focused on what will further their best interests. As they carry on at work, on the road, in the grocery store, and in the broader economy, most of them are not altruistic at all.

Does this mean there is a lot of hypocrisy afoot? Not necessarily. When most of us think about how other people should act, most of us quite naturally praise them when they do what helps others, including us. We want others to be altruistic, naturally, since this promotes their care for us, or so it may appear.

Of course, most of us do not want others to meddle in our lives even as we praise them if they intend to help us out. But many also know that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, so it is also popular to insist that people take care of themselves and only help others when special needs arise.

What seems to mislead us into thinking that altruism is the dominant, even the correct, ethical position is that most discussions of how people should act concern what they do in their interactions with others. And in these interactions what seems to matter most to whoever discusses ethics is what people do for other people.

Yet, as the late W. D. Falk, a philosopher from the University of North Carolina, pointed out in several of his writings on ethics, by focusing on how people talk about ethics we are mislead about what really concerns and guides them in their conduct. (See W. D. Falk, "Morality, Self, and Others," eds. Hector-Neri Castaneda and George Nakhnikian, eds., Morality and the Language of Conduct, Wayne State University, 1963). Falk shows that while most of us voice views that are altruistic, we actually act much more egoistically, much more involved with how best to live our lives, to succeed as the people who we are.

Altruism is, so to speak, the more noisily championed moral stance. It is given a great deal of lip service and quite naturally because of what so many people often focus on when they discuss ethics with other people and in public forums, namely, on how others should act. But in their private and even social lives, where they have much greater influence and impact than elsewhere, most people are not altruists at all.

So there is a decisive and perhaps understandable disconnect between the ethics most people practice and the ethics they propound. As in most cases, such a disconnection between practice and theory is unhealthy. Unfortunately those who discuss morality and ethics professionally, namely, most philosophers and theologians, are fully complicit in perpetuating the disconnection. They promote altruism without making it clear that this could very well be a mistake, that a proper ethics for human beings does not require self-sacrifice, selflessness and so forth but a sensible focus on one's own success in life as a human being.

5. Self-Interest, Egoism and Business: Self-Interest and Commerce

Among the various troublesome features of business is the fact that economists, who study it as a social science, believe it runs based on self-interest. In this chapter we will examine what this means for economists and how to understand it apart from their technical language. We will also explain what egoism is, the view so often associated with commerce.

Even apart from that technical language, many believe that crass egoism is at the heart of free market capitalism. Consider the following, by Michael Lewis, as an example. "The beauty of free market capitalism is that it does not require anything more than ruthless self-interest from its most ruthless self-interested citizens. When the system works properly they enrich us all by enriching themselves without giving the matter a great deal of thought. If that is no longer true it is a sign not that they are less moral, but that the invisible link between private gain and the public good has been severed." (5)

This observation uses the concept of "self-interest" in a way that does not quite do justice to what economists mean by that term. We shall see why that is so.

Some economists who champion the free market embrace some version of the idea Lewis relates. For example, Milton Friedman holds that "The private interest is whatever it is that drives an individual." (6) This use of "self' or "private interest" is not the same as Lewis'. For Lewis, economists believe that the free market system rests on the assumption that when people act, they want to benefit only themselves, in contrast to benefiting others. But this isn't so, as the quote from Friedman suggests. For Friedman the idea is simply that everyone does what he or she, not others, wants to do. The sort of freedom enjoyed in free markets makes this possible because others do not have the authority to order one to do various things. All (legal) conduct must be voluntary, arising from the choices of market agents. It may be misleading to call such conduct "self-interested" or the "private interest," because in non-technical language these suggest that we all do indeed act only to benefit ourselves and not anyone else. For the economists, however, that isn't the point, not, at least, as most use the idea. (7)

6. What Is Self-Interest, Really?

From the time of Plato there has been a serious debate as to whether self-interest means "doing what one wants" or "doing what one actually benefits from (by some objective standard of what benefits a person)" or, again "doing whatever one is doing." Now, there is nothing remotely "ruthless" about doing the second, while the first is in effect tautological or redundant: People who are free act as they do because, well, they want to act as they do.

To invoke "self-interest" as ordinarily understood, namely, acting to benefit only oneself, does not do the economist justice. Of course, economists sometimes do use the term as if they meant what Lewis has in mind. But at that point they are inadvertently suggesting that they have in mind some (objective) standard of what counts as being of benefit to oneself. Yet most economists do not believe there exists such a standard and so to benefit oneself means to them no more than doing what one wants to do, something valued subjectively (whether this be getting wealthy or helping the poor or furthering the fine arts).

It is the last way of understanding self-interest that most technical economists mean: when people do things, they are pursuing their self-interest. By this account, both Michael Milken and Mother Teresa--and indeed we all, always--act from self-interest. But this leaves unresolved the issue of what differentiates those who work to satisfy others' welfare more than their own, from those who focus on their own before anyone else's or who have some other goal in mind entirely--say, saving wildlife or preserving historical relics.

7. The Economist's Idea of Self-Interest

The economist's concept of self-interest may be captured by the ordinary claim that we all have our own motives from which we act when no one is coercing us. Those motives vary a great deal. To understand them and the conduct they lead to, it is the differences that are of interest, not the common fact that everyone does what he or she chooses to do. Knowing that we all want to do what we are doing isn't going to tell us much about why we want to do it. Being called "self-interested," as the economists understands that term, is not at all informative even though it appears to be when taken in its ordinary sense. (8)

Lewis' claim assumes we all know what it means for some system of political economy to work properly. But there is a great deal of dispute about that, too. Does a system work properly if it enhances justice? Or economic prosperity? Or equality of wellbeing, stability, order or peace? Or does a system work properly if it fulfills God's purposes, as gleaned by reference to Scripture, the Torah, the Koran or some other good book? Or all of these?

When does an ethical system work? Indeed, those who talk along lines Lewis exemplifies may well have some hidden idea--even from themselves --of what "works" means, usually, advancing some ideal they hope they share with their readers. (9) But that assumption is a mistake. In this age of multiculturalism, especially, there are too many competing social ideals afoot and by some accounts we aren't even supposed to ask which is better, which has greater validity.

Yet without addressing that issue, there simply is no way to determine what system of political economy works. For example, it needs to be shown that a system that achieves mainly equality of opportunity or aggregate prosperity or the protection of individual rights or spiritual enlightenment is to be preferred over all those that achieve some other objective. Yet when public discussion ensues concerning what kind of system works, these various possibilities are usually left untouched and only one is considered, and which one depends on who is considering the issue.

8. Must Moral Conduct Be Altruistic?

Lewis's claim also seems to assume that being moral consists of doing things not for oneself but for the public interest, whatever that means. There is in his remark an implied schism between private gain and the public good.

Yet, why should we accept that this is the way to be moral, ethical? After all, if the public is worth benefiting, why would not private citizens also be worth benefiting, even from their very own actions? For one, the public is comprised of the private and for every private individual there are probably many more private than public concerns that matter that might benefit the person. In the American political tradition it is taken that the sole bona fide public concern is the securing of the unalienable rights every individual has by nature. Other concerns or interests tend to be special or private, not public, and these are best pursued without treating them as if they were public. The latter may lead to treating some people's private or special interests as if they were public ones, creating privileged status for some citizens.

Perhaps we should prefer interests that are widely shared? But that assumes that mere numbers make something worthy for us all.

Even simple altruism poses a problem. Why is benefiting others good but benefiting oneself is not? After all, isn't the agent also a person with needs and wants just as worthy of serving as those of others? (10)

9. Does Prosperity Depend on Vice?

The invocation of the Smithian doctrine, so aptly expressed by Bernard Mandeville, namely, "private vice, public benefits," is instructive. It shows that many still embrace the conflict between the individual and common good, one that has given rise to many of our troubles. Mandeville's insight is that what is deemed to be immoral individual conduct may result in widespread benefits. The implicit suggestion is that people might even exonerate themselves morally when doing something that is to their benefit if this is done so that others also benefit. However, even then one isn't gaining moral credit, only escaping moral blame. For if one does not mean to benefit others while benefiting oneself, then one's action lacks redeeming moral worth. All that can be said for it is that somehow, rather oddly, a shady deed turns out to be of value to the public.

The view that others and not only oneself ought to be the beneficiary of action leads to a harsh opinion of business professionals, as well as anyone else who undertakes commercial tasks. It condemns business professionals for lacking in moral worth simply because they specialize in seeking to prosper. (11) This tends to treat people in business who are not guilty of any moral wrongs as lacking in positive moral achievements as they carry out their professional tasks. (12)

Yet, nearly all artists, scientists, educators, athletes, and others do what they do because they benefit from it in the broad sense of achieving what they want. They find it rewarding and fulfilling. Their feats are no less morally worthy or ethical because of this.

Few great artists and athletes set out to serve others; rather, they have a vision or personal goal they want to realize. The greatest scientists likely do not engage in their work to benefit humanity but because they are deeply intrigued by some problem. Nevertheless, countless others may benefit from their efforts. So, it is not only people in business who strive to realize something important to them rather than to others. But, as with scientists, artists and many others, what's important to them may well be something that benefits others even more than themselves.

The same view of what is moral that condemns people in business to moral irrelevance also condemns nearly everyone who isn't a martyr or saint. (13) This alone should call the position into question. What needs to be addressed is what counts as doing the right thing in the various fields of human endeavor and what kind of political economic system would be most hospitable to such endeavors.

10. Business Ethics and Egoism

Egoism is relevant to business ethics both in assessing how people in commercial and business endeavors ought to act and in determining what kinds of public policy should govern business and industry. Capitalism is an economic system closely linked to versions of egoism. Adam Smith, the founder of modern economic science, advanced something like a psychological egoist position about human motivation (although in his The Theory of Moral Sentiments (London, A. Strahan, T. Cadell; [etc., etc.] 1792) he advances a different position, one that identified sympathetic conduct as morally praiseworthy). Many neoclassical economists incline toward psychological egoism when they discuss why people behave as they do, although their referring to "utility maximization" rather than "the pursuit of self-interest," sometimes makes it difficult to classify their position. (14)

If commerce and the profession of business are moral endeavors, then some form of egoistic principle must be included among the virtues human beings ought to practice. (15) Thus, I argue that prudence ultimately gives moral support to commerce and business. (16)

Unless room is made for egoistic or prudential conduct as morally praiseworthy, commerce and business may have nothing morally significant about them. In terms of classical egoism, commerce is a morally worthwhile undertaking and business an honorable profession. They are to be guided by both the general moral principles of human living and their specific professional ethics. The last posits the creation of wealth as its primary objective, to be pursued without violating principles of morality and through the effective achievement of prosperity with the appropriate enterprises selected accordingly. A banker ought to earn a good income from safeguarding and investing the deposits and savings of its customers, honestly, industriously, and with attention to the need to balance these undertakings with others that morality requires. So should an automobile executive, the CEO of a multinational corporation, or the owner of a restaurant. And this requires the institution of the right to private property and freedom of enterprise, lest the moral component --self-direction--be missing from how those doing business comport themselves.

11. Why Are Our Selves Demeaned?

If there is a common theme among nearly all the political factions here or abroad it is that selfishness is bad, unselfishness is good. Yet, at the same time, no one can fully live up to this idea. We wake up and endeavor to take care of ourselves and those we love, not our neighbors, let alone strangers. The poet W. H. Auden is supposed to have pointed up this paradox when he reportedly quipped: "We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don't know." (17)

One plausible explanation is that the human self had suffered from a very bad reputation via the theological doctrine of original sin. If we are corrupt at birth, we should reject ourselves and care for others most. We aren't worthy of being benefited except to the extent necessary for us to serve others. Yet this is odd, just as Auden noted, because why are others worthy of all the care we ought to give them when we aren't?

In addition to the original sin besmirching of the human ego, there was also the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes's very influential idea that the human self is a bundle of unruly passions, mostly vicious or psychologically troubled. Hobbes argued that all of us live in fear of death, mainly, from which all our other motivation flows. Only by means of an absolute monarch will we behave peacefully toward one another.

With such a pedigree, which went against the ancient Greek idea that human beings are rational animals and their emotions are shaped by their good or bad thinking--which is up to them to initiate--no wonder opinions about the human self or ego became nearly all negative. But for the control over us by the government, we could all turn out like the Marquis de Sade! What a prospect!

To mitigate this, nearly all subsequent moral philosophy, especially the influential system developed by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, advanced ideas that meant to tame us, to contain us, to make us more sociable and direct us away from selfishness (which meant something insidious). Of course, if the self is so bad, then the selves of those who were to tame us couldn't be so nice either, so government slowly became something to be feared, too. But that fear is now subsiding and intellectuals and even most of the general population is putting its faith in government again, in the chief of state, essentially, who knows best. Sure, there is democracy but how could the population keep a check on the huge Leviathan effectively? So government is getting out of hand. But anyone who points this out is branded selfish and greedy and insensitive and all because of the ego's bruised reputation over the last several hundred years.

Too bad. In fact, people are innately neither good nor bad. They are free to become either or somewhere in between (like most are). And such people fare best in a fully free society, not in one the bullies run pretending that they can do so well and wisely and are authorized to order others around. If the human ego's reputation could be improved, the belief that people need to be regimented, regulated, nudged and so forth might disappear. (Y et, of course, even with its current undeserved bad reputation, there is no justification for all the regimenting since those who would do this job must also, then, have corrupt egos.)

One option that is being floated by some people is that no self or ego exists at all, that it is all a myth, that what we are is cells in the body of humanity or society, not in any respect independent, sovereign individuals. This will not work for one reason, among many, namely that those who are advancing the idea are also individuals and pitted against, in this view, many other individuals. Human nature is individualistic, although by no means anti-social--our egos are both social and individual. We have wills of our own but we flourish best among others like us.

If only this constant badgering of the human self ended, there would be hope for much better relations among us.

12. Egoistic Benevolence Anyone? Some Personal Reflections.

As we have seen, a popular, indeed highly respectable, view of ethics is that it's all about serving others. Even if this were true of ethics, it is seriously doubtful that those who preach the idea actually practice it. As the remark attributed to Auden points out, namely, how impossible the notion is that altruism is the ethics by which all of us must be guided in our lives.

Anyway, I have one policy that many might regard as altruistic but I don't believe it is at all. Whenever I travel in places teeming with tourists, I offer to take pictures of couples when I see them taking pictures of each other and seem to be missing out having pictures taken of them both together. I started doing this as far back as the late 60s when I first visited Europe following my immigration to the USA many years earlier. I went back and took trains all over the place, partly for fun, partly because I needed to kill time between my arrival and departure on the cheap charter flight I managed to book for myself. I was then going back to meet my mother who for the first time was permitted by the communists to come West to meet her family in Germany. I got one of those cheap flights and met her after not having seen her for about 15 years.

But between when my flight arrived and when I could finally meet with her, I had to wander around a good deal, and on the cheap--I couldn't really afford to be a proper tourist but had to settle for being a bit of a vagrant. I bought one of those passes on Europe's trains and went wherever the trains took me for a couple of weeks before I could meet my mother in Hamburg.

And it is while bumming around this way that I noticed how many couples kept taking pictures of one another but no one took pictures of them both. And it occurred to me that they might welcome some help in this matter and began to offer it all over the place--Paris, Lisbon, Monaco, Munich, Vienna, Tbilisi, Hong Kong and so forth. I rarely ever got off the train other than to walk around or to catch a street car and take it from where I boarded it all the way back there, a round trip, as it were.

In all these travels not only did I take in the sights--although I am not one who uncritically admires the palaces and castles and churches one can visit on such trips, given that I could never get rid of my apprehensiveness about how those got built in the first place, by a lot of serfs and otherwise oppressed folks in feudal systems--but often, actually rather spontaneously, offered to take pictures of those couples that hadn't a way to capture their memories on film together. As time went by, and I made trips to places like South Africa, New Zealand, Armenia, Greece, and so on and so forth--by this time mostly to make various presentations, give lectures, attend conferences, and so on--the practice of providing this photographic service became a routine, even a habit. Not the least because it was so much appreciated by those to whom I extended it. And even this late in the day, on my recent trip to Scotland and France, I continued it and found that most folks were very surprised at the offer and also quite appreciative. (Once in awhile I have found the need to assure them that I am not going to run off with their camera!)

Anyway, none of this is any kind of grand generosity, more of a minor gesture of friendliness in a world that's all too much filled with suspicion and hostility among people. As I mentioned, often it comes up spontaneously, without much deliberation, nearly second nature. And, why not, since it doesn't take all that much to stop and do this little favor even for total strangers.

Unfortunately, some will make of it much more than it is, as if it showed how spot on altruism really is. Yet there is no self-denial, self-sacrifice, or unselfishness in any of it. What it involves is a certain measure of thoughtfulness and generosity. Most folks are nice enough, so extending a bit of help to them even if not expressly wanted can do no harm and can brighten things up a bit. So, carry on!


Chapman University

Received 24 August 2015 * Received in revised form 25 September 2015 Accepted 25 September 2015 * Available online 10 November 2015

* Some material here is based on my essay in P. H. Werhane & R. F. Freedman, eds., The Encyclopedia of Business Ethics (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1996).


(1.) See, Tibor R. Machan, "The Calculation Problem and the Tragedy of the Commons," Economics, Management, and Financial Markets 5(4), 2010: 54-62.

(2.) Webster's New World Dictionary. Englewood-Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Press, 1982, 149.

(3.) Milton Friedman, "The Line We Dare Not Cross," Encounter 47(5), 1976: 11.

(4.) Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, edited with an introduction by C. P. Macpherson, Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1968, Chapter 6, "Good," 120.

(5.) Michael Lewis, "Lend the Money and Run," The New Republic, December 7, 1992. This is a review essay of books by Nicholas von Hoffman, Capitalist Fools: Tales of American Business, from Carnegie to Forbes to the Milken Gang, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1992, and James Grant, Money of the Mind: Borrowing and Lending in America from the Civil War to Michael Milken, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1992.

(6.) Op. cit., Milton Friedman.

(7.) Of course, a problem arises from the belief of most mainstream economists that what one wants to do is just what is in one's own interest. This position has a long, albeit controversial, pedigree. It is expressed in ordinary discussions by way of saying "Well, isn't everyone selfish--when you do something, don't you do it because, well you want to do it, it makes you pleased to do it?" This is confused but not anything close to the idea that "ruthless self-interest" motivates people in the market place.

(8.) This analysis is disputed in J. C. Lester, Escape from Leviathan, Liberty, Welfare and Anarchy Reconciled, New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. For a more detailed defense of the contention that the explanation from self-interest is either false or tautological (trivially true), see Tibor R. Machan, Capitalism and Individualism, Reframing the Argument for the Free Society, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990.

(9.) Often they are actually seeking monetary wealth so as to help other people or to contribute to various causes! Consider how corporations donate vast sums to colleges, museums and charitable organizations.

(10.) It is for this reason that Ayn Rand titled one of her books The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism, namely, so as to indicate that there is something seriously wrong with regarding self-interest as bad, untoward.

(11.) For more on this point, see Tibor R. Machan, The Morality of Business, New York: Springer Verlag, 2007.

(12.) Ibid.

(13.) Morality is supposed to guide human conduct per se, not just the conduct of heroes. See Tibor R. Machan, A Primer on Ethics, University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.

(14.) See, for a discussion of this and other forms of ethical egoism, Tibor R. Machan, "Recent Work in Ethical Egoism," in K. G. Lucey & T. R. Machan, eds., Recent Work in Philosophy, Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allanheld, 1983: 185-202.

(15.) See, for more, Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, New York: New American Library, 1964; for a somewhat different treatment, see David L. Norton, Personal Destinies, A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976.

(16.) See, Tibor R. Machan, "Ethics and its Uses," in T. R. Machan, ed., Commerce and Morality, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1988, and "The Virtue of Prudence as the Moral Basis of Commerce," Reason Papers 31, Fall 2009: 49-61.

(17.) Whether Auden is the author of this remark is uncertain. The issue is discussed at the website above.
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Author:Machan, Tibor R.
Publication:Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice
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Date:Jul 1, 2016
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