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The Virtue of Rational Self-Interest

You have heard this before: you are either good, or you are selfish. For the majority of people, virtuous egoism is an oxymoron: they don’t think it is possible to be virtuous and pursue self-interest at the same time. People believe that egoism is evil because they have been taught that all their lives, thanks to philosophers who have promoted altruism—sacrifice for the sake of others—as the only moral code. One contemporary ethicist captured the almost universal consensus among philosophers by this claim: “…moral conduct by definition is not motivated by self-interest.”

Yet, most people practice common-sense egoism every day. They pursue their values: their work, wealth, and the material values that sustaining and enjoying their and their families’ lives requires, recreational activities, entertainment, art, friendship, and other things that contribute to their well-being and happiness. Most people pursue their values—their self-interest—without harming others. This is common-sense egoism.

However, common-sense egoism is not an explicit moral code. While people practice it in their daily lives, the dominance of altruism in moral teaching makes them feel guilty for not giving up their values for the sake of others. Because common-sense egoism is not an explicit code, there is no moral justification for it and no clear principles to guide the pursuit of self-interest. Yet, for fallible beings achievement of self-interest is not automatic; we need moral principles for guidance. We also need a justification that the principles we follow are moral, lest we want to waste our time feeling unearned guilt for pursuing our own happiness.

The good news is that there is an explicit moral code that offers both a moral justification and moral principles to guide all the common-sense egoists out there in achieving their self-interest without harming others. That moral code is rational egoism, developed by Ayn Rand on the foundation established by Aristotle. (For Ayn Rand’s moral theory, see her essay collection The Virtue of Selfishness, or Tara Smith’s Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist—which inspired the title of this post). I used the qualifier ‘rational’ to avoid confusion of egoism with cynical exploitation, the mistaken idea that self-interest entails ruthless trampling on others in the pursuit of one’s goals. From now on, I will use ‘egoism’ to refer to Ayn Rand’s rational, non-predatory moral code.

Egoism is virtuous because it makes possible the achievement our long-term well-being and happiness without initiating physical force on others. The moral justification of egoism is that it makes it possible for us—who don’t have automatic knowledge about the goals we should pursue and about the means to reach them—to achieve our values in the long-term: to survive and to be happy. It is a moral code for living and flourishing.
Starting from the premise that the pursuit of self-interest is moral and necessary for our well-being and happiness, Ayn Rand identified seven egoist virtues—principles that define the actions required to achieve long-term self-interest: rationality, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, and pride. Rand and others have written much about these virtues, so here I focus only on rationality, the primary virtue on which the others rest. Rationality guides us to use reason—to adhere to reality through observation and logic—as “our only means of knowledge, our only judge of values, and our only guide to action.”

Rationality is the primary egoist virtue because reason is our primary means of survival. In contrast to all other species, we survive and achieve other values primarily by thinking, not by brute strength, speed, or sharp fangs. Thinking human minds adhering to reality (and the consequent human actions) have made possible the unprecedented wealth and well-being we experience today. But thinking and acting on rational conclusions are not automatic to us. And people’s choice to not adhere to reality often leads to immoral actions which contradict their self-interest. Consider a business owner who keeps evading that his competitors are offering better products at lower prices and that his cash flow is declining. Only when the company is experiencing losses, does he acknowledge his self-interest is threatened, and is now tempted to deceive his customers or investors to save the business. But the only way to avoid or to correct such a situation is to adhere to facts and act accordingly, guided by the rest of the egoist virtues.

To achieve our long-term self-interest, common-sense egoism is not enough. The only route to our well-being and happiness, without violating the rights of others, is virtuous egoism. All we have to do is to understand and apply its principles.