Wednesday, November 18, 2009

An elaboration on the meaning of Selfishness

(The following is my response to a comment1 on my recent post The Virtue of Selfishness.)

Many proponents of the morality of rational egoism strive to reclaim the term "selfishness" as a virtue. From the perspective of most other moral theories, including today's most prevalent--altruism--selfishness is condemned as the heartless consideration only of oneself, and usually characterized as attending only to the immediate and obvious effects of one's actions.

It is crucial to note, however, that proponents of rational egoism also condemn myopic attention to only oneself, especially when divorced from the wider implications of one's actions. This myopic self-centeredness is not what is meant by their use of the term selfishness.

How can we move beyond these semantic disagreements? We obviously need two separate terms: one to designate myopic self-centeredness, and another to designate the selfishness of rational egoism. One step toward clarification might be to explain why proponents of selfishness view it as a reasonable term to signify rational self-interest (see below). An even better place to start, however, is to ask and then answer the more fundamental questions: What is the purpose of morality? Why are moral principles even necessary?

The entire question of morality arises from two facts of human nature:
1) Our existence is conditional.
2) Possessing freewill, we must choose between alternatives.

Life in general, and human life in particular, requires that we achieve certain conditions--or die. The details of those conditions are not automatically (instinctively) known but must be discovered. Moral principles are the fundamental abstractions we must discover (and then choose to use) which serve as guides for our thinking and our actions. The ultimate purpose behind these principles is the preservation and promotion of our lives. This is what is meant by stating that "life is the standard of value." Life is the goal of our actions and thus becomes the standard by which we measure good and bad, right and wrong. "Good" actions promote our lives; "bad" actions are harmful to our lives.

Since life is an attribute of an individual organism (it is the individual that lives and dies), it is the life of the individual which is the relevant moral unit. Each man's standard of value must be his own life--his own Self. This is what is meant by selfishness as a virtue: the recognition that one's own life (self) is the ultimate goal and proper purpose of one's actions. These moral principles are required even when living alone on a desert island. They are not simply rules of social engagement, but the identification of the proper stance we must take toward reality. However, we neither live in isolation, nor simply for the moment. For actions and policies to truly promote our lives, we must take into account their long-term and full-context consequences.

Political rights extend the moral principle of valuing the self and individual life into rules for social engagement. Rights outline the freedoms of action open to individuals in a social context, delineating boundaries which can not be crossed without violating the prime right--the right of each individual to his own life, and only to his own. When this is understood and consistently applied, it is possible to also see why interactions between human beings must be voluntary--and why to initiate force is to violate a man's right to his own life.2

None of this alters the fact that people can benefit greatly from one another--emotionally, materially, spiritually. It does not preclude or prevent positive, voluntary collaboration between human beings: as communities, nations, businesses, families or lovers --provided the interactions are truly life promoting for each individual involved. Selfishness simply points to the fact that each individual rightfully lives for the sake of his own life (self) and happiness. Extension of this understanding of selfishness into social interactions requires prohibiting the initiation of force against others from the realm of morally justifiable actions. (Defining just what is force and elaborating on how to distinguish between its initiation and self-defense are crucial areas requiring clarification, but that task takes us beyond the purpose of this particular essay.)

What is the tool we use to identify and analyze "the good" and attempt to understand and apply it in the widest context possible? Our faculty of reason: the process of observing reality, and then drawing inductive and deductive conclusions based on those observations, checking for consistency (eliminating contradictions) and assuring that we have sufficient knowledge to justify our conclusions.

Are mistakes possible? Of course! The fact of our fallibility, however, does not invalidate reason. The ability to error only magnifies the importance of reason and the need for careful deliberation, to always be vigilant, to constantly check and expand the context of our knowledge.

The fact of our fallibility also does not make selfishness, properly understood, dangerous. That we are creatures of free will gives rise both to the need for moral principles and to the fact of our fallibility. We have choice, and we are not automatized to choose correctly. Choice brings with it the ability to choose wrongly. Those truths do not change that the standard of value (good/bad, right/wrong) must be each individual's own life (the moral principle of selfishness) any more than the fact that errors in calculations can and do occur invalidates a mathematical principle. "Complete rationality of all decisions" is the goal. That there is no automatic guarantee this goal will always be achieved does not invalidate it as a goal.

Selfishness is a virtue because it identifies the individual self as the origin and the beneficiary of moral action. The only kind of "selfishness" which achieves this goal, consistently through time and across all areas of action, is one that is rational. Thus, the concept selfishness as a moral virtue subsumes rationality, and to state "rational selfishness" is to state a redundancy. The essence of rationality is non-contradiction. Applied to the field of ethics, reason leads us to the recognition that all human beings have the same right to life as ourselves.

In conclusion, I think there are good reasons for trying to reclaim the term "selfishness" as a virtue--but I also do not want the discussion distracted away from addressing the underlying meaning and turned into bickering over terminology. I am open for suggestions for a different terminology, one that that adequately captures the difference between selfishness consistent with reason, and the irrational, truncated "selfishness" which fails to include the full context.

Make some suggestions, or better yet, address the concept which underlies the term. Until convinced otherwise, I will continue to advocate for selfishness.

1. from Anonymous1 (10/29/09): Your treatment of the 'full concept of selfishness' implies the complete rationality of all decisions. This is inconsistent with human experience as much research in economics, safety, and psychology is beginning to understand. More often than not selfishness is just that. Selfishness. Fixation on the immediate benefit to one's self without consideration of the long term, even to the detriment of one's self.

2 Ayn Rand goes further and demonstrates the epistemological basis for the evil of initiating force--why man's unique rational faculty is his means of self-preservation and life promotion--and why for proper functioning it requires protecting the freedom to use one's own judgment--why persuasion is the only moral path to changing another man's actions--0r as I have distilled it: Convince me, or let me be.

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