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The Vice of Selflessness

Most people take it for granted that selflessness is a virtue. In business, altruism—always putting others first, selfless service to a company,“servant leadership”—is praised as the ultimate expression of virtue. But this worship of selflessness is a mistake: selflessness is not a virtue (a principle defining the action required to achieve values). Quite the contrary, always putting others first destroys values. It harms both the sacrificer and the intended recipient of the sacrifice, both in business and in life in general. Let’s see why—and why people embrace the idea of self-sacrifice despite its destructiveness.

Selflessness means giving up—sacrificing—your values for the sake of serving the needs of others. You should forgo a job opportunity—because there is always someone else who needs it more. You should not attract the new client—because your competitor needs the revenue more. You should not eat that meal—there are others who are hungrier than you. To follow the principle of selflessness, you would need to give up all your values: job, clients, food, and the rest. But life, and business, requires gaining values, not losing them. If you give up all your values, you will die, or your company will go out of business. This possibility has occurred to the philosophers advocating altruism, such as John Stuart Mill, who advised us to take “just enough” for ourselves in order to maintain our strength to keep serving others. But how much is “just enough”? Altruism offers no answers.

We can’t keep serving others if we are dead or our business is bankrupt, so the recipients of our sacrifice will not benefit from it in the long term. When we run a company on the principle of altruism, we minimize the wealth it creates—and eliminate it altogether. But when a business fulfills its proper purpose and creates wealth, it benefits not merely its owners but all those with whom it trades: customers, employees, and suppliers. A wealth-creating, profit-seeking company benefits also its competitors by spurring them on to create more wealth themselves through increased efficiency and more innovative products and services. Wealth creation is not a zero-sum game. Pursuing self-interest—not selfless serving of others’ needs—is a plus-sum game in which all parties trade value for value and everyone benefits. Consider Bill Gates: by running Microsoft and creating wealth, he was benefiting others much more than he ever can through the charity work of the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation.

If the selfish pursuit and trade of values (including helping those worthy of your help) is a win-win for everyone, why do people still embrace selflessness as the moral ideal? I see three primary reasons. First, many find the duty to serve others a comforting thought because they lack confidence in their minds’ ability to deal with the challenges life often poses. With altruism as the dominant moral code, they can depend on others to serve their needs, at the price of doing the same for others. Second, having been led astray by most philosophers since Aristotle, many do not understand the alternatives. They recognize that selfishness is the opposite of selflessness but view it as predatory, cynical exploitation of others. They fail to see the selfless sacrifice of oneself to others and the sacrifice of others to oneself as false alternatives. They do not realize that the true alternative to selflessness is rational selfishness, which rejects any sacrifice and advocates the life-enhancing pursuit and trade of values instead. Third, selflessness has been a dominant moral ideal for millennia, thanks to the above two reasons. Most people are second-handers: they do not question culturally prevalent values and follow what they have been taught: “Don’t be selfish”—“Give up what you value for others who need it”—“Who are you to elevate your interests above those of others?”

It is the selfless, altruist morality that we need to reject if we are to achieve our values—including success in business—and to be happy. Accepting selflessness as the moral ideal is a source of unearned guilt and irreconcilable with success and happiness. Many companies mix altruism and self-interest in their value statements, rendering them confusing to employees who recognize that contradictory values cannot be achieved. They want to know which values are the real guidelines. There is no proper compromise between selflessness and (rational) self-interest. Either we sacrifice values and undermine our companies’ success and our lives, or we pursue and trade values and thrive.