My book, How to Be Profitable and Moral: A Rational Egoist Approach to Business, has been translated into Finnish and was recently published in Finland. At the book launch in Helsinki, an appreciative reader (of the English-language original) and a business owner commented that what I write in my book is obviously the way a business should be run in order for it to be successful in the long term. What he implied is that egoism is an obvious moral code for business. I replied that if it were, I would not have written the book …

In one important sense this reader was right: egoism is obvious because it is the moral code that human survival and flourishing—and long-term business success—requires. People and businesses cannot survive and flourish without pursuing their rational self-interest; egoism is the moral code explaining how they can do it systematically, achieving their values (ultimately, a happy life and long-term profitability in business) without violating the rights of others.

But egoism is not the obvious right moral code for the majority of people, nor is any other moral code the “obvious” one. Ethics is always chosen, whether explicitly or implicitly. Research shows that most people do not think about ethics explicitly after their late teens or early twenties, implicitly choosing instead to follow cultural norms and the values they were taught at home, if any. The closest they come to choosing an “obvious” moral code is to follow cultural norms—which means subscribing to the moral code dominant around the world: altruism.

Despite of the benign view many have of it, altruism is not a moral code prescribing just benevolence and kindness towards others. Instead, it guides us to put others’ interests always ahead of our own—which is no way to achieve our values, flourishing in life. Altruism—not decency and benevolence—is hazardous to human life and business. If we are always to give up every value instead of achieving any, we will not be able to survive, let alone thrive.

What is the appeal of altruism, you may wonder, given how anti-human life it is? The popularity of altruism as a moral prescription is a testimony to the power of philosophy. For the last two thousand years philosophers, both religious and secular, have been prescribing altruism. The presumed rationale has been that if we all put others’ interests ahead of our own, we would avoid conflicts, achieve social harmony, and live happily ever after. This is a myth, of course. Happiness is the state of consciousness that ensues from achievement of our values—which altruism rejects.  But the majority of people have bought into the altruist prescription even with its impossibility as a guide to living their lives. (And political and religious leaders have cleverly exploited the guilt that people’s inability to practice altruism has caused, getting them to consent to ever-increasing taxes and other sacrifices without protest).

Egoism is the right alternative to altruism, guiding people and businesses to pursue rational self-interest. But egoism is not obvious, and even if we choose it as our moral code, knowing how to apply it is not obvious, particularly in business. That is the reason I have written my book and keep blogging—to make the moral code of egoism familiar to those who want to be profitable in the long term. Information where to find the book in English is available here. For the Finnish version, please look here.

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Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada.She has lectured and conducted seminars on business ethics to undergraduate, MBA and Executive MBA students, and to various corporate audiences for over 20 years both in Canada and abroad.Before earning her Ph.D. from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, she helped turn around a small business in Finland and worked for a consulting firm in Canada.Jaana’s research on technological change and innovation, value creation by business, executive decision-making, and business ethics has been published in various academic and professional journals and books. “How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Perhaps a quibble, but some people may say _after_ reading your book: “Oh, right, that’ obvious. (In hindsight – you’ve probably given them more ability to defend themselves and teach others.)
    Many will already believe in integrity, you’ve probably reinforced them. You may know, as I do, people who after a few decades of life find previous books by friends and say “That explains why I’ve always thought as I did.”

    Some people made the general conclusions at a young age, perhaps due difficulties in childhood, perhaps due role models. (One large study of children from troubled homes in Hawaii found strong correlation between success despite their home life and contacts with neighbours/relatives/teachers who were visible role models – especially that life could be lived sensibly – and sources of advice.)

    I think the problem is psychological – some people implicitly want a free lunch, in contrast to others who want independence. Influences from society affect weak thinkers, and public school teaching reinforces acceptance of altruism.

    Certainly the prevalence of implicit support for altruism is widespread in our societies, explicitly taught in schools in various forms including environmentalism, and propagated by mainstream media people who were taught in universities. (Note that many who were there in the 1960s and 70s, when bad ideas were increasingly promoted, are now senior managers or owners of publications.)

    Your writing reinforces good people, helping equip them to influence others

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