I taught two business ethics courses last fall: one to undergraduate business students, and the other to an Executive MBA class. It was a lot of fun: the students were keen to learn and discuss. But I was saddened, again, by how much they had been exposed to altruism, the moral code of self-sacrifice, and took it for granted at the beginning of the semester. (I can’t claim that they all, or even a majority, rejected altruism at the end of the semester, but at least none could take it for granted anymore).
Even sadder was the lack of exposure the students had had to any legitimate alternatives to altruism. They all ‘knew’ that either you sacrifice yourself to others or others to yourself, with the former being the ethical, noble choice, according to the prevailing view of morality. But how to reconcile altruism—giving up your self-interest, your values for the sake of others—with the self-interested goal of profit maximization through production and trade of material values in the business context?
Some students thought that businesses in the industrialized world paying above-market wages in developing countries was a good thing to do, to alleviate poverty and to improve to lives of workers, with some sacrifice of profits. (They probably would agree with government imposed minimum wages for the same reasons). Others thought that profits should be given up for the cause of fighting climate change (which the majority of the students considered a self-evident truth not worth even debating any more)—as opposed to respecting others’ individual rights. And yet others were willing to commit, by government decree, their fellow citizens’ money to sponsor refugees from Syria and any economic migrants seeking better life for themselves—as opposed to letting others choose private sponsorship or not.
My introduction of rational egoism—the idea that one should pursue one’s own happiness and interests, with neither sacrificing oneself to others or others to oneself, came as a revelation to many, if not to most, students. It also resonated, as the comments a number of them made after the courses were over suggested. They said that they had never heard of such an idea, only of altruism or the cynical exploitation of others. With exploiting others having little appeal (although some students claimed exploitation is the nature of business, and everybody else is doing it, leaving little choice to those who want to be successful), altruism was the default alternative.
Now, the question is, how is it possible that business students—some of them with significant business experience—have never heard of the moral code of rational egoism (developed by Ayn Rand on the foundation of laid by Aristotle), that so obviously is the only moral code that makes long-term profitability and survival of business possible? Not only does rational egoism help business maximize long-term profitability, it also leads to win-win outcomes to all with whom a business firm trades: employees, customers, suppliers, creditors and investors.
The answer lies in the sorry state of today’s culture that holds altruism as the moral code. That culture is reflected everywhere: what parents teach their children, what they learn about morality in elementary school, what universities, including business schools, teach their students. Everywhere children and students learn that selfishness is evil and to give up one’s own interests to others is the good. (Peter Schwartz blasts all that in his new book, In Defense of Selfishness, with a one simple question—and penetrating analysis: “Why?”).
Besides Peter Schwartz’ book and a small group of people defending rational self-interest, my courses (and my book) are a drop in the current that moves to the opposite direction, but it is extremely gratifying to see the students to start questioning the prevailing morality. They may be the ones that will challenge the status quo in business, by starting to question why business should sacrifice values instead of creating them. They might the ones to start defending the moral right of business to create material values, trade, and maximize profits. It is my sincere hope that they do, as the future of the world amidst the doom of interventionist governments, spurred on by the climate alarmists, looks bleak at the moment.
We are capable of making choices and can therefore reject altruism and the misery it brings. We can embrace rational egoism instead. If we do, the future be more prosperous, healthy, and happy.