You have heard this before: you are either good, or you are selfish. For most 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 promote 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, many of us practice common-sense egoism every day. We pursue our values: work, wealth, material values to sustain and enjoy our lives, recreational activities, entertainment, art, friendship, and other values that contribute to our well-being and happiness. Common-sense egoists pursue their values—their self-interest—without trying to coerce or deceive others.
Common-sense egoism is not an explicit moral code, however. While many people practice it in their daily lives, altruism that dominates 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, we are fallible beings for whom 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 achievement of values: rational egoism.
Egoism is a moral code for living and flourishing. That makes it virtuous.
Rational egoism was 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). The qualifier ‘rational’ is often necessary to avoid confusion with cynical exploitation, the mistaken idea that self-interest entails ruthless trampling on others. Here I will use ‘egoism’ to refer to Ayn Rand’s rational, non-predatory moral code.
Egoism begins with the recognition that we don’t have automatic knowledge about the goals we should pursue and about the means to reach them. We must first choose to gain that knowledge and to act accordingly. Egoism makes possible the achievement of values in the long-term—survival and happiness—by guiding thinking and action to make the right choices. It is a moral code for living and flourishing. That makes it virtuous.
With the premise that pursuing 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. They are rationality, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, and pride.
Much has been written about these virtues. Therefore, here I focus only on rationality, the primary virtue. It 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 virtue because reason is our main means of survival. Unlike other species, we survive and achieve other values primarily by thinking, not by brute strength, speed, or other qualities. Thinking human minds adhering to reality (and the consequent action) have made possible the unprecedented wealth and well-being we experience today.
But since thinking and acting on rational conclusions are not automatic, people can choose to ignore reality. This is destructive and contradicts their self-interest.
Consider a business owner who evades that his competitors are offering better products at lower prices and that his cash flow is declining. Only when the company experiences 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 correct such a situation is to adhere to facts and act accordingly, guided by the rest of the egoist virtues.
If we want to achieve long-term self-interest, common-sense egoism is not enough. The only guide to our well-being and happiness—and to long-term profitability—is virtuous egoism. All we have to do is to understand and apply its principles. More about applying them in business can be found in my book, How to Be Profitable and Moral.
Originally posted 19 April 2014.