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It’s Good—But Hard—to Be Selfish

Most people think that it is unethical to be selfish. They have been taught that we should always put others’ interests ahead of our own and that pursuing self-interest is immoral. That is why they also think that business—which by definition pursues self-interest: long-term profitability—is immoral. But this rejection of selfishness as immoral is based on a wrong view of self-interest as doing whatever you feel like: indulging in junk food, snorting cocaine,  taking performance-enhancing drugs to win races; or: misleading your investors, lying to your customers, exploiting your employees. In this view, Lance Armstrong and Bernie Madoff epitomize selfishness: both did what they wanted, and cheated and exploited others in the process.

But doing whatever you feel like is not selfish. Being selfish means pursuing self-interest which, understood properly, is not the instant gratification of any desire but long-term survival and flourishing over your lifespan, or long-term profit maximization. Seven Tour de France victories won by fraud or 20 years of running a pyramid scheme may seem like a long term, but such fake accomplishments were not in the self-interest of Armstrong and Madoff and pale in comparison to the subsequent misery for the rest of their lives. In contrast, self-interest is exemplified by building a sporting career on dedicated hard work without drugs (I hesitate to name any athletes as examples because I do not have enough knowledge of sports) or building  a successful business without deception and fraud, such as Apple by Steve Jobs,  Cypress Semiconductors by T.J. Rodgers, and BB&T by John Allison.

Exploitation of others for your gain is not in your self-interest, even if you thought you would not get caught. Exploiting others invites them to do the same to you. If you can cheat your investors, customers, and employees, they can cheat you, making it difficult to achieve your values, such as profits. Even if you do manage make money by cheating, the “benefit” is temporary: either you will get caught eventually, like Armstrong and Madoff did, or you live the rest of your life trying to cover your tracks—a very hard undertaking.

Pursuing self-interest does not mean sacrificing others to ourselves, nor does it allow sacrificing ourselves to others. In misunderstanding and rejecting selfishness, most people also embrace what they consider the only moral alternative: altruism, or putting others’ interests first. By that moral code, we must give up values to others. Instead of seeking profits, we should offer jobs to those who need the most and distribute goods and services on the basis of need as opposed to the ability to pay. According to altruism, serving and sacrificing for others is moral, maximizing profits is not. By following the altruist code you will go bankrupt—and die.

If we want to live happy, successful lives—or maximize long-term profits—we must pursue self-interest systematically. Contrary to the common belief, pursuing self-interest does not come naturally to us: it is hard—it takes effort.  First we need to acquire knowledge of our self-interest and then choose to apply it. In matters such as nutrition and health, we acknowledge that objective knowledge exist that we can use to enhance our well-being (although we don’t always adhere to it). What most people do not realize that objective knowledge about self-interest also exists.

The moral code rational egoism, developed by Ayn Rand, lays out the principles for achieving long-term self-interest. The first of these principles is rationality, which tells us to think and focus on reality—as opposed to drift and evade reality—in order to achieve values. Achieving self-interest also requires productivity: we cannot survive and thrive without creating material values from food and shelter to medicines, communications technology, and insurance policies. The principle of justice tells us to evaluate others objectively and grant them what they deserve—crucially important, given the role of others in achieving our self-interest. Honesty tells us not to fake reality in order to gain a value—because faking is futile if we want to achieve long-term self-interest. These and rest of the principles: independence, integrity, pride, and non-in initiation of physical force are described in Ayn Rand’s fiction and non-fiction works. Tara Smith’s The Virtuous Egoist (2006) offers a systematic analysis of all egoist principles, and my book shows how they apply to business. If you are interested achieving self-interest: living a happy, successful life and maximizing long-term profits, the principles of egoism are worth discovering.

  • Brian Wright

    Jaana

    Thanks for an interesting article and a very crucial and important one. Have you delivered this message to live audiences with success? You realize, of course, you are bucking heads with all of human history, and your only allies in this type of fight are other Objectivists, if they dare to make themselves known. Conservatives and most libertarians, in my experience, will leave you hanging in the wind when it comes to egoism, and even many Objectivists fear to tred on moral grounds. (Paul Ryan deflated like a cheap balloon once he was pressured on moral ground.)

    But going straight to the point, I would say “doing whatever you feel like” according to our culture is the very essence of selfishness, especially when it applies to hurting or injuring others in a psychological or emotional manner.

    The job of Objectivism is to impose the concept of Objectivist egoism on the culture so as to counter the abovementioned concept of selfishness. Until now, this has not been done and therefore selfishness still reigns as the number one evil.

    I wish you success in your endeavor and I hope to hear more about your adventures.