It is a cliché among many psychologists and economists that human beings behave self-interestedly. Moreover, since Adam Smith’s somewhat theological, somewhat anthropomorphic “invisible hand” metaphor, it has been almost an article of faith within the latter discipline that the collective, societal result of individual self-interested behavior is ironically salubrious.
It is a faith to which I also ascribe, although like all but the most zealous of religious fanatics I season that faith with the occasional heresy here and there. Crucially, however, it needs to be noted at the outset that not just any sort of self-interested behavior contributes to the common wealth and greater good. Specialization and trade, voluntary association, bargained-for exchanges, common rules and some sort of enforcement mechanism to address rule breaking are all necessary elements for human society to flourish economically, for the invisible hand to prove, as it were, optimally dexterous.
Most importantly, “self-interested” is not synonymous with “selfish.”
Discussions about selfishness elsewhere on this blog got me thinking about these things. I am no Ayn Rand scholar, nor do I purport to be an Objectivist. Undoubtedly, however, Rand’s followers constitute a significant and vocal segment of the libertarian community. (It’s a non-gated community, after all, noted for its lack of zoning regulations, restrictive covenants or entrance requirements.) Anyway, given that Rand published a collection of essays entitled The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism, it should be clear just from the title’s use of the word “egoism” that she or Nathanial Brandon, as the case may be, intended to give the word “selfishness” a special, technical meaning in the overall context of Rand’s worldview.
But selfishness and egoism are two separate things, a fact I assume Rand understood perfectly well when she deliberately invoked the apparent contradiction of selfishness as a virtue for its rhetorical impact. Whatever Rand’s standing as an intellectual and participant in the history of political philosophy, she was also certainly a polemicist with a particular political agenda in opposition to what she correctly perceived as the 20th century’s greatest threat to humankind; namely, the threat of collectivism. You simply cannot read Rand fairly without bearing that in mind.
The important point is that selfishness is a common language concept, not a technical term. Anyone fluent in English knows what it means and knows, more importantly, that it entails a negative moral judgment. Selfishness is by definition a bad thing. It’s using up all the hot water in the shower when others are waiting, eating up all the cookies instead of sharing them with friends or family, and so forth. (Except, perhaps, at the Ayn Rand School for Tots, although Ms. Sinclair couldn’t have really been much of an Objectivist since the first thing she did was violate Maggie's pacifier property rights.)
Selfishness moreover logically entails and presupposes that there is some preexisting community to which the individual belongs and some moral commitment to that specific community. I, for example, live with my family in a household where there is a finite supply of hot water and cookies. If I stand in the shower for an hour shoving one increasingly soggy chocolate chip cookie after another into my mouth until both supplies are exhausted, I am acting selfishly relative to my family. It is less clear that I am being selfish when I buy the last package of cookies at the store, thus depriving the next cookie junkie from his or her fix, or when I purchase the big, heavy-duty water heater for my house. It is less clear, still, that it is properly called selfishness to eat any of those cookies or use any of that hot water knowing that many millions of people across the globe have neither cookies to eat nor any hot water to shower with.
To be sure, there are those who claim that the last is selfish, although the overwhelming majority don’t really believe it based on how they, themselves, actually live. The notion that we as individuals have moral obligations to humanity at large is, to put it mildly, very problematic. The point, in any case, is that we wouldn’t be inclined to call all sorts of behavior like eating a cookie selfish simply because every cookie eaten is, necessarily, a cookie no one else can eat. The morality of sharing does not require splitting my cookie into several billion pieces so everyone can have some.
Egoism, by contrast, is not an ordinary language word or concept. Mothers don’t scold their children for being egoists when they selfishly eat the last cookie. Indeed, if you peruse its Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry you will discover that there is not even a single technical sense of the term.
We pause now while I grind a philosophical axe for a moment. There is a critical difference between, on the one hand, the theory of psychological egoism, the theory that claims it is simply a fact that human beings always and under all circumstances behave self-interestedly and, on the other, ethical or rational egoism. These theories contend that morally right behavior or rational behavior, respectively, simply is self-interested behavior.
These latter may be right or wrong and are certainly subject to criticism, but at least they both admit of the possibility of unethical or irrational behavior. That is to say, the ethical egoist acknowledges that people are capable of behaving other than self-interestedly, she simply argues that they shouldn’t. So, too, the rational egoist doesn’t claim that we always act rationally, i.e., self-interestedly, but only that we should or that it is only when we do that our actions deserve the appellation “rational.”
Psychological egoism, by contrast, obliterates the normative force of self-interested behavior, whether for good or bad. Indeed, it obliterates normative considerations in the same way all strong forms of determinism do: if “ought” implies “can” but one cannot act differently than one does then it is absurd to claim that one ought to have acted differently. Moreover, if all behavior is, by definition, self-interested, then it is a fair question to ask of this non-falsifiable metaphysical theory what sort of substantive claim, if any, it really is making.
Axe grinding concluded, I’m reasonably confident that Rand was an egoist in both the ethical and rational egoism senses. In retrospect, however, it is perhaps unfortunate that she chose to use “selfishness” as a rhetorical device to describe her egoism because it opens both Objectivism in particular and libertarianism in general to the sort of prejudicial criticisms Mr. Hanley recently bemoaned.
In fact, Rand aside, there is nothing at all incompatible about libertarianism and altruism. Not, at least, if altruism is understood not as Rand technically used the term but simply as the opposite of mere selfishness. It is hardly altruistic, in the ordinary sense of the term, to coerce other people to behave in supposedly selfless ways in order to achieve your personal vision of the greater collective good even if that greater good is thereby realized. But it is unarguably immoral to coerce others using that rationale when, in fact, it becomes painfully obvious that the exact opposite results.
Indeed, if we’re looking for a single lesson from the history of the 20th century, we could do much worse than conclude that, no matter how noble their advocates’ intentions may have been, collectivist social and economic orders yield disastrous results. Obviously, therefore, noble intentions are no guarantee of success. Libertarianism has never claimed that in a libertarian world order everyone will win and "all must have prizes." In fact, as far as I know, only utopian collectivists and Lewis Carroll's Dodo have made that claim.
But then Carroll, of course, knew he was talking nonsense.