Egoism and Altruism

When I was in college, my first introduction to Ayn Rand was in her philosophical writings in regards to ethical egoism, which is the idea that all men, as rational agents, ought to act in their own best interests. At that point in time I could not bring myself to agree with Ms. Rand. I thought that by acting in our own interests we would be inclined to do damage to others. I was more inclined to agree with the doctrine of utilitarianism espoused by John Stuart Mill; that our actions ought best maximize general happiness, not necessarily our own. Since I’ve now gained a little intellectual maturity and have been reading Atlas Shrugged, I’ve come to accept and believe in ethical egoism. I will not, however, use this entry to argue for why I think ethical egoism is correct. Instead, my goal here is to show how the battle that we currently see in our politics, conservative vs. liberal, republican vs. democrat, capitalist vs. socialist, is really nothing more than an expression of egoism vs. it’s opponent, altruism.

As I stated previously, egoism, or rather ethical egoism is the notion that men ought to act in their own best interest. Too often this is confused with outright selfishness. The difference, however, is that egoism explicitly requires us to act in our own best interest without trampling on the ability of others to do the same. This does not mean that there will not be interference indirectly, but such is the nature of egoism. If two people are vying for the same job one will inevitably have to be chosen. But one person’s hiring does not diminish the ability of the other to pursue his own interests, unless the person chosen has poisoned the well. This also doesn’t mean that the employer has diminished the rights of the loser, because the employer, as a moral agent, must also put its own self interests ahead of either man. Therefore the employer has the duty to pick the more competent applicant. If neither fits its needs, the employer is free to choose to its search.

Egoism also does not call for us to put our own short-sighted best interests before long-term interests. In other words, it does not call for us to do merely what we want to do, but rather to put the fulfillment of long-term interests ahead of pleasures we might enjoy right now. I could probably go out right now and find the funding to buy a house whose cost is beyond my means. This would fulfill my desire to own a house right now. But in the future I will likely find that I cannot afford the house, which will lead to foreclosure and bankruptcy. In other words, egoism calls for us to use our pursuit of self interests responsibly, and to not be reckless in the process.

Ethical altruism, by contrast, is the idea that all men ought to act in the best interest of others. According to altruism, we have a moral obligation to help others, even if it requires us to sacrifice of ourselves. Consider the question of the two job applicants again. According to altruism, each applicant should be required to consider whether the other has greater need for the job, and willingly bow out if they find that it is the case. Looking at it from the perspective of the employer, altruism would ask the employer to consider which man has greater need, and therefore hire him. Or, if possible the employer should hire both men and be willing to decrease its profit. I’m willing to admit this is an over-simplified example, but it is helpful to compare and contrast the two moral philosophies.

So how do egoism and altruism relate to our modern day conservatism and liberalism? Since the latter two are political beliefs, it can be easy to say that they don’t correspond to any sort of overarching philosophical system. By inspecting the platforms and core principles of the two movements, we can see that they do overlap.

Conservatism at heart is about the Constitution. The Constitution, aside from being a document that established a system of government, codified the natural rights of man. It’s not that the Constitution creates certain rights, but rather that it affirms the God given rights that are possessed by all mean; rights that exist to preserve individual liberty. The Bill of Rights in the Constitution was written not to tell men what they can and cannot do. The Bill of Rights was written to tell those in governments what they cannot do to men.

Because men have rights, they therefore have liberty. Liberty affords men the rightful pursuit of their own interests. It grants them the ability to make their own well-informed decisions. Liberty allows men to seek out self-fulfillment. This self-fulfillment extends through every aspect of a person’s life: where they choose to live; where they choose to attend school; where they choose to work; and how they choose to use the fruits of their labor. But liberty also comes with responsibility. It does not permit men to simply do what they please. There must also be a respect for the rights of other men.

This view of the world explains why conservatives hold many political beliefs as well. Regulation and excessive taxation are disapproved of because they limit economic liberty. School choice is lauded because it gives parents the freedom to choose the education their child receives. Gun control is loathed because it takes away the ability to choose how one spends their money and how one protects themselves and their belongings. Unions are disliked because they stop employers from running businesses in the most efficient manner.

Liberalism, in its current incarnation, seeks to ensure equality for all men. They view the world and human nature as possessing certain inherent biases which unfairly permit some men to have better opportunities than others. This unfairness causes society to devolve in classes of working/upper, slave/master and victim/perpetrator. To liberals, the role of government is to correct these inequalities.

Liberals try to abolish perceived inequalities through government regulations, such as affirmative action. The goal is to give everyone a fair shot, be it at education, jobs or housing. They are skeptical of the motives of businesses. To liberals the goal of maximizing profit is antithetical to what they view should be the primary goal of business: to provide for their workers. Seeking profit must lead to exploitation, they will argue. Liberals are in favor of progressive taxation which takes a higher percentage from those who are well off, as well as providing tax credits to the needy. The wealthy have a duty to help those who are not well off.

Considering the explanations given above, it should be easy to see that conservatism is a political form of egoism, and liberalism is a form of altruism. In my mind, conservatives should grasp onto the concept of egoism and treat it not as a vice, but as a virtue. Too often liberals will attempt to obfuscate the concepts of egoism and altruism with rhetoric referring to egoism as “selfishness” and altruism as “charity.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. Charity is an act performed voluntarily out of the goodness of one’s heart, without a sense of obligation.

Conservatives believe in individual rights and liberty. They believe that men should work to better themselves, of their own volition. They believe that all people are ends, not means. And so, conservatives should strive to embrace the concept of egoism, because the egoist believes the same.