Is Egoism Obvious?

by | Mar 29, 2013

My book, How to Be Profitable and Moral: A Rational Egoist Approach to Business, has been translated into Finnish and was recently published in Finland. At the book launch in Helsinki, an appreciative reader (of the English-language original) and a business owner commented that what I write in my book is obviously the way a […]

My book, How to Be Profitable and Moral: A Rational Egoist Approach to Business, has been translated into Finnish and was recently published in Finland. At the book launch in Helsinki, an appreciative reader (of the English-language original) and a business owner commented that what I write in my book is obviously the way a business should be run in order for it to be successful in the long term. What he implied is that egoism is an obvious moral code for business. I replied that if it were, I would not have written the book …

In one important sense this reader was right: egoism is obvious because it is the moral code that human survival and flourishing—and long-term business success—requires. People and businesses cannot survive and flourish without pursuing their rational self-interest; egoism is the moral code explaining how they can do it systematically, achieving their values (ultimately, a happy life and long-term profitability in business) without violating the rights of others.

But egoism is not the obvious right moral code for the majority of people, nor is any other moral code the “obvious” one. Ethics is always chosen, whether explicitly or implicitly. Research shows that most people do not think about ethics explicitly after their late teens or early twenties, implicitly choosing instead to follow cultural norms and the values they were taught at home, if any. The closest they come to choosing an “obvious” moral code is to follow cultural norms—which means subscribing to the moral code dominant around the world: altruism.

Despite of the benign view many have of it, altruism is not a moral code prescribing just benevolence and kindness towards others. Instead, it guides us to put others’ interests always ahead of our own—which is no way to achieve our values, flourishing in life. Altruism—not decency and benevolence—is hazardous to human life and business. If we are always to give up every value instead of achieving any, we will not be able to survive, let alone thrive.

What is the appeal of altruism, you may wonder, given how anti-human life it is? The popularity of altruism as a moral prescription is a testimony to the power of philosophy. For the last two thousand years philosophers, both religious and secular, have been prescribing altruism. The presumed rationale has been that if we all put others’ interests ahead of our own, we would avoid conflicts, achieve social harmony, and live happily ever after. This is a myth, of course. Happiness is the state of consciousness that ensues from achievement of our values—which altruism rejects.  But the majority of people have bought into the altruist prescription even with its impossibility as a guide to living their lives. (And political and religious leaders have cleverly exploited the guilt that people’s inability to practice altruism has caused, getting them to consent to ever-increasing taxes and other sacrifices without protest).

Egoism is the right alternative to altruism, guiding people and businesses to pursue rational self-interest. But egoism is not obvious, and even if we choose it as our moral code, knowing how to apply it is not obvious, particularly in business. That is the reason I have written my book and keep blogging—to make the moral code of egoism familiar to those who want to be profitable in the long term. Information where to find the book in English is available here. For the Finnish version, please look here.

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Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada. How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book. Visit her website at profitableandmoral.com.

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