Pragmatism, Altruism, and Businessmen

by | Feb 9, 2000

Question. In a recent program, you claimed the actions of several businessmen were driven to do business with the government by the morality of altruism. Isn’t pragmatism a more accurate description? Given the extent to which property rights have been eroded, long range planning is impossible, and pragmatism is the businessman’s only option to protect […]

Question. In a recent program, you claimed the actions of several businessmen were driven to do business with the government by the morality of altruism. Isn’t pragmatism a more accurate description? Given the extent to which property rights have been eroded, long range planning is impossible, and pragmatism is the businessman’s only option to protect his property?

Answer. While pragmatism is an essential of most businessmen’s philosophy today, it is an “empty” philosophy, leaving the pragmatist at the mercy of deeper, unidentified premises.

The guiding tenet of pragmatism is to do “whatever is practical,” which leaves open the standard by which an individual judges something as practical.

If, as is usual, the businessman thinks that self-immolation as a practical way to do business, then he will act that way. That such a course of action is in fact impractical, that it will lead ultimately to his total annihilation in the form of total government control of his business, is something he is unwilling and/or unable to conceive; as you noted, pragmatism and today’s culture conspire against long range thinking.

Few men will act consistently without the conviction that they are doing “the right thing,” i.e., acting morally. The dominant moral premise of our times is that selfishness is evil. (I think few people truly believe in altruism, but they do “know” that being selfish is evil.)

The pragmatist thus has a moral component to reinforce what he regards as practical. What he believes is practical happens to coincide with what he has accepted as moral. (As most businessmen hold a dichotomy between business and morality, the opportunity to do sacrifice themselves in the course of their work is unique.) The moral void of pragmatism is thus filled by whatever a man most deeply regards as moral, and no matter the businessman’s conscious motivation, he is still acting on the principle that granting recognition to those would destroy him is proper.

One can even conceive of a better kind of pragmatist, such as the unnamed businessmen in Ayn Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead, who went to Roark after he had built Monadnock Valley because he had been able to make money for people who wanted to lose it, or lesser men who might have copied Rearden’s stand at his trial in Atlas Shrugged because they understood only that he had been able to get away with standing up to the authorities. (I am not referring, in either case, to those who did understand the morality involved–the Hellers and Lansings–but those who wanted merely to be left alone to make money without trying to understand the issues.) Such men are not truly principled, they too are pragmatists, and see only that one course of action is more practical than another. Their deeper premises were more individualist than collectivist.

In the cases I cited [pharmaceutical companies who agreed in principle to extend Medicare to cover prescription drugs, television executives who submitted scripts to White House Drug officials, and Bill Gates’ endorsement of function of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division] the deeper premises were those of the altruist morality. All were acting, beneath any pragmatist veneer, on the premise that self-sacrifice is the essence of morality and, as they see it, the key to safety.

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Andrew Lewis is a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, Calif. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.

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