The deep-seated suspicion of self-interest

First Published: 2015-05-11

All living beings pursue their self-interest: their survival. Evolution has programmed most species to do that automatically, within the context of their knowledge. A grizzly bear spots a nesting hole of a ground squirrel, digs out the squirrel, and eats it. Tropical fish gravitate to warm waters with plentiful nutrition and mating opportunities. Even insects seek to survive, by seeking food and avoiding predators. They survive and flourish to the extent they adapt to their environments and develop attributes to aid them: sharp fangs and claws, strength, speed, ability to swim under water, powerful vision to detect predators, etc. Only human beings have no automatic knowledge of their self-interest and how to achieve it. Their only tool of survival is reason: they have to discover the knowledge about proper goals and means and apply it to survive and flourish.

Fortunately, we don’t have to start from scratch in trying to identify what the achievement of self-interest requires. Aristotle and most of the Greek philosophers told us to use reason in the pursuit of our well-being. John Locke identified individual rights as the crucial principle making civilized society possible (in contrast to the survival of the fittest in the animal world). Adam Smith showed how the pursuit of self-interest, by bakers, butchers, and others, led to mutual benefit. Ayn Rand identified the virtues for guiding our actions to achieve self-interest: rationality, honesty, justice, independence, integrity, productiveness, and pride.

Despite all this help and encouragement from philosophers to pursue our self-interest and the obvious benefits from doing so to our well-being, flourishing, and happiness, many people treat self-interest with a deep suspicion. They recoil at the idea of unrestricted pursuit of self-interest and consider its synonym, selfishness, evil. They also sanction governments’ curtailing of self-interest through taxation and regulations, including taxing and regulating businesses. Why?

People are suspicious of self-interest because for every philosopher who has taught and advocated self-interest, there have been multiples of those who have taught its opposite, altruism. According to the morality of altruism, the pursuit of self-interest is evil. It teaches us to always put others’ interests ahead of our own, sacrificing ourselves to the needs of others. Altruism has been taught for centuries and it has entrenched itself as the universally accepted moral code, despite its obvious destructiveness to our ability to survive and flourish.

One of the altruist philosophers’ gimmicks in persuading us about the correctness of their moral code has been the presentation of a false alternative: either you sacrifice yourself to others or others to yourself. Since neither can be practiced systematically, most people have resorted to abandoning any principled moral code. They attempt to pursue self-interest because they couldn’t survive otherwise, but sacrifice for others on occasion out of guilt, and may sacrifice others to themselves due to the lack of knowledge of moral principles to guide them differently.

But the deterrent to our flourishing caused by people’s general suspicion of self-interest can be removed. It cannot be done swiftly overnight because people have free will. It has taken generations of teaching the alleged superiority of altruism, and that belief is now entrenched in the culture. However, as that handful of philosophers discussed above has shown, there is an answer to the altruists’ false alternative: the morality of rational self-interest that rejects any form of sacrifice, both of ourselves to others and others to ourselves. The more people get exposed to it, the better they can be persuaded that the pursuit of self-interest (which by definition excludes the violation of others’ rights) is a noble goal which requires effort: discovering what is in one’s self-interest and acting accordingly. While such persuasion will take time, those who are open to it will embrace self-interest—because their lives and happiness depend on it, including their economic well-being.

As Yaron Brook, Executive Director of the Ayn Rand Institute, pointed out in a recent talk on the morality of capitalism, embracing rational self-interest is the pre-requisite of economic freedom and creation of material wealth  (the topic of a future post).

First published at How to be Profitable and Moral: A Rational Egoist Approach to Business and posted here with the kind permission of the author.

Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada. She has lectured and conducted seminars on business ethics to undergraduate, MBA and Executive MBA students, and to various corporate audiences for over 20 years both in Canada and abroad. Before earning her Ph.D. from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, she helped turn around a small business in Finland and worked for a consulting firm in Canada. Jaana’s research on technological change and innovation, value creation by business, executive decision-making, and business ethics has been published in various academic and professional journals and books. “How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book.

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