Ethics of Capitalism: Rational Self Interest

Capitalism is the social system that leaves the individual free to be moral — to act by reason in the pursuit of one’s self-interest.

“Just as man cannot survive by any random means, but must discover and practice the principles which his survival requires, so man’s self-interest cannot be determined by blind desires or random whims, but must be discovered and achieved by the guidance of rational principles.” — Ayn Rand

Morality is the “science of self-preservation” and human fulfillment, or in the words of John Galt, a hero in Ayn Rand’s revolutionary novel Atlas Shrugged: “The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live.”

And what does the science of morality tell us? It tells us if a flourishing life as a human being on earth is one’s goal, one must act according to one’s rational self-interest.

Self-interest indicates the end (the self) of one’s actions; rational indicates the means (reason) of obtaining that end.


To act rationally means to be guided by reason

Reason is one’s means of conceptually grasping reality based on the evidence of the senses (facts).

Survival for human beings is not automatic. Unlike other organisms — bacteria, elephants, and apes — humans must alter their environment to survive. One must use their reason to rearrange the objects in their environment to create the values — shelter, food, books, energy, medicine — one requires to survive. Reason is one’s means of survival.

To be rational is to accept reason as one’s only source of knowledge, and as one’s only guide to action.

This does not mean that one cannot learn or take advice from others, but that such second-hand knowledge and advice must still be processed and validated by one’s mind. Whether one is alone on a desert island or living in modern society: the individual must think and act rationally if life is their goal.


Self-interest means to take actions that support one’s own life

Where our physical body automatically acts to preserve our life (to the extent that it is able) such as the heart pumping blood, or the lungs breathing air, our conceptual mind does not. As a being of free-will one can choose to take those actions that preserve one’s life (from eating healthy food, to engaging in rewarding relationships) or engage in actions that result in one’s destruction (from consuming poison to engaging in sacrificial, destructive relationships). If one wishes to live, one must choose to act to preserve one’s life.

Self-interest (egoism) means to choose to hold one’s own life as the standard of value (the measure by which one determines and judges one’s actions), regarding oneself as the primary beneficiary of one’s actions.

Such a standard determines what actions are good (that which preserves and sustains one’s life) and that which is evil (that which harms and destroys one’s life).


Rational self-interest is to live by an objective code of moral principles

Rational self-interest means choosing to act according to an objective moral code of principles that serves as one’s guide to action, so that one may live a flourishing life on earth.

Human beings require an integrated body of knowledge, or code, because (unlike the lower animals) as humans have no automatic means of knowledge. Human beings have no “instincts” on how to grow food for nourishment, to drive a car or airplane for transport, build a house for shelter, cure an infection to restore health or interact with one’s fellow human beings in a division of labor economy. Such knowledge must be discovered and learned.

One needs such a code as abstract principles applicable to an unlimited number of concrete situations so one can consistently carry out the proper actions over the entire course of one’s life.

Such a code defines the virtues (rationality, productivity, integrity, justice, honesty, pride, etc.) one must engage in to achieve the values one needs to live.


Rational self-interest is opposed to sacrificing others or oneself

In regards to one’s relationship with others, rational self-interest does not mean sacrificing one’s interests for others (what philosopher Auguste Comte coined as altruism or “otherism”).

Rational self-interest holds that it is immoral to sacrifice a greater value (such as one’s self, or beloved wife) for a lessor or non-value (an enemy or stranger). In cases where helping a stranger does not sacrifice one’s values, rational egoism does not prohibit such behavior.

Nor does rational self-interest mean sacrificing others for oneself (what is smeared as “selfishness”), such as when a thief attempts to get something for nothing by robbing a bank, or a con man attempts to commit fraud. Rational self-interest holds that such behavior is not “selfish” but is in principle self-destructive.


Rational self-interest means to live by the trader principle

Rational self-interest means having a benevolent view of existence, seeing other individuals as traders with a shared harmony of interests, exchanging value for value — in the material (wealth and pleasure), intellectual (knowledge and discussion) and spiritual (love and friendship) realms.

One sees such a harmony (win-win) when one pays for a meal at a restaurant, shares one’s discovery of a new book with a friend, or experiences a mutually intimate moment with a loved one.


Capitalism leaves the individual free to be moral

Capitalism is the ideal social system as it leaves the individual free to be moral — free to act rationally in the pursuit of happiness — so long as one respects the equal freedom of others to do the same.

The principle that makes this possible is the concept of individual rights, what philosopher Ayn Rand identified as the bridge between individual morality and social politics.

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