Blog Site

Friday, May 20, 2005

There's Selfish, and then there's Selfish

Recently in a discussion with someone about ethics, he mentioned that there didn't seem to be a reason to live virtuously without some exterior superior with a will that we do so. This was not the standard case for God, but rather some less conventional concept of a cosmic consciousness. In either case, the answer is the same. Here is what I said...

"The reason we should seek to live the good life is because we are happier and healthier when we do so. We live ethically because living ethically is synonymous with living wisely. We do so for the same reason we brush our teeth and wash our hand, and eat health food, and exercise. When we are unethical we harm ourselves and we have less fulfilling lives. This is because ethical behavior not only affects the continuum of human interactions we live within, but because it provides us a sense of self esteem and a comfort and a contentment not possible when we mistreat others. It has a mechanical effect on our personalities and our psychological well being. We are social animals and acting ethically is acting within our true Nature. This includes not only codes of behavior, but an internalized concern for the well being of our fellow human being.

"No external consciousness or will is necessary for any of this to be true. You dismiss [my argument] as some mere form of lower "selfishness", but this hits to the very notion of whether or not anything can be said to be truly altruistic.

"And what if there is some consciousness with such a will? Are you saying we should obey it because it will punish us? I don't think you're saying that, as it would be far too authoritarian and I doubt you would claim that extortion was the only means humanity would or should be ethical.

"More likely, I suspect you mean to imply that the will of this consciousness is something we can love and obey out of contributing to something "larger than ourselves" as you mentioned. But why would I care to contribute to that which is larger than myself? No matter how you slice it, it's going to come back to what's best for us as individuals. And, if we can acknowledge that doing what an external consciousness wants leads to happier lives then we can just as easily acknowledge that living ethically leads to happier lives directly. If it is a matter of love and compassion for this entity, then we can just as easily invest that love and compassion in humanity and our neighbor.

"So.. I find the use of an external consciousness to be... ethically [un]necessary. It seems to me that all of this, more likely, springs from a lack of belief in something which I think is an essential realization: that both ethical outward behavior, and ethical inner concern, really do lead to a better world, a better society, and a more contented individual life.

"If one doesn't really believe that, then one tends to seek out other explanations for why we should be good. I really do believe that, so I require no other justification."


  1. I generally agree with your sentiments, though I'd point out that whether ethical behavior in practice leads to a better world or society is out of our control.

    Yours truly,
    Mr. X

    ...minor point...

  2. Thanks for the comment Mr. X :)

    It depends on what one's definition of "ethical" is, but at least according to mine, they are one in the same. However, sometimes due to our inability to perceive the results of our actions, we might act with ethical intent, but actually end up harming ourselves as a species. This, unfortunately, seems to be the eternal danger of being human, fallible, and limited in perception.

  3. DT,

    This was the point made by Ayn Rand in The Virtue of Selfishness. She refered to it as rational self interest. She stressed,as an Athiest,the requisit of ethical behavior to a healthy individual and society. I find her Objectivist philosophy very compatible with Stoicism and try to live my life guided by both.


  4. Thanks for the comment Slam. While I'm not an expert on Rand, from what I've read it seems a little too "I'm out for #1" in its flavor. In other words, her animosity towards altruism I find uncomfortable. I would say that, when we help others and we give, then we are better off for it, even if not materially or directly obvious. But it seems she doesn't even go that far. I might be reading her or others who follow her wrong, but I'm a proponent of altruism, even though I recognize it does ultimately help us personally.