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.