Why Are the Intellectuals’ Views on Self-Interest Wrong?

I have been reading articles about business ethics lately, and to my dismay discovered a common feature: a lack of understanding of self-interest. This is not surprising, given that altruism, the moral code advocating self-sacrifice, dominates the culture. Still, I was hoping that at least some intellectuals writing today would acknowledge alternatives to altruism, such as the common sense view of ethics accepted by most people (those not writing articles about ethics …).

The common sense view is that we should live by pursuing our own interests, without hurting others, by physical force or fraud. Most people recognize that if we don’t pursue our values—such as food, shelter, health, work, recreation—we cannot survive and be happy. The authors of the several articles I read ignored this. Instead, upholding altruism as the moral ideal, they set up self-interest as a straw man. In their view, self-interest means exploiting others, based on the assumption that people’s interests automatically conflict. For example, a CEO’s interest to maximize his compensation, the employees’ interest to maximize theirs, and the shareholders’ interest to maximize the return on their investment allegedly conflict. Because of this perceived conflict, achieving one’s self-interest supposedly requires exploiting others, such as the CEO deceiving the shareholders, or the employees shirking their responsibilities, or the shareholders manipulating the CEO.

If people’s interests unavoidably conflict, then pursuing self-interest automatically harms others. The authors of one article went as far as arguing that self-interest that is harmonious with the interests of others is logically impossible. By their logic, giving a raise to an employee is not in the self-interest of a manager (presumably because that will mean less money available to compensate himself). By the same logic, the manager getting a bonus conflicts with the interests of his employees.

Not only do intellectuals embrace the straw man view of self-interest; they also evade the true nature of altruism. Instead of recognizing it for what it is (as intended by that code’s developers such as August Comte): self-sacrifice for the sake of others as a principle, they promote putting others’ interests ahead of our own as noble. Never do these intellectuals tell us why it is moral to help others to achieve their values but immoral to pursue our own.

Why are the intellectuals’ views wrong? The idea that people’s interests automatically conflict and that pursuing self-interest means exploiting others is truly a straw man. It completely misses what self-interest actually means: pursuing one’s values—values that meet the requirements of human survival and flourishing. Pursuing self-interest is absolutely necessary if we want to survive and flourish, and most people know that simply from observation.

Exploiting others through force or fraud is not in our self-interest. Such action would invite others to do the same or get justice through the legal system, thus jeopardizing our values. Even if we derived some temporary gain, say, from deceiving others, such a gain would not be sustainable, as any pyramid investment schemer or other fraudsters eventually learn. As shown by Ayn Rand, people’s rational interests do no not conflict. Giving a raise to a productive employee does not conflict with the interests of the manager or the shareholders. Quite the contrary, it benefits them if the raise keeps the employee motivated and deters him from joining a competitor. As a consequence, the company will create more value, making possible a bonus to the manager and dividends to the shareholders. A bonus to a deserving manager would similarly promote the interests of the other parties.

Also, only by evading the self-sacrificial nature of altruism can anyone embrace it as the moral ideal. It is altruism not egoism that is destructive. By advocating putting others’ interests always first, it prevents us from achieving our self-interest: well-being and happiness. Despite the common sense view of ethics, many people do not question what the intellectuals, including religious leaders, teach and end up feeling guilty because they are not able to put others ahead of themselves on principle. Nobody can live by the opposite principles of the common-sense morality and of altruism.

Ironically, it is not altruism but the morality of self-interest that makes genuine benevolence and kindness possible. Only when people are free and their rights are protected against exploiters, can they seek their own interests and flourish and thus be able to help those deserving help when the need sometimes arises.

If we want to survive and flourish, we must reject altruism and study, understand, and adopt self-interest instead.

  • malcolm freeman

    Yes altruism orig meaning was self scraifice which in the context of war or politics (scapegoats) is very true (where my death may save the country/political party from dying). But harder to see in todays more selfish ,massive society of inequality. So today altruism generally means whats good for society is good for me (without the self sacrifice bit).

    Ive never read ayn rand but seems she has alot to answer for ! alan greenspan followed ayn rand but turned out to be a fraud and helped ruin usa. Read “greenspans fraud” .Written from studing 50 yr of economic data. But i doubt you would except the authors reasons as they conflict with rightwing liberal ideas. Main ideas are as real jobs (manufacturing etc ) left usa the govt reduced taxes on the rich and allowed min wages and hence average wages to fall to low. Both of these increase inequality the result the masses have less money to spend on buying stuff corporations sell hence poor economy. The conflict being whats good for the individual corporations/capitalists in reduced wages isnt good for the economy.

    You cant override 150 yrs of proven marxist scientific theory with an opinion of self interest. Class war still exists today in a our capitalist system as capitalism is an exploitative & competitive system with the only way to compete is to reduce labour cost below your competitors to make profit. And the cycle of overproduction that creates booms & busts and will end capitalism naturally if the other prob dont get it. The only political ideology that actually says class war is good is Facisim.

    Heres the other problem with rightwing liberals , they have no human qualities ie they lack compassion, empathy love and connection. what you call values are actually needs, water,air food, shelter/warm,sleep of which capitalism (money) can provide but only for those that do well (as its system of evolution (strongest survives), then comes security which i argue capitalism fails at but its certainly no better than left wing systems. But capitalism fails spectacularly at providing the non physical human needs of love,belonging with others (community) and self esteem, in fact its very harmful to them. But what it can provide for is desires/wants for those that do well ,ie all the consumer goods.services not necessary for us but can make life bearable for some but are excess to most people ( which equals materialism is temp happiness versus spiritualism permenant happiness) .

    Which leads to a society thats based on profit is a system based on greed. Humans being weakness cannot stop at $100,000 or $1,000,000 or $1,000,000,000 for sustaining themselves because they get addicted to excess and theyre no happier for it. Yet society on the whole suffers because current capitalism is a system where money is a created by debt and capitalism and money system of interest require impossible endless growth on a planet of finite resources. I consider that a massive conflict between between system and society and self and society.

  • Daneen

    Excellent article, Jaana. I came over to CapMag this morning looking for rational thought, as I am lately struck by the fact that an ENORMOUS gulf has opened in this country since Obama was first elected: not the one between rich and poor, or black and white, or any of the numerous other chasms…the gulf, which I fear cannot be closed, is a philosophical one of which most people are utterly unaware. You have touched on it here. It is somewhat comforting to know that I am not alone in recognizing it.