Wednesday, September 14, 2016

‘Can Anyone Be Truly Selfish?’

In an article for XYZ, David Hiscox asks, Can anyone be truly selfish?

Hiscox tackles altruism and selfishness. I give him credit for tackling this difficult subject. I think he comes close to connecting. But, to use a baseball analogy, he just misses getting the meat of the bat on the ball. I credit him with a triple, but not a home run.

At this point, I urge the visitor to read the whole article, which isn’t long. Here is Hiscox’s conclusion, followed by an expanded version of my comments:

Ayn Rand argued that the benefit brought to others by selfish actions, although real, is not necessary to justify the pursuit of rational self interest above all else. Man has the right to pursue his own rational self interest simply by the fact that he exists.

But the knowledge that the pursuit of one’s rational self interest brings benefit to others cannot be expelled from one’s mind. As single-mindedly selfish as one wants to be, the knowledge that it brings benefit to others means that one cannot be truly selfish, for the same reason that even the most generous serving of others, which can lead to even the smallest benefit to oneself, means that one cannot be truly altruistic.

One thing I’ve noticed about critics of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist ethics of rational egoism is that they tend to approach the issue through the filter of the conventional understanding of selfishness and altruism. Most people equate selfishness with the self-centered pursuit of one’s interests without regard for means or harmful consequences for others. Likewise, people tend to equate altruism with empathy and generosity. That is not how Rand understood either concept. That is Hiscox’s original mistake. To properly understand Objectivist ethics, you’ve got to completely let go of any moral preconceptions—to wipe the slate clean. Then, and only then, can one truly understand rational selfishness.

Rand does not define ethics in terms of benefits, or lack of, to others. She defines it in terms of furthering one’s own interests. “The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live,” she observed. Nor does she understand altruism as the simple act of benefiting others. The missing ingredient that Hiscox misses is sacrifice. Sacrifice is the giving up of a value for a lesser value or a non-value. Altruism means self-sacrificially serving others. Rational self-interest does not forbid serving others. It forbids sacrificially serving others. On Rand’s view, as well as logically, benefits to others does not disqualify one’s action as selfish so long as, by one’s own judgement, it results in a net self-gain.

To better illustrate this point, consider Objectivism’s advocacy of capitalism as the ideal social system—a stand that is rooted in the Objectivist ethics. Capitalism is built on voluntary trade—i.e., voluntary win-win transactions. Rand calls it the “trader principle.” Trade is the act of “giving value for value.”  “The principle of trade is the only rational ethical principle for all human relationships,” she wrote. On Hiscox’s premise that “the knowledge that the pursuit of one’s rational self interest brings benefit to others . . . means that one cannot be truly selfish,” true selfishness cannot be reconciled with the trader principle (or with capitalism). Yet Rand does reconcile the Objectivist ethics and the trader principle.  [See The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.]

And it makes perfect sense. Since none of us could possibly create all of the values we need to live and flourish, trade is vital to our well-being and happiness and thus in our rational self-interest. Since by definition one cannot engage in trade without benefiting others, it is selfish to want to benefit others—not as one’s primary motivation, criterion, or standard for action, but as a means to pursuing the central purpose of one’s life, one’s own happiness (properly defined as a big picture goal. The trader principle applies as much to spiritual values—personal relationships from friendship to teamwork to romance to love of one’s children—as to material or economic values). Who would ever adhere to an ethics that forbids win-win relationships? That would be a desolate, miserable existence—clearly not in one’s rational selfish interest.

Hiscox’s understanding of Rand’s ethics is flawed. Here’s the key: The Objectivist ethics forbids sacrifice of any kind—the sacrifice of others to self (the conventional, and wrong, definition of selfishness), and the sacrifice of self to others (altruism, properly understood). To an Objectivist, rational self-interest means non-sacrificial associations. It does not forbid win-win relationships. That would be absurd. Just the opposite: Objectivist ethics promotes win-win relationships.

Can anyone be truly (fully and consistently) altruistic? No. That would mean death, as Jesus proved. Can anyone be truly selfish? Absolutely, by making one’s own life and happiness one’s highest value and purpose, coupled with respecting the moral right of others to do the same, neither sacrificing oneself to others nor sacrificing others to oneself; i.e., by acting rationally. Hence, rational selfishness.

Related Reading:

Objectivism, the Philosophy of Ayn Rand—Leonard Peikoff

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