The Ethics of Benign Selfishness

By Machan, Tibor R. | Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice, July 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Ethics of Benign Selfishness


Machan, Tibor R., Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice


ABSTRACT.

In this paper I defend ethical egoism, calling it "benign" so as to ward off those who insist on characterizing this ethical school as heartless and even mean. I draw on the Aristotelian ethical tradition wherein the virtue of prudence is paramount. Socratic self perfection, too, helps in understanding this position. I explore various facets of benign egoism, contrast it with "economic man," etc. In the end what I sketch is a reasonable account human morality in which self-sacrifice, except in very rare cases, is rejected as unethical!

Keywords: egoism, ethics, selfishness, altruism, self-interest, prudence

1. Introduction

In this work I plan to defend ethical egoism or what I like to call benign selfishness. I am not going to do this for technical philosophers because too many of them get lost in the nuances of the discussion and soon lose sight of what matters, namely, whether ordinary people can gain an appreciation of the idea that they should live to make the most of their human lives.

It is evident enough, not in much need of proof, that most people live their lives by first attempting to take decent enough care of themselves. They eat breakfast, wash up, get dressed, etc., most mornings instead of rushing out to help other people (unless these are members of their immediate family or those faced with some emergency). Most of us earn a living so that we can spend the funds from this on what we need and want, not on what our neighbors do. We go to the gym to work out so that we would be fit. We try to eat right so we are reasonably healthy. We go to the movies so that we are entertained by them. We go shopping for articles we believe we need or we want.

When some people facetiously claim that we live in an age of "Me, me, me and me," they are largely right but the truth of what they say is nothing objectionable. We do care for ourselves, first and foremost - which includes our loved ones - without much doubt in a benign way. We do not operate as if we lived in a zero sum world so our efforts to promote our own welfare aren't a campaign conducted against other people and their resources.

This is what I have in mind by benign selfishness. It is not what many cynical folks mean when they say, "Well, isn't everyone selfish?" They mean that everyone is embarking on an aggressive, forceful, fierce campaign to come out ahead of others, as in some kind of race. (The idea brings to mind how millions of people drive everywhere around the globe, mostly pushing hard to get to a place ahead of others! But this tends to occur mainly in public places, which, as I shall show soon, is a result of a version of the tragedy of the commons.)

So in this paper I will be discussing how benign selfishness and the sociopolitical conditions that make it possible are desirable and nothing to lament or besmirch, the way many social philosophers appear to feel about them.

2. My Pitch for Some Solid Selfishness

Hardly anyone will dispute that most folks who chime in about ethics consider selfishness wrong. There have been exceptions in history and some of the most prominent ethical philosophers, such as Socrates and Aristotle, can even be said to have been ethical egoists or at least ones who championed the moral virtue of prudence as a vital one for living a good human life. But after some significant changes in how human nature began to be understood, being selfish or self-interested - or even prudent - began to be scoffed at, treated as a moral liability, not worthy of praise but of blame.

Of course, even after this, using one's common sense showed that being selfish is what most of us are, normally, routinely, and quite benignly. When folks awake in the morning they proceed to begin to take good care of themselves before reaching out to help others, for example. (Just as that announcement would have it on airplanes, first help yourself and then others in case there's loss of oxygen. …

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