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Ethical egoismThe belief that an action is morally right if the action’s consequences are more beneficial than unfavorable for the person who acts.: whatever action serves my self-interest is also the morally right action. What’s good for me in the sense that it gives me pleasure and happiness is also good in the sense that it’s the morally right thing to do.
Ethical egoism mirrors altruism: If I’m an altruist, I believe that actions ought to heighten the happiness of others in the world, and what happens to me is irrelevant. If I’m an egoist, I believe that actions ought to heighten my happiness, and what happens to others is irrelevant.
Could someone like Blake Mycoskie—someone widely recognized as an altruistic, social-cause hero—actually be an egoist? Yes. Consider things this way. Here’s a young guy and he’s out looking for money, celebrity, good parties, and a jaw-dropping girlfriend. It wouldn’t be the first time there was a guy like that.
Put yourself in his shoes and imagine you’re an ethical egoist: whatever’s good for you is good. Your situation is pretty clear, your moral responsibility lists what you should be trying to get, and the only question is how can I get it all?
That’s a tall order. Becoming a rock star would probably work, but there are a lot of people already out there going for it that way. The same goes for becoming a famous actor. Sports are another possibility; Mycoskie, in fact, made a run at pro tennis as a younger man, but like most who try, he couldn’t break into the upper echelon. So there are paths that may work, but they’re hard ones, it’s a real fight for every step forward.
If you’re smart—and Mycoskie obviously is—then you might look for a way to get what you want that doesn’t force you to compete so brutally with so many others. Even better, maybe you’ll look for a way that doesn’t present any competition at all, a brand new path to the wish list. The idea of a celebrity-driven shoe company that makes a profit but that also makes its founder a star in the eyes of the Hollywood stars is a pretty good strategy.
Obviously, no one can look deep into Mycoskie’s mind and determine exactly what drove him to found his enterprise. He may be an altruist or an egoist or something else, but what’s important is to outline how egoism can actually work in the world. It can work—though of course it doesn’t work this way every time—just like TOMS Shoes.
When we hear the word egoist, an ugly profile typically comes to mind: self-centered, untrustworthy, pitiless, and callous with respect to others. Some egoists really are like that, but they don’t have to be that way. If you’re out to maximize your own happiness in the world, you might find that helping others is the shortest and fastest path to what you want. This is a very important point. Egoists aren’t against other people, they’re for themselves, and if helping others works for them, that’s what they’ll do. The case of TOMS Shoes fits right here. The company improves the lives of many; it raises the level of happiness in the world. And because it does that, the organization has had tremendous success, and because of that success, the Blake Mycoskie we’re imagining as an egoist is getting what he wants: money, great parties, and everyone loving him. In short, sometimes the best way to one’s own happiness is by helping others be happier.
That’s not always the way it works. Bernie Madoff destroyed families, stole people’s last dimes, and lived the high life all the way through. For an ethical egoist, the only blemish on his record is that he got caught.
Madoff did get caught, though, and this too needs to be factored into any consideration of egoists and how they relate to others. Just as egoists may help others because that serves their own interests, so too they may obey social customs and laws. It’s only important to note that they obey not out of deference to others or because it’s the morally right thing to do; they play by the rules because it’s the smart thing to do. They don’t want to end up rotting in jail.
A useful contrast can be drawn in this context between egoism and selfishness. Where egoism means putting your welfare above others’, selfishness is the refusal to see beyond yourself. Selfishness is the inability (or unwillingness) to recognize that there are others sharing the world, so it’s the selfish person, finally, who’s callous and insensitive to the wants and needs of others. For egoists, on the other hand, because working with others cooperatively can be an excellent way to satisfy their own desires, they may not be at all selfish; they may be just the opposite.
Enlightened egoismThe belief that benefitting others—acting to increase their happiness—can serve the egoist’s self-interest just as much as the egoist’s acts directly in favor of him or herself. is the conviction that benefitting others—acting to increase their happiness—can serve the egoist’s self-interest just as much as the egoist’s acts directly in favor of him or herself. As opposed to altruism, which claims that it’s our ethical responsibility to serve others, the enlightened egoist’s generosity is a rational strategy, not a moral imperative. We don’t help others because we ought to: we help them because it can make sense when, ultimately, we only want to help ourselves.
One simple and generic manifestation of enlightened egoism is a social contractAn agreement made between people to act in certain ways not because the acts are themselves good or bad, but because the rules for action are mutually beneficial.. For example, I agree not to steal from you as long as you agree not to steal from me. It’s not that I don’t take your things because I believe stealing is morally wrong; I leave you alone because it’s a good way to get you to leave me alone. On a less dramatic level, all of us form mini social contracts all the time. Just think of leading a group of people through one of those building exits that makes you cross two distinct banks of doors. If you’re first out, you’ll hold the door for those coming after, but then expect someone to hold the next door for you. Sure, some people hold the door because it’s good manners or something like that, but for most of us, if no one else ever held a door open for us, pretty soon we’d stop doing them the favor. It’s a trivial thing, of course, but in the real world people generally hold doors open for others because they’ve agreed to a social contract: everyone else does it for me; I’ll do it for them. That’s enlightened egoism, and it frequently works pretty well.
TOMS Shoes can be understood as a more sophisticated version of the same mentality. It’s hard to discern exactly what the contract would look like if someone tried to write it down, but it’s not hard to see the larger notion of enlightened egoism. Shoes are donated to others not because of a moral obligation but because serving the interests of others helps Blake Mycoskie serve his own. As long as shoe buyers keep holding up their end of the bargain by buying his product, Mycoskie will continue to help them be generous and feel good about themselves by donating pairs to people who need them.
Cause egoismGiving the false appearance of being concerned with the welfare of others in order to advance one’s own interests. is similar to, but also distinct from, enlightened egoism. Enlightened egoism works from the idea that helping others is a good way of helping myself. Cause egoism works from the idea that giving the appearance of helping others is a promising way to advance my own interests in business. As opposed to the enlightened egoist who will admit that he is out for himself but happy to benefit others along the way, the cause egoist claims to be mainly or only interested in benefiting others and then leverages that good publicity to help himself. Stated slightly differently, enlightened egoists respect others while pursuing their own interests, while cause egoists just fake it.
Adam Smith (1723–90) is known for making a connected point on the level of broad economic trade and capitalism. In the end, it usually doesn’t matter whether people actually care about the well-being of others, Smith maintains, because there exists an invisible handIn business ethics, the force of marketplace competition that encourages or even requires individuals who want to make money to make the lives of others better in the process. at work in the marketplace. It leads individuals who are trying to get rich to enrich their society as well, and that enrichment happens regardless of whether serving the general welfare was part of the original plan. According to Smith, the person in business generally
intends only his own gain, but is led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of the original intention. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society, and does so more effectively than when he directly intends to promote it.Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (London: Strahan and Cadell, 1776), bk. 4, chap. 2.
What’s the invisible hand? It’s the force of marketplace competition, which encourages or even requires individuals who want to make money to make the lives of others better in the process.
The invisible hand is a central point defenders of egoism in business often make when talking about the virtues of a me-first ethics. Egoism is good for me, but it frequently ends up being good for everyone else, too. If that’s right, then even those who believe the utilitarian ideal of the general welfare should guide business decisions may be forced to concede that we should all just become egoists.
Here’s a quick example. If you open a little takeout pizza shack near campus and your idea is to clear the maximum amount of money possible to pay your tuition, what kind of business are you going to run? Does it make sense to take a customer’s twelve dollars and then hand over an oily pie with cheap plastic cheese and only three pepperonis? No, in the name of pursuing your own happiness, you’re going to try to charge a bit less than Domino’s and give your customers something slightly better—maybe you’ll spread richer cheese, or toss on a few extra pepperonis. Regardless, you’re not doing this for the reason an altruist would; you’re not doing it because you sense an ethical obligation to make others’ lives better. As an egoist, you don’t care whether your customers are happier or not. But if you want your business to grow, you better care. And because you’re ethically required to help your business grow in order to make tuition money and so make yourself happier, you’re going to end up improving the pizza-eating experience at your school. Better food, less money. Everyone wins. We’re not talking Mother Teresa here, but if ethical goodness is defined as more happiness for more people, then the pizza place is ethically good. Further, anybody who wants to start up a successful pizza restaurant is, very likely, going to end up doing good. If you don’t, if you can’t offer some advantage, then no one’s going to buy your slices.
Going beyond the quality-of-life benefits of businesses in society, Smith leaned toward a second claim that’s far more controversial. He wrote that the entrepreneur trying to do well actually promotes society’s well-being more effectively than when directly intending to promote it. This is startling. In essence, it’s the claim that for the most dedicated altruist the most effective strategy for life in business is…to act like an egoist. Within the economic world at least, the best way for someone who cares only about the well-being of others to implement that conviction is to go out and run a successful profit-making enterprise.
Clearly, this is a very powerful argument for defenders of ethical egoism. If it’s true that egoists beat altruists at their own game (increasing the happiness of everyone else), then egoism wins the debate by default; we should all become egoists. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to prove this claim one way or the other. One thing is clear, however: Smith’s implicit criticism of do-gooders can be illustrated. Sometimes individuals who decide to act for the good of others (instead of seeking profit for themselves) really do end up making the world a worse place. Dr. Loretta Napoleoni has shown how attempts by Bono of U2 to help the destitute in Africa have actually brought them more misery.Can Tran, “Celebrities Raising Funds for Africa End Up Making Things ‘Worse,’” Ground Report, May 14, 2008, accessed May 15, 2011, http://www.groundreport.com/World/Celebrities-Raising-Funds-For-Africa-End-Up-Making/2861070. Bono threw a benefit concert and dedicated the proceeds to Africa’s most needy. The intention was good, but the plan wasn’t thought all the way through and the money ended up getting diverted to warlords who used it to buy guns and bullets.
Still, the fact that some altruistic endeavors actually make things worse doesn’t mean they’re all doomed. Just as surely as some fail, others succeed.
The same mixed success can be attributed to businesses acting only for their own welfare, only for profit. If it’s true that the pizza sellers help improve campus life, what about the entrepreneurial honor student who volunteers to write your term paper for a price? It’s hard to see how a pay-for-grades scheme benefits students in general, even though the writer may make a tidy profit, and that one student who paid for the work may come out pretty well.
The invisible hand is the belief that businesses out in the world trying to do well for themselves tend to do good for others too. It may even be that they do more good than generous altruists. It’s hard to know for sure, but it can be concluded that there’s a distance between ethical egoism in reality and the image of the egoist as a ruthless destroyer of broad social happiness.
Egoism, like altruism, is a consequentialist ethics: the ends justify the means. If an egoist were at the helm of TOMS Shoes and he cared only about meeting beautiful people and making huge money, he’d have no scruples about lying all day long. There’d be no problem with smiling and insisting that the reason TOMS Shoes exists is to generate charitable shoe donations to the poor. All that matters for the egoist is that the lie works, that it serves the goal of making TOMS as attractive and profitable as possible. If it does, then deviating from the truth becomes the ethically recommendable route to follow.
Personal egoismPracticing an ethics of egoism without regard for what others are doing or should do. versus impersonal egoismThe belief that everyone should practice ethical of egoism. distinguishes these two views: the personal egoist in the business world does whatever’s necessary to maximize his or her own happiness. What others do, however, is considered their business. The impersonal egoist believes everyone should get up in the morning and do what’s best for themselves and without concern for the welfare of others.
An impersonal egoist may find comfort in the invisible hand argument that the best way for me to do right with respect to society in general is to get rich. Of course it’s true that there’s something crude in shameless moneygrubbing, but when you look at things with rational eyes, it is hard to avoid noticing that the kinds of advances that make lives better—cars affordably produced on assembly lines; drugs from Lipitor to ChapStick; cell phones; spill-proof pens; whatever—often trace back to someone saying, “I want to make some money for myself.”
Rational egoismSubscribing to ethical egoism because it’s the most reasonable of the ethical theories, the one a perfectly rational person would choose. versus psychological egoismThe belief that we’re all necessarily egoists; it’s an inescapable part of what it means to be human. distinguishes two reasons for being an ethical egoist. The rational version stands on the idea that egoism makes sense. In the world as it is, and given a choice between the many ethical orientations available, egoism is the most reasonable. The psychological egoist believes that, for each of us, putting our own interests in front of everyone else isn’t a choice; it’s a reality. We’re made that way. Maybe it’s something written into our genes or it’s part of the way our minds are wired, but regardless, according to the psychological egoist, we all care about ourselves before anyone else and at their expense if necessary.
Why would I rationally choose to be an egoist? Maybe because I figure that if I don’t look out for myself, no one will. Or maybe I think almost everyone else is that way, too, so I better play along or I’m going to get played. (The Mexicans have a pithy phrase of common wisdom for this, “O te chingas, o te chingan,” which means “either you screw everyone else, or they’ll screw you.”) Maybe I believe that doing well for myself helps me do good for others too. The list could be drawn out, but the point is that there are numerous reasons why an intelligent person may accept ethical egoism as the way to go.
As for those who subscribe to the theory of psychological egoism, obviously there’s no end of examples in business and history to support the idea that no matter how much we may want things to be otherwise, the plain truth is we’re made to look out for number one. On the other hand, one problem for psychological egoists is that there do seem to be examples of people doing things that are irreconcilable with the idea that we’re all only trying to make ourselves happier:
Structurally, there are four possible relations between ethical egoism and business life:
The arguments for an egoistic ethics include the following:
Arguments against ethical egoism include the following: