Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Virtue Of Selfishness

No, this isn't going to be an epistle in praise of Ayn Rand (much). But I wanted to respond to what seems to be a throw-away line in a post by poputonian:
In a system that rewards self-interest, you just have to constantly act in your own self-interest, society be damned.
At the root of this statement is the belief that a person cannot act in their own best interest without somehow destroying the very fabric of society. This belief is demonstrably false. This is most clearly demonstrated by the "give a fish/teach to fish" dichotomy. Can we agree that, when possible, its better to encourage people to become self-sufficient than to keep them perpetually dependent on others? I'll assume that you, the reader, have made vague affirmative noises at this point (if you haven't I'd like to hear why not). So I'll go on to ask "Why is that?". If we prioritize "teach to fish" over "give a fish", then it seems clear to me that we see an inherent value in allowing people to become self-sufficient. To extend the (blindingly stupid1) analogy in the quoted research, we think its a moral good that people be empowered to pick up their own pencils. Doesn't it also follow from there that, if people can pick up their own pencils, then we should expect them to? The above is an inane example, so let me present something from the real world: financial literacy classes. Are these classes a bad thing? Again, the rustling coming over the intarweb tells me that you're shaking your head. But really, at the heart of it, don't these classes teach people to make financial decisions that are in their own best interest? Here we have a clear example of people acting in their own self-interest by doing things like staying out of debt and saving money for retirement. Since no one that I can find is coming out against financial literacy I'm left to conclude that such classes and the behavior they engender have a net positive benefit on society. So, you see boys and girls, its not necessarily the case that acting in your own self interest is a bad thing. It can even be argued that empowering more people to act in their own self-interest has a net positive benefit on society.
1 I hate this type of research with the white hot intensity of a thousand burning suns. It reminds me a lot of an of-quoted study linking violent video games to increased aggression. The things that this type of study measures (e.g. picking up a pencil or blasting someone with a loud noise) are lousy proxies for real-world behavior, seriously calling into question the general applicability of their findings.

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