Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence / Generosity: Virtue in Civil Society

By Cohen, Andrew I. | Freeman, November 1998 | Go to article overview

Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence / Generosity: Virtue in Civil Society


Cohen, Andrew I., Freeman


Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence

by David Kelley

Institute for Objectivist Studies 1996 . 65 pages

$9.95 paperback

Generosity: Virtue in Civil Society by Tibor R. Machan

Cato Institute 1998 a 116 pages

$8.95 paperback

Reviewed by Andrew I. Cohen

Critics often wonder how an ethics of selfinterest has room for good will toward others, since it seems that egoism demands a ruthless unconcern for others. According to this caricature, egoists must cherish independence and eschew helping or being nice to other people. Is this position sound? Must egoists only growl at others?

Philosophers David Kelley and Tibor Machan each explore how an egoistic ethical theory not only permits benevolence but occasionally calls for it Both authors cast benevolence as a key part of the good life. They argue that enlightened egoists cultivate good will as a means to personal enrichment.

David Kelley pays special attention to the role of benevolence in Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism. Kelley sharply distinguishes benevolence from altruism. Benevolence is simply good will toward others; altruism, however, mistakenly holds that one's duty is to promote the interests of others, even over one's own interests.

In a world where mutually beneficial exchanges are possible, Kelley argues, benevolence is a form of showing respect for persons. He does not defend such respect by saying that we ought to promote another's welfare as an end in itself. Benevolence is instead a fitting public sign that you see others as possible values-material as well as spiritual-to yourself. Benevolence helps us "to exploit the potential represented by other people, to create opportunities for trade, to remake our social environment in the image of our values." Being sensitive, sympathetic, or generous, therefore, is a prudent investment with hopes of future returns.

While we can defend benevolence as a means to rationally selfish ends, some may be chilled by this picture of good will. One is benevolent, on this model, as a way of seeking some long-term payoff. This may be the selfish justification for benevolence, but it had better not be one's selfish motive. Persons who are benevolent as a means to an end will come off as scheming and insincere.

Suppose a friend supports another in a time of crisis.

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