Revisiting Selfishness – Again
By Tibor Machan - July 02, 2011

Why do so many who speak up about how we ought to act make a special effort to denigrate self-interested conduct? The main reason is that there is serious problem about what most people understand by "self" or "ego." Two versions need to be considered.

The self or ego was once – mainly in ancient Greek philosophy – thought to be the soul of the human being or the mind of a (potentially) rational animal. So the self had a specific nature grounded in objective reality. And an individual could then be adjusted to his or her human nature or he or she could be in disharmony with it as a matter of his or her own free will. If adjusted, then conduct that would be selfish or self-interested would be healthy, proper, good – in short, ethical or moral. If in disharmony, then selfish or self-interested conduct would be corrupt – unethical or immoral. Or, another way of understanding this is that properly selfish conduct would be good and improperly selfish conduct would be bad, even unselfish, strictly speaking. (Morality or ethics concerns how human beings ought to conduct themselves, the principles of fitting conduct for them! And different schools of ethics or morality answer this differently.)

After the influential philosopher Thomas Hobbes produced his critique of the earlier idea of the human self in the 16th century, arguing that the idea of the rational animal is a mere invention, unfounded in nature, the self in Western thought had undergone a serious revision. It became understood as whatever someone's set of feelings happened to be. So any messy group of feelings – disparate passions – could be seen as someone's self or ego. No difference between a proper and improper self could be identified because no human nature existed, as far as Hobbes was concerned. And this became a powerful idea since it was deemed to accord with modern science. (A more recent version is Freud's idea of the divided human ego.) So after this "selfishness" came to mean nothing but the venting of one's feelings and acting accordingly.

Today it is mostly the post-Hobbesian, Freudian idea of the self or ego that is prominent since it is deemed to be true to science. But there are many who reject it, among them neo-Aristotelians, Randians, and so forth. The economic profession, being eager to seem to be scientific, tends to follow Hobbes. So self-interested conduct for most economists is simply self-indulgent conduct, doing whatever one feels like doing. Never mind that in earlier terms doing whatever one feels like doing could seriously undermine oneself – one's ego. That idea requires the old notion that human nature is something specific, not invented, and as already mentioned, this idea is not in vogue now.

Of course, the crucial issue is which of these ideas of the human self is right or perhaps there is yet another idea that fits the bill better. And how that could be determined it something rather involved, touching on several branches of philosophy and some of the sciences, too. All that can be done here is take a stab at a resolution, one that has to be seen as the best but not necessarily the final answer to the question "What is the human self?" (A final answer cannot be provided since reality is constantly unfolding and the future could shed further light on whatever appears to be the best answer now.)

Reality is concrete, actual, but with all kinds of possibilities in store as well. In most cases there is plenty of stability and permanence about it, even when some journalistic, superficial view of the sciences seem to indicate otherwise. After all, science itself vanishes if nothing at all is permanent, unchanging. When it comes to human reality, however, a new version of change emerges, namely, one that individual human beings initiate. This is the old idea of free will – people have the capacity to being about events by way of the actions they take, especially the actions they take with their minds, their thinking or consciousness). This capacity is sometimes held to be what is called "contra-causal" but in fact it is another kind of cause in the world, initial cause (something often credited only to God).

As human beings grow up, mature, they become self-made, self-created. Their thinking – which can be very subtle and mostly implicit – and actions form who they become. Yes, they are human, but this only tells part of the story, namely, the part about their capacities. Who they are is what they actually think and do and if they develop sensibly, rationally, in line with the facts that bear on their lives, they obtain a healthy self. And those with a healthy self – or largely healthy self – are good humans, whereas those with an unhealthy self, one that is irrational, unfit for survival and flourishing, are bad, morally defective.

By this approach, very briefly put here, self-interested conduct is good conduct, whereas unselfish, altruistic conduct is not. (Altruism is the idea that one must always neglect oneself and only concern oneself about others! This isn't the same as being generous, compassionate, kind, etc., which are often ultimately beneficial to oneself! This is the principle of a win-win sort of life, whereby one's bona fide self-interest is no threat to others.)

Editor's note: Much more could be said about these matters but, as Dr. Machan says, This is a decent stab at a solid beginning." To read more about this subject, amongst others, we suggest you order a copy of Machan's book, Classical Individualism [Routledge, 1998].

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