Liberty is won and preserved not primarily with guns, but with ideas. Spreading freedom requires that we spread an understanding of the benefits freedom brings, that we explain to whomever will listen how freedom is really in everyone’s best interest. In making the case for a truly free society, however, we will inevitably come up against a wide array of illiberal beliefs that keep others from embracing our vision of a better world. The more we seek to understand those beliefs, the better we will be able to counter them and address the concerns that underlie them. In this ongoing series, I address some of the issues we can expect to face, along with brief outlines of the kinds of responses I think can be helpful.
Is it 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, 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 2008 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.
Bradley Doucet is Le Québécois Libre‘s English Editor and the author of the blog Spark This: Musings on Reason, Liberty, and Joy. A writer living in Montreal, he has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness.