Ethics of Capitalism: Rational Self Interest

“The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live.” – John Galt quoted from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged

 

Survival for human beings, unlike other animals, is not automatic.

Unlike other organisms — bacteria, elephants or apes which act by instinct — humans beings have no automatic knowledge and must discover the principles needed to survive.

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, operate a ventilator to help the lungs breath during an infection, or to interact with one’s fellow human beings in a division of labor economy. Such knowledge must be discovered and learned.

 

Humans are conceptual beings

Concepts are a human being’s distinctive tool of cognition.

One forms concepts by abstracting from the relationships amongst the perceptual data one observes in reality by a process of induction; one can then later apply those concepts to other instances by a process of deduction. For example, when one has grasped the concept car, one does not have to relearn everything from scratch when one encounters a new car, even though that car may differ in some aspects. Or, when a child grasps that water satisfies thirst (induction), when the child is thirsty it can seek water to satisfy that thirst (deduction).

Concepts expand a human being’s awareness beyond the perceptual level allowing a human to project beyond the immediate place or moment, whether into the past and future. For example, when one has conceptually grasped the concept mile (and the ability to count, etc.), one can then grasp a hundred or even a million miles even though one cannot perceptually see a million miles. This allows humans to grasp tiny particles the size of atoms or as large as a galaxy. Such is the power of concepts.

 

Reason is a human being’s means of survival

Reason is one’s means of conceptually grasping reality based on the evidence of the senses. By the use of reason one can rearrange the objects in their environment to create the values — shelter, food, ventilators, books, energy, medicine — one requires to survive.

 

Rationality means to be guided only by reason in one’s thought and action

To be rational, as philosopher Ayn Rand has observed, is to accept reason as one’s only source of knowledge, and as one’s only guide to action (as opposed to going by one’s emotions, whims, or on faith).

 

Self-interest is to regard oneself as the primary beneficiary of one’s actions

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 act automatically.

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 choose to 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, regarding oneself as the primary beneficiary of one’s actions.

 

Rational self-interest is to live by an objective code of moral principles so one may live a happy, fulfilling, and flourishing life on earth

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 happy, fulfilling, and flourishing life on earth.

A moral code, according to philosopher Ayn Rand, is a set of universal, rationally discovered, reality-based principles that one must apply to the particular concretes of one’s everyday life if one wishes to live.

Self-interest indicates the end (the self) of one’s actions; rational indicates the means (reason) of determining and carrying out those actions.

 

Rational self-interest is opposed to sacrificing others or sacrificing oneself

In regards to one’s relationship with others, rational self-interest is opposed to 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 higher value (such as one’s self, beloved wife, or friends) 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, but sees it as an act of generosity and good-will (and not as a “duty”).

Neither 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 irrational, dependent behavior is not in one’s self-interest but is, in principle, self-destructive.

 

Rational self-interest means to deal with others by the trader principle

Rational egoism holds that life does not require giving up values, dependence, and destruction, but value-pursuit, independence, and creation. 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.

 

Capitalism leaves the individual free to be moral — to act according to their rational self-interest

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.

 

SUMMARY

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.

 

KEY POINTS

  • Reason is a human being’s means of survival
  • Rationality means to be guided only by reason in one’s thought and action (objectivity).
  • Self-interest is to regard oneself as the primary beneficiary of one’s actions.
  • Rational self-interest is to live by an objective code of moral principles so one may live a happy, fulfilling, and flourishing life on earth.
  • Rational self-interest is opposed to sacrificing others or sacrificing oneself (altruism).
  • Rational self-interest means to deal with others by the trader principle.
  • Capitalism leaves the individual free to be moral — to act according to their rational self-interest.

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