Selfishness a Virtue, Biddle Argues
by Ari Armstrong, November 10, 2005
Terrell Owens was a football player. His athletic skills were great, but his moral and social skills were lousy. And so the Philadelphia Eagles fired him. According to a November 8 AP story, Owens got in a fight with a teammate, disrespected his fans, and publicly criticized his quarterback. "Owens will either be traded or cut after the season," the AP noted. While he may remain in football, he has put his career at risk and cost himself probably millions of dollars. What was the cause of this behavior? The AP writer believes "Owens caused far too many distractions with his selfish behavior."
But how can obviously self-destructive behavior be called "selfish?" American Heritage defines "selfish" as "concerned chiefly or only with oneself." How did Owens show concern for himself by getting himself fired?
For Ayn Rand, describing self-destructive behavior as "selfish" abuses the meaning of that term. In her introduction to The Virtue of Selfishness, Rand argues that the false view of selfishness arises from two errors: "(a) that any concern with one's own interests is evil, regardless of what these interests might be, and (b) that the brute's activities are in fact to one's own interest..." Rand offers her alternative view of "selfishness" as pertaining to "a self-respecting, self-supporting man -- a man who supports his life by his own effort and neither sacrifices himself nor others." Rand explains that, by "selfishness," she means "rational self-interest... It is not a license 'to do as he pleases' and it is not applicable to the altruists' image of a 'selfish' brute nor to any man motivated by irrational emotions, feelings, urges, wishes or whims."
Rand wrote those words in September, 1964. More than 40 years later, on November 3, Craig Biddle defended Rand's views before an audience at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Biddle is the author of Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It and the editor of the forthcoming journal, The Objective Standard.
Biddle explained the distinctions between selfishness and altruism. Altruism in its consistent form, he said, allows for no concern for one's own benefit. And "no one practices it consistently," because altruism practiced consistently would result in death. And so practitioners of altruism are "necessarily hypocritical." Rational self-interest, on the other hand, can and should be practiced consistently.
Biddle offered some examples of harms that can come even from inconsistent altruism. Do you accept an invitation to some social event just to make others happy? Do you skip a trip that's important to you in order to dutifully see people who are a drag on your life? Do you stay in an unhealthy romantic relationship only because of a concern about your partner's negative reactions should you break it off? Do you feel guilty about not giving money to a beggar or about pursuing a business degree rather than joining the Peace Corps? Those are all examples of how altruism can hurt your life, Biddle argued.
Biddle also argued that many behaviors taken to be altruistic are or can be selfishly motivated. For instance, why do parents pay for their children's education? For Biddle, it's because children are a chosen value to parents who enhance their lives. Why do soldiers risk their lives? It's in a person's interests to protect his or her home and liberty, Biddle said, and a military life also offers compensation such as a paycheck and education. Why do people throw parties and host other social events? Because friendships and other social relationships are enormously life-enhancing.
The essence of altruism, Biddle said, is not to serve others, it is to sacrifice one's self. As an example, Biddle contrasted a successful businessperson who serves millions of customers through mutually-beneficial exchanges with Mother Theresa, who served many fewer people but did so self-sacrificially. Altruism does not give moral weight to service in the sense of exchanging values for values.
Rational self-interest serves the moral purpose of advancing one's life. Biddle argued that there is no real reason to succumb to self-sacrifice. To sacrifice one's self because God said so is an appeal to authority (and arbitrary because God doesn't exist). To sacrifice one's self because society says so is to appeal to the masses. Other "reasons" for self-sacrifice amount to ad hominem attacks or arguments from intimidation.
In short, Biddle described Rand's ethics as the "morality of life."
Biddle offered a brief explanation about how government should work. The purpose of government is to protect individual rights. We delegate retaliatory force (except in emergency situations) to the government. In a system of governance that protects individual rights, the resulting economic system is capitalism.
Biddle said that, under capitalism, people are free to donate to charity as they want. Capitalism yields tremendous wealth, and only a tiny number of people are truly incapacitated. How does charity fit in with rational egoism? Biddle argued that human life is the standard of value, and so we hold other people as valuable, too. (I think he needs a more sophisticated argument here -- either that or I missed something.) Most people want to help out with charity, Biddle said, but they should not be forced to do so. Indeed, under democracy, a tax to fund charity presupposes that most people want to help, in which case the tax is unnecessary.
What sort of governmental institutions are appropriate? Biddle advocates a "constitutional republic that protects individual rights." Such a government would run the courts, the military, and the police.
Biddle is against coercive taxation. How then, would government be funded? Through direct fees and voluntary contributions. Wouldn't the "free-rider problem" prevent enough people from voluntarily funding the government? No, Biddle argued; "free riders would be a very small minority." If people refused to fund the government, that would result in severely harmful consequences to each individual, such as foreign invasion or terrorist attacks. Biddle also said that social ostracism and boycott would be effective ways to prevent free riders. (However, people in tough economic circumstances would not be expected to contribute.)
Biddle got into some of the basics of free-market economics. However, my sense is that people are not going to be persuaded that capitalism and limited government are good until they overcome their Marxist biases against voluntary transactions and business activity. As Rand argued, altruism, collectivism, and statism are mutually reinforcing -- though ethics is primary. I don't think people will totally buy into Biddle's ethical arguments until they start to correct their views of economics. However, they won't start to reevaluate their economic presumptions until they get some sense from ethics that people can interact through voluntary exchange to create a friendly, productive, and just society.
After the talk, Francisco Gutierrez asked me whether states should collect the revenues for the central government. His question got me thinking. It does make sense that regional organizations would handle local courts and police agencies and also collect funds for the larger government, which would provide national defense and higher-level courts.
Today, many of us pay taxes to five levels of government -- local, county, multi-county tax districts, state and federal -- which is ridiculous. It might make sense to eventually create regional governments smaller than states and flexible in their boundaries.
I suppose it is an open question whether the same organizational structures would provide some services of charity and transportation. Long-distance roads offer no fundamental problems for toll funding, but roads within communities seem harder to organize and restrict with tolls, so they might best be built through local service groups.
Biddle's argument against taxation seems to be two-fold. First, it's wrong to force people to fund something against their free choice. Second, a voluntarily funded government would work well. I'm not entirely convinced by the first argument. Here are two analogies. Police have every right to arrest a person who is in fact innocent, only if the police have probable cause that the person committed some crime. As Biddle argued, the government has the right to prohibit trade with regions controlled by totalitarian regimes that do or likely will pose a military threat. In both of these cases, the government rightly interferes with the free choices of citizens, in order to protect people generally from rights violations. But if these two instances of force are justified, wouldn't taxation also be justified, if it could be demonstrated that taxation is necessary to enable the government to protect rights through the courts, the military, and the police? But then Biddle's second argument comes into play, that a government would work well with voluntary funding, and I see no serious problem with that argument. And taxation seems to pose a large risk of growing out of control and reducing the accountability of government.
Even though Biddle's presentation left some loose ends (as is unavoidable with such a broad topic), his clear and energetic presentation of the core ideas was enjoyable and helpful. His book is on its way to my mail box.