Friday, February 21, 2014

Rational self-interest is the true basis of morality

Adam Smith is first and foremost known as the pioneer of laissez-faire economics, a theoretical framework postulating that the public good is most expediently served in a society where all individuals pursue their rational self-interest in the market-place. Today, he is regarded as one of the world's most distinguished economists and all challenges to his credentials as an economist are dismissed as absurd. However, it is a little known fact that Smith saw himself not as an economist, but as a moral philosopher. Prior to his landmark publication "The Wealth of Nations", Smith laid down the foundations for his moral philosophy in the "The Theory of Moral Sentiments". Therein, he argued that morality is grounded not in reason, but in sentiments of sympathy towards other individuals. It is these sympathetic feelings that infuse us with the desire to treat others with dignity and humanity.

In light of the gap between one's intentions and actions, one is compelled to ask the question of whether or not one must intend to do good in order treat others well. "I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good." Smith offered a controversial to this question positing that people who trade for the public good rarely achieve their intended objectives. By these merits, he developed the concept of the Invisible Hand which emerged as the centerpiece of the The Wealth of Nations and the cardinal notion of free-market capitalism. It postulated that if everyone acted consistently with their rational self-interest, a society characterized by voluntary cooperation and efficiency would be created.

One may immediately object to this point by asserting that if people began acting selfishly by oppressing others in order to achieve their goals, the Hobbesian state of nature where life is "nasty, solitary, brutish and short" would ensue. As a remedy to this crisis, Hobbes prescribed the appointment of a Leviathan, or a sovereign who will impose disciplinary measures upon the violators of public order. However, the proponents of the the Invisible Hand will argue that people would not be acting in their rational self-interest by living amok, instead they'd be behaving in a manner that only appears to serve the best interests. In reality, such behavior destroys the shared environment and makes life more difficult for nearly everyone involved.

This thought experiments leaves one with the following unavoidable question: to what extent are people capable of recognizing their rational self-interest? Clearly, if their ability to do so was unlimited, there would be no need for conventional morality. If selfish behavior always led to actions consistent with one's rational self-interest, there would be no need for people to be told to behave altruistically. Because actions consistent with rational self-interest benefit everyone,  there simply would be no need for anyone to be motivated by the desire to do good for others as opposed to for oneself.

Clearly, that scenario does not describe the modern social and political reality and that is why there is  a need for morality. However, it is commonly presumed that conventional morality comes ahead of the morality of rational self-interest. In other words, that people rarely behave consistently with their rational self-interest and they need to be constantly disciplined by the voice of altruism. According to the modern bio-economist, Paul Zak, that is not true In the Moral Molecule, Zak affirmed Adam Smith's thesis that most of human behavior is guided by the Moral Sentiments. Far from being antithetical to the credo of the invisible hand, Moral Sentiments render the behaviors of rational self-interest possible. Precisely because most people generally want to treat others well it is possible for most people to pursue their own agendas without exploiting and undermining others in the process.

Most of the world's popular religions such as Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity extol altruism and deplore egoism. Befittingly, Buddhists regard selfish urges as the manifestations of the ego, Christians, Muslims and Practitioners of Judaism see egoism as an act of succumbing to Satanic influence. Consistently with that theme, Anton LaVey, the founder of Satanism declared declared that man's true nature is that of a carnal beast who behaves selfishly and disregards the impact of his actions upon others. In general, morality focuses on creating a peaceful social environment where people treat each other with respect and no accomplished moral philosopher takes LaVey's thesis seriously. At best, it merely feeds into the religious notion that all self-interested actions are evil by definition. That is not the case because egoism and altruism are not mutually exclusive and the fusion of the two leads to the morality of rational self-interest, the essential manifestation of human conscience that is the driving force behind the Invisible Hand. While it is true that people are naturally tend to be more egoistic than altruistic, their selfish actions are tempered by moral considerations of the well-being of others. Therefore, the conscience of rational self-interested is the basis of morality itself and not the ethic of altruism espoused by religious leaders. At best, the latter is merely a supplement for the former and that is why most people treat others decently without being constantly exhorted to do so by the moral authorities.


  1. Hey Aleksey, I hope you're not getting tired of me commenting your blog, I just wanted to say that there is a book which my interest you if you are thinking about this.

    It is called Man For Himself by Erich Fromm, its an investigation into the psychology of ethics, largley from his own perspective it has to be said but its a clear statement of rational self-interest as existing in many of the worlds religious traditions, indeed he considers it a central tenent of judahism and christianity but as he understands it, and it would lead in the direction of something different to capitalism, not just modern day capitalism either (which I agree with you is deviant compared to the appealing theory, the same could be said for socialism or anything really).

    He posits that dictates such as love others as you love thyself or love your neighbout as you love yourself are misunderstood, the emphasis falling upon love your neighbour and forgetting the self, some sort of self-love or regard is requisite otherwise you can not properly love anyone else.

    He suggests that a lot of what is mistaken for altruism, solidarity etc. and has been institutiaonlised pretty badly is in effect neuroticism or worse sado-masochistic control drives (although he talks about that more in his other book The Fear of Freedom). I think this contains its own contradictions, like people who are left or right in their opinions becoming angry with the lifestyles people receiving benefits lead when they are nothing like their own lifestyles, there can be creeping in there the sort of sado-masochistic controlling mindsets.

    The right wing one is more obviously punitive, the left wing one can be considered a sort of "caring sadist" but its no less pernicious to be dedicating so much thought to others instead of your self when all you are sovereign over is the self. This is part of the reason Fromm links sadism and masochism and describes them as inseperable in Fear of Freedom. He explains how the sadists, even if they are controlling others, cant do without those others, they expect love or congratulation in exchange for violence or domination which wont ever be satisfied. Its a fundamental failing of rational self-interest.

    That's a jumping off point, I think there's a lot of other things to be considered when thinking about rational self-interest, sociology, conditioning, social expectation and culture and structure, on the one side, individual traits, capacities, incapacities and psychological intersubjectivity on the other.

    Smith is a good writer though isnt he? I liked system of moral sentiments. Its has its own jargon to unpack from its own era though. I like the idea that people gave manners, morals and behaviour such a lot of attention back then.

  2. Thank you for your replies, I meant to respond to your other two comments, but haven't had a chance to come up with a thoughtful statement. I've been very busy with work lately, but I'll be sure to read your messages carefully and provide them with a worthwhile rejoinder they deserve.