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 was 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 which explains 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 obviously 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. Instead, they implicitly choose 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 that prescribes benevolence and kindness towards others. It guides us to put others’ interests always ahead of our own—which is no way to achieve our values and a flourishing life.
Altruism, the moral code of self-sacrifice for the sake of others, 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, in Ayn Rand’s definition, is “that state of consciousness that proceeds from achievement of one’s values.” Altruism rejects achievement of one’s own values and happiness as immoral.
But the majority of people have accepted the altruist morality as an ideal, 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 to other sacrifices of their values for the sake of others, without protest.
Egoism is the right alternative to altruism. It is the only moral code to guide people and business to pursue rational self-interest. But egoism is not an obvious moral choice. And even if we choose it, knowing how to apply it is not obvious, including 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.
Originally posted 20 March 2013