Selfishness and Ethics

Reading through Die Fröliche Wissenschaft, I was struck again by a distinction between the drives and the ethics which can be illustrated between certain types of mores. There are certain persons in which the primary drive or the dominant drive is one which is social, and others in which the primary drive is self-directed. The former can easily be persuaded by an ethics that has, for its aim, the benefiting of ‘society’ as an whole; the latter will prefer something that gives themselves an advantage. Now, it may be noted that Plato and christianity – but before them also the Egyptians, for example, or the Indian teaching of karma – made a link between the latter and the former. In brief, the claim made by Plato or by christianity may be generally stated as: ‘What is most advantageous to society is also that which ultimately most benefits the doer: the virtuous person ultimately benefits themselves.’

By contrast, there has recently been at least one philosopher who tried to reverse this. Ayn Rand claimed that the most self-benefiting behaviors of the individual were also the most beneficial to society. This is of course easily seen to be false. In a famous case, she argued that, if two people were to apply for the same job, they should both, out of selfishness, desire that the more qualified be hired, because even the one who is rejected would personally benefit from this. Such a claim is obviously false. For me, what is most beneficial may be to exploit and squander all of society for my gain. It is better for me that I, even if I am less qualified, should get the job and its accompanying benefits, than that I should go without a job. Society as an whole may suffer from this, but although it disadvantages me indirectly to live in a society that is not quite as strong as it otherwise would be, this is more than compensated by the fact that my personal position in that society is much higher than it otherwise would have been.

Yet, the Platonic/christian/karmic claim that benefiting society selflessly is also to my own highest advantage is thereby equally false. Indeed, in all four of the cases mentioned, the claimants were forced to appeal to unproved hypotheses of metaphysics or powers in the world or in an after-life. Christianity and Egyptian religion taught that the selfish benefit of virtue would be seen in the afterlife. The teaching of karma is often connected to a teaching of reincarnation; in any case, it is an unproved hypothesis that, in some unspecified manner, ‘what goes around comes around.’ Plato seems to have played with this sort of karmic justification as well; more importantly, he, along with the cleverer christian theologians, taught also that by becoming virtuous, one simply made one’s own soul better. Thus, the very fact of being virtuous was a self-benefit – though again, not one that could be measured! Of course, there are some ways in which the performance of duty does benefit the individual (through the social remuneration and payment of honours, for instance), but since in fact there are many cases where performing one’s duty obviously disadvantages oneself, it was necessary for these teachers of morality to lie in order to teach that personal advantage is best served by virtuous social duty.

I’d already realized all this in previous readings of Nietzsche and consideration of ethics, but this time, I was particularly struck by the question of why this link between selfish advantage and society’s advantage became so important in the west, and how this relates to the Western glorification of individualism. There are two obvious hypotheses here. I will not suggest which I think held true in the West, but I think all three should be considered, and particularly contrasted to the way duty and personal advantage were treated in other, more collectivist, societies.

  1. Perhaps the development of individualism in the West necessitated a change in the teaching of social mores. That is, first, individualism sprouted up; in order to ensure that these ‘individuals’ remained useful to society, it was necessary to link up teachings of social duty with teachings of individual advantage.
  2. Perhaps the link of social duty with personal advantage led people to safely be able to feel that they were promoting their own selfish advantage when executing their duties, and this paved the way for them to begin to think of themselves in a self-centered manner without causing undue harm to society. Thus, the teaching may have come first, thus enabling the development of the glorification of the individual qua individual without risking damage to society.
  3. Perhaps these two forces (for I believe both these hypotheses are real as potential drives in society) worked in a sort of vicious circle with one another: developing individualism leads to a need to link duty to individual advantage, linking duty to individual advantage encourages people to think of their own advantage without damaging society and thus leads to an increase in the glorification of individualism, which leads to more need to link duty to personal advantage.

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