False Moral Choices

Economic crises and runaway government power grabs don’t just happen by themselves; they are the product of the philosophical ideas prevalent in a society — particularly its dominant moral ideas.

Why do we accept the budget-busting costs of a welfare state? Because it implements the moral ideal of self-sacrifice to the needy. Why do so few protest the endless regulatory burdens placed on businessmen? Because businessmen are pursuing their self-interest, which we have been taught is dangerous and immoral. Why did the government go on a crusade to promote “affordable housing,” which meant forcing banks to make loans to unqualified home buyers? Because we believe people need to be homeowners, whether or not they can afford to pay for houses.

The message is always the same: “Selfishness is evil; sacrifice for the needs of others is good.” But Rand said this message is wrong — selfishness, rather than being evil, is a virtue. By this she did not mean exploiting others à la Bernie Madoff. Selfishness — that is, concern with one’s genuine, long-range interest — she wrote, required a man to think, to produce, and to prosper by trading with others voluntarily to mutual benefit.

via Is Rand Relevant? – WSJ.com.

We are hearing a lot about selfishness and greed. We are also hearing a lot about shared sacrifice. One could easily get the impression that there is a stark choice between selfishness and selflessness.

This is, of course, a false choice. It is natural for people to have a mixture of both. It is also natural for people to confuse the two.

In any but the most primitive economy, people acquire wealth by being of service to others. Yes, there are also some people who acquire wealth by evil means, but the predominant means of wealth creation is by serving others. We call this work. Some work pays more than other work, which is society’s way of signifying what work is more important. People with high paying jobs may not be doing what they prefer, but they do it because of the pay. Greed promotes service to others.

Some people choose not to make the commitment to serve others at a higher level – this doesn’t make them bad, it just makes them less wealthy. And working for money is not the only way to serve others.

“Selfless” acts stem from altruism, a trait most humans have. We feel good when we are altruistic, so altruism is it’s own reward. Selfless acts aren’t really so selfless. We don’t normally describe the need for the psychic rewards of altruism as greed, but it is little different than the desire for material benefits. It’s something that we like, want, and will take action to achieve. Some people will go to great lengths to achieve psychic rewards, just as some will go to great lengths to achieve physical rewards.

We all need physical and psychic rewards, but we don’t all need them in the same mixture. But who am I to say that my mixture of psychic and physical desires is good and that yours is bad? Or that someone who performs extraordinary service for others is bad because it is motivated by greed?

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