Adapted from Chapter 1 of Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It by Craig Biddle.
There is only one way to combat a morality that is against human life, and that is by embracing a morality that is for human life–a non-sacrificial morality–the morality of self-interest.
But, one might ask, doesn’t self-interest imply personal subjectivism? Don’t selfish people do whatever they feel like doing? Don’t they harm others for their own benefit? And how can an advocate of selfishness say that sacrificing other people is wrong?
To begin answering these questions, let us observe the so-called “selfishness” of a personal subjectivist. He, too, has dreams–and he feels that he can “achieve” them in whatever fashion he wants to. If he feels like sacrificing other people–so be it! According to his philosophy, he is the law; thus, he makes up the rules as he goes.
Consider a hedonist who wants the pleasures that money can bring but doesn’t feel like being productive. Working, he says, is just not his thing. So he decides to steal pocketbooks–they can be full of cash and are relatively easy to snatch. Sure enough, with a few select purses a day, the money starts to flow, and he feels that he is on his way to achieving his dream. In just a few months, he has stolen thousands of dollars and has moved into a fashionably furnished big-city apartment.
But for some reason, he still feels empty. His friends lie and try to steal from him; surprisingly, they, too, are crooks. He can’t seem to keep the attention of any quality women; they all want to talk about career goals, achievements, and ambitions. The party scene has gotten old; there is really nothing to celebrate. Of course, the money is still “good,” and the routine has become even easier with repetition. But somehow life just seems meaningless.
So he decides to rob a bank. He figures that if he can pull-off one big “job” and make it to the islands with a million dollars in his suitcase, he will never have another discouraging day. He begins to plan the heist. “Selfish” bliss is just over the horizon…
Or is it?
What if he makes it? Some criminals have. What will he do on the island? Go scuba diving? Watch TV? Get drunk? “Hang out” with other criminals? Pretend that he is a man of virtue in order to associate with good people to whom he has lied? Who will be his lover? Will she be intelligent, passionate, and have good character? Or will she be ignorant, boring, and likely to steal his stolen money? How will he sleep at night? How will he feel when he wakes up in the morning? How will he face each day? Will he be fearless and eager to meet his next challenge? Or will he be timid and terrified that the law might catch up with him? What will be his true inner state? Will it be one of harmony–or one of anxiety?
The point is: It doesn’t matter if he makes it. He can’t possibly achieve happiness by his chosen method. If asked, he might swear up and down that his is a life of pure pleasure. But so what? Words cannot reverse cause and effect. Words cannot change the fact that genuine happiness can be achieved only by means of honest effort. And while even a bank robber probably knows this on some level, even if he doesn’t, his ignorance is not bliss. His is a life of emptiness, self-contempt, loneliness, and decay. Emptiness, because he has no rational ambitions or productive goals. Self-contempt, because he knows that he is a parasite. Loneliness, because he is incapable and undeserving of friendship or love. And decay, because he does not use his mind, and there is no such thing as a dormant mind: One that does not grow, rots. Such a person is rotting spiritually from the inside out.
Of course, few people are as brazenly irrational as is our hedonist bank robber. But irrationality of any kind or degree is incompatible with genuine happiness: The psychological results vary in proportion to the extent of one’s subjectivism. To the extent a person allows irrational desires to dictate his choices and actions, he will be unhappy. To the degree he does whatever he feels like doing without regard to both the short-range and the long-range consequences–including both the physical and the spiritual effects–he will suffer.
For example, a businessman who “just occasionally” swindles his way through a deal thereby ruins his potential for genuine happiness. He might have wads of money, a big summerhouse, a trophy wife, a yacht, and lots of so-called friends, but he still cannot be happy. Not if happiness requires harmony with reality: By pretending that facts are other than they are, he has set himself in conflict with reality. And not if happiness requires self-respect: He has been dishonest–and he knows it. In addition to the fact that he is a fraud and might get exposed to the world as such, even if he doesn’t get physically “caught,” the swindler still has major self-imposed problems. Either he lies to his so-called friends about the nature of his success, in which case they are not friends–or he doesn’t, in which case they are swine, too. His wife would hate him if she knew him–or worse, she would not. And though he may be too blind to see it, or too belligerent to admit it, he is not happy. Neither ignorance, nor insistence, nor more fraud can change that fact.
Regardless of what they might say, personal subjectivists are miserable people, and they are so by their own design. Yet they are typically considered “selfish.” Is that an appropriate label for them? Does it make any sense to call a person “selfish” for extinguishing the very possibility of his own happiness? Not if selfishness means concern for one’s own well-being. Spiritual self-destruction is no more in a person’s best interest than is physical self-destruction; we would not call a person selfish for mutilating his own hand, and we should not call him selfish for mangling his own mind.
Neither bloody murderers, nor big-time bank robbers, nor small-time purse-snatchers, nor occasional swindlers are selfish–not in the true meaning of the term. And it is no coincidence that none of them are happy. Blindly following one’s feelings–evading, ignoring, or denying the requirements of one’s actual, long-term well-being–is not in one’s best interest. Irrationality is not selfish; it is selfless.
For a policy to be selfish, it has to account for one’s actual nature and needs–both material and spiritual; and it has to account not only for the present, but also for the more distant future. A policy of self-interest must recognize the fact that man is a being of body and mind whose life occurs not for just a moment or a day, but for a span of years and decades.
If being selfish were a matter of acting on one’s feelings, it would not be conducive to happiness. But it isn’t a matter of acting on one’s feelings. As we will see, being selfish consists in thinking logically and acting on long-range principles toward life-serving goals–both material and spiritual. Being selfish consists in being rational.
Of course, few people attempt to go only by their feelings or to be consistently selfless–and the few who do don’t live for long. Merely to keep breathing, a person must use logic and be selfish to some degree. Thus, people who accept the idea that being moral consists in being selfless have to cheat on their moral convictions just to stay alive. While they sacrifice their own interests to some degree, as they believe morally, in order to be good, they should–they also pursue their own interests to some degree, as they know selfishly, in order to live, they must.
Aware that this means they are not being fully moral, such people rationalize their selfish pursuits with slogans such as “Nobody’s perfect” and “Morality is not black and white.” Simultaneously, they sabotage their personal interests with slogans such as “You have to compromise” and “Don’t set your sights so high.” This means they have accepted the notion that moral consistency is incompatible with personal happiness. Thus, they betray both–by instituting a personal policy of moral compromise. In so doing, they cut themselves off from life as it ought to be and settle for a semi-guilty, semi-repressed, watered-down sort of happiness.
If “morally” you should be selfless, but “practically” you must be selfish, then life is an obscene paradox: The moral and the practical are hopelessly at odds; being good is not good for you.
A solution to this dilemma requires the discovery of a morality that neither requires nor permits the sacrifice of anyone to anyone. What is needed is a non-sacrificial morality–a code of values that accounts for the actual, long-term, material and spiritual requirements of human life. But such a code, to be defended, must be based on a foundation other than faith or feelings, and such a foundation is thought to be impossible.
So the debate between religion and secular subjectivism continues, with both sides accepting the premise that an absolute morality requires the existence of God. The religionists fearfully assert: “God must exist. And since you can’t prove that He doesn’t, I say that He does and that His moral law is absolute. Being moral consists in glorifying God, obeying His commandments, and sacrificing in service of His higher purpose.” To which the secular subjectivists skeptically reply: “You can’t prove the existence of God, so I don’t accept it. I say his so-called moral law is your Sunday-school fantasy. Morality is not absolute; it is a matter of personal preference or social convention. If I (or my group) say something, that’s the moral law. And, yes, there will be sacrifices, but they will not be for your imaginary God; they will be for me (or my collective).”
Hence the alleged alternative: Either sacrifice yourself or sacrifice others. In other words, your choice is: masochism or sadism.
That is not a good alternative.
If we want to live happily–if we want to pursue our values guiltlessly, with integrity–we need a third alternative; we need to discover a non-sacrificial code of morality. And to defend such a code, we need to ground it logically in observable facts; we need to discover a natural, provable, objective standard of value on which to base it. Without such a code built on such a foundation, the sacrificial moralities of subjectivism are unanswerable. And on the terms of such moralities, a life of genuine happiness is unattainable.
Yes, there is a non-sacrificial code of morality–and an objective standard of value on which it is based. But on the road to their discovery, there appears to be an obstacle.
This series of articles are adapted from Chapter 1 of Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It by Craig Biddle.