true, as cynics believe, with some backup from certain schools
of economics, that everybody is selfish? Well, no. But even if
it were true, is being selfish really such a bad thing anyway?
The answer to this question depends on what you mean by "selfish."
The traditional view of
selfishness, promoted by religion but maintained by many secular
thinkers as well, is that it is bad. According to this view, a
selfish person thinks only of his own interests, disregarding
the interests of others. Such a person might steal from, lie to,
betray, or at the extreme even go so far as to murder others in
order to get his way.
But is this really a
selfish way of acting? It's a petty, criminal, malevolent way of
acting, to be sure—but does a person really serve his own
interests by stealing, lying, betraying, or murdering? It might
serve one's immediate interests to have more money, avoid
responsibility for something, or do away with someone who stands
in one's way, but what about the longer term consequences?
Embracing a life of crime, aside from eating away at your soul,
for lack of a better word, will very likely come back to bite
you in the ass, landing you in jail or in an early grave. It's
not a great way to make friends, either.
A person who is selfish
and rational takes the longer term consequences of his
actions into account when deciding how to act, what kind of life
to lead, what kind of person to be. A rationally selfish person
doesn't cheat or steal, but instead works hard, learns about the
world, respects the rights of others, and builds lasting,
fulfilling relationships—the kinds of things that are actually
in a person's best long-term interests. This is the kind of view
taken by philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand, who titled one of
her collections of essays
The Virtue of Selfishness. This kind of rational self-interest
is not something to be lamented, but something to be celebrated,
leading to greater wealth and happiness for all.
Those who moan that
everyone is selfish have the first kind of selfishness in mind,
the bad kind, but clearly not everyone is a thug or a cheat.
True criminals are a tiny minority in any civilization. Most
people follow some kind of moral code, however mixed up and
unexamined it may be. They feel the need, not only to enjoy
lives full of rewards, but also to deserve those rewards. They
want not merely to have good lives, but to be good people. This
simple, basic truth flies in the face of what the cynics out
there would have us believe.
The economists who
inadvertently lend some support to the cynics have the other
kind of selfishness in mind, the good kind. Economists since at
least Adam Smith have been unable to deny the beneficial side-effects
of lawful self-interested action—though they have not, as a rule,
been as unapologetically enthusiastic about it as Rand.
In an article entitled "The
Denial of Virtue" published in the January/February edition
of Society, sociology professor Amitai Etzioni takes on
economists and other social scientists who are quick to explain
away charitable behaviour as a way to get tax deductions,
volunteer work as a way to meet other singles, or heroic acts as
the result of "hard-wiring." Etzioni tells us about experiments
suggesting that many people do not "free ride" even when they
think they can get away with it. He also points out that many
people vote, even though they know the chances that their vote
will make a difference are close to nil. In these and other
cases, people plausibly report that their actions are motivated
not by self-interest but by what they think is right, by what
they think they ought to do.
I think Etzioni is
correct, as far as this goes. The claims of economists and
social scientists that all actions are self-interested—that
whatever people choose to do necessarily reflects their
calculations of costs and benefits for themselves—is belied by
clear cases of people acting out of a sense of duty, either to
god or society or their parents.
Where I part company with
Etzioni is in believing that this sense of duty is a good thing.
Etzioni can point to people doing good out of a sense of duty,
but I can point to people disowning their natural desires for
pleasure out of a sense of religious duty; sacrificing their
rights out of a sense of national duty; abandoning a career or a
mate out of a sense of duty to their parents. I do believe in
virtue, but I believe that duty is its enemy. Duty ethics ask
you to adhere to a set of rules, whereas virtue ethics ask you
to live up to an ideal, which is a very different focus.
It is a good thing people
are not all selfish in the narrow, petty way the cynics imagine
them to be, but it is actually unfortunate that people are not
all rationally self-interested in the way social scientists
suppose. This kind of rational self-interest not only has
beneficial spill-over effects, but is in fact a virtue—it leads
people to act virtuously, to live fulfilling lives, and to be
good people. As Dr. Nathaniel Branden wrote in "Isn't Everyone
Selfish?" published in the Rand book mentioned above, this
rhetorical question, though intended as a cynical jab, actually
"pays mankind a compliment it does not deserve." Hopefully, more
and more of mankind will deserve it as they increasingly embrace
the virtue of rational self-interest and reject not only petty,
narrow selfishness but also the heavy hand of duty.