I am teaching a business ethics course to MBA students where we cover the main moral codes, such as altruism (the morality of self-sacrifice) and egoism (the morality of self-interest). While students typically misunderstand both of these codes at the beginning, it is with the code of self-interest where most of the confusion lies. Yet, success in business and in life depends on the pursuit of self-interest, or being selfish—properly understood.
Morality of altruism, or self-sacrifice, is the dominant moral code that is taught and prescribed the most, to the extent that most people have come to equate altruism with ethics. In their view, to be moral is to be altruistic. If they listen to contemporary ethicists, they learn that to pursue self-interest is immoral. However, most people also fail to grasp the implications of these ethicists’ teaching and the true nature of altruism. For them, altruism means kindness, benevolence, and helping others when you can. What they don’t get is altruism’s true meaning: “always denying oneself for the sake of others” and placing the interests of others ahead of one’s own, with no expectation of reward (see “Altruism” and “Theories of the Good” in The Encyclopedia of Ethics. New York: Routledge, 2001).
To adopt altruism as a moral code—to apply it systematically, would lead to only one end: the death of the sacrificer (there are always others whose interests and needs must be placed above one’s own), and eventually to the perishing of those who collect the sacrifices. And if a person would not apply altruism systematically and sacrificed himself only now and then, he would have no moral code: a set of integrated principles that would consistently guide him to achieve his values (which for an altruist would always include self-sacrifice). Without a moral code, how does one know when to act on principle and when to compromise? A person’s choices would become arbitrary: sacrifice for others every now and then, to assuage guilt, and pursue self-interest for most of the time, to go on living.
To achieve long-term success in business (profit maximization) and in life (happiness) obviously requires pursuing self-interest, or selfishness. Long-term profitability and a happy life require achieving values (competent and motivated employees, reliable suppliers; meaningful productive work, satisfying human relationships, enjoyable recreational pursuits), not giving them up. My students do grasp this, but most still have an aversion toward selfishness.
The students’ aversion to selfishness derives partly from the cultural prevalence of altruism; they hear everywhere (from their parents, teachers, media, movies, literature) that to put others’ interests ahead of your own is noble and good, and to pursue your own interests is immoral.
However, what really explains the aversion to selfishness is philosophers’ clever trick. To make selfishness, or self-interest, unpalatable and to promote altruism instead, the majority of philosophers misrepresent self-interest as a package-deal. They package together two opposites: the legitimate self-interest–pursuing values (from food and shelter to productive work and art and recreation) that we all must do to survive and be happy, with the exploitation of others by using force and fraud to get what we want. The latter, of course, is not in anyone’s self-interest because it makes achievement of values impossible. (Only temporary ‘benefits,’ such as possession of stolen property, are possible, but such ‘benefits’ are destructive and unsustainable, and therefore not values and not part of anyone’s self-interest. Ask Bernie Madoff or any other fraudster, whom all face destruction eventually).
The philosophical package-deal has distorted the concept of legitimate, essential-to-life self-interest by lumping it together with immoral exploitation of others. Once my students grasp (most of them do by the end of the course) that selfishness is essential to everyone’s survival and flourishing and cannot entail exploitation of or preying on others (and allows voluntary, non-sacrificial charity), they are willing to embrace it.
As one group of students told me: “We are all egoists now.” However, it is one thing to make such a claim and another to know how to pursue self-interest. Selfishness is not automatic but requires understanding of the egoist moral virtues. We cover those in my course, but grasping and applying them takes study and practice—which I highly recommend, not just to my students but to anyone who wants to achieve values in business and beyond, for long-term profitability and happiness.