A Moral Code of Self-Interest

From the comment files:

Re: moral code, I think it’s pretty clear cut that self-interest is the highest moral principle. This must be looked at in the long-term i.e. selfishness vs. self-interest.

Selfishness would be short term taking advantage of others for personal gain–which would have long term consequences such as loss of reputation, running afoul of laws, etc. In a word, selfishness of this type would be just plain stupid. A person acting this way would quickly become a pariah, and thus lose the benefit of any short-term gain.

Self-interest would be looking to gain the maximum advantage while cultivating a community of support through reciprocal altruism. Actions would only be taken that would result in long-term benefit to the individual, which necessarily would include helping others who could help you. In the most expansive view of self-interest, the entire world would need to be considered, along with all possible impacts of any individual action. As a practical matter, most people cannot focus this large, and therefore should concentrate on their immediate community of family and friends. In this way, working for mutual benefit in one’s community could be seen as the highest expression of self-interest. It yields the greatest likelihood that others will be there for you, should you have a time of need.

It goes without saying that morality, or ethics (the word I prefer) involves not doing harm to others. Indeed, the highest goal in my view is to see the greatest level of happiness and personal fulfillment in the greatest number of people one can practically touch in one’s life. This is how I think that ethics can be established independently of religion. Ultimately, a persons’ interest is served by serving those in their immediate circle.

This is sort of a variant on the ‘golden rule’. But I think there are times when the golden rule breaks down, especially when people are in any sort of crisis where they have to make a choice for survival at whatever cost, including the cost of future reprisals. It is important for everyone to be aware when someone in their circle may be about to commit a betrayal or short-term selfish act. These tendencies are never far from the surface, and it’s wise to keep alert.

Re: laws. I think laws are there so that when personal ethics break down, there is something to fall back on. One of the primary roles of government is to have some official mechanism for the redress of grievances, where someone is actually harmed. But the idea that governments have an interest in regulating private behavior, such as you mentioned with adultery, is pure bunk. These atrocities could only happen in countries where religious authority exists. This is yet another example of why maintaining secular governments is very important.

Comments (10 comments)

Aaron Kinney / December 12th, 2005, 9:34 am / #1

The word “selfishness” has an unusual meaning in today’s society. It is usually not meant as “self-interest” but instead as a short-sighted and irrational self-interest that is ultimately detrimental for the “selfish” one. It implies an error on perception on the part of the “selfish” one.

Ayn Rand adopted the word “selfishness” to describe her moral system partly out of shock value I think. But in reality, when Ayn Rand says “selfishness,” what she really means is “rational self-interest.”

Rational self-interest, as you already noted Blacksun, includes cooperating with others for mutual benefit. A sort of “reciprocal altruism.”

But I wonder if “reciprocal altruism” is an appropriate description for it? True, the parties involved could be seen as altruistic in their direct action because they are working for the benefit of the other person, but they do so with the knowledge that their own interests will be fulfilled by the other. Am I correct in thinking that the phrase “reciprocal altruism” is synonymous with “rational self-interst”?

Francois Tremblay / December 12th, 2005, 9:44 am / #2

“Indeed, the highest goal in my view is to see the greatest level of happiness and personal fulfillment in the greatest number of people one can practically touch in one’s life.”

You’re getting dangerously close to utilitarianism there. In fact there are plenty of essential and valuable activities that have nothing to do with making other people happy. I think that if you tried to live solely by this principle, you would die or end up on the street pretty fast.

Other people are an important moral factor, but they can’t fulfill all our needs. Ultimately they cannot fulfill ANY of our needs – no one else can think, act, benefit for ourselves. We are independent organisms.

Francois Tremblay / December 12th, 2005, 9:46 am / #3

Funnily, it seems like you’re falling into the same extremist Buddhist fallacy that you were complaining about on the phone yesterday. ;)

BlackSun / December 12th, 2005, 9:08 pm / #4

Francois, you got me there!! I was just trying to say that it would be nice if more people could be happy. If in the process of pursuing your rational self-interest, you do things to make people happy, you might feel good about it. In that case, you could just as easily pursue that goal because you like the feeling–not because you are being altruistic.

Aaron, yes, I would consider “rational self-interest” to be synonymous with “reciprocal altruism.” Actually, it was Dawkins who discussed reciprocal altruism as an element of his larger discussion of game theory in “The Selfish Gene.”

Francois Tremblay / December 12th, 2005, 10:24 pm / #5

Yea, but “altruism” is not “reciprocal”. By definition altruism (sacrifice of values – yours or others’) is morally assymetrical. The only “reciprocal” mode of relating is the Trader Priniciple – capitalism/egoism/however you want to call it.

By the way, I wrote an article after our conversation on the phone. It’s saved on Blogger, but I don’t think there’s an actual way of showing you entries that are saved but not published. It’s rather inconvenient. I can send it to you by email if you want to read it.

BlackSun / December 12th, 2005, 10:46 pm / #6

Please see wikipedia entry on “reciprocal altruism.” A psychological mechanism can evolve to support this. Normally I agree that trade is the only way to function. But this is a form of trade which involves trust and forms an evolutionarily stable strategy.

Re: Utilitarianism. This indeed is what I wrote, but I really didn’t think through the implications. I’ll have to give that some thought. Utilitarianism has some unintended consequences that don’t seem beneficial. The statement I made about happiness was made more in the casual sense, that if we want to live in a better world it would be nice if more people were happy. But I should be more precise when discussing ethics. Good point.

Francois Tremblay / December 13th, 2005, 12:01 am / #7

Yes, I understand the principles of co-evolution described in the article. First of all, evolution is not morality, as you know… but secondly, it’s not “altruism” at all even if we see it from a moral standpoint. The sacrifice of values here is not only undesired, but selected against.

Aaron Kinney / December 13th, 2005, 12:31 pm / #8

Thanks for the wikipedia link Blacksun.

The word “altruism” leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and I was quick to equate reciprocal altruism with rational self-interest so that I could avoid the “a” word.

Franc has a point that reciprocal altruism is not really altruism, but it seems to be a semantics game by then, where the word “reciprocal” added in the phrase reverses the ultimate meaning of the “altruism” part of the phrase. However, it seems to me that the actual phrase “reciprocal altruism” is one that can be validly used, even if it raises the eyebrows of a few diehard individualists like myself.

At the end of the wikipedia article, it says “see also: symbiosis.” I think that symbiosis, rational self-interest, and reciprocal altruism are found in the same category.

I look back at what I wrote and chuckle to myself at how the word altruism can be such a big hang-up for me!

Francois Tremblay / December 13th, 2005, 1:55 pm / #9

As it should be. Everyone should realize how loaded the word “altruism” is, and how silly and evil it really is.

BlackSun / January 26th, 2006, 9:02 pm / #10

Going back and re-reading the Wikipedia article shows me just how subtle the cues are, especially regarding deception.

In “Jealousy: The Dangerous Passion” by Buss, and in “The Blank Slate” by Pinker, deception and detection of deception (specifically sexual deception) are discussed as one of the primary drivers of evolutionary brain growth.

Imagine! The purpose of our developed brains: to deceive for advantage! Kind of turns religion and typical morality on its ear, doesn’t it? But we are also good at detecting deception–hence the never ending human struggle.

But I’ve never had a problem with this. It’s only those who’ve been raised with a simplistic sentimental view that people are “good.”

I don’t see people as either good or bad. We’re just agents of our genes, looking for advantage. Turns out the best strategy is helping each other (as long as we are helped in return).

Thus trade, competition, capitalism and the objective ethical system are simply extensions of human nature.

For a real in-depth study of this subject, check out game theory:

Post a comment

Comments are closed for this post.