The Meaning of Self-Interest

 Posted by on 16 January 2004 at 12:18 pm  Uncategorized
Jan 162004

Many people, including those who claim to agree with it, are often very, very confused about the Objectivist concept of self-interest. For example, Jim Groark recently posted this message to the SOLO Forum:

A person is walking down a deserted street late at night, and notices a small fire through the window of a locked, empty store. It is certain that if the small fire is not contained, it will destroy the entire store, and it is a given that there is no time to contact the owner, fire department, or anyone else in order to douse the fire in time to prevent destruction of the entire store. So the person breaks the window, stamps out the fire, and saves the store.

Later on, the store owner, who happens to be an Objectivist, arrives on the scene. While happy that his store has been saved, being an Objectivist, he realizes that his property (his window) was destroyed without his permission, so he seeks restitution for that damage inflicted by the passerby. Further, he is morally obligated to demand such restitution, since this is in his own rational self-interest (he wins twice: his store is saved, and he is repaid for his damaged window).

Various people objected to this characterization of the store owner’s self-interest. So Jim then modified the scenario as follows:

Suppose that the storeowner could demand restitution without any sufferring any harmful effects in terms of reputation (let’s say that the demand for payment is not made public or publicized in any way), and let’s suppose that the “amateur firefighter” is not a resident of that town or area, and does not communicate his plight to anyone in the area. Then, at the margin, in this situation, the storeowner could be said to have, from an Objectivist viewpoint, a moral obligation (in his interest), to demand repayment.

Yikes! So here was my reply:

No, no, and no.

First, this scenario is arbitrarily constructed. The store owner could not possibly know in advance that his demand for restitution would remain private. In fact, he ought to know that such is quite unlikely, even if the firefighter is from out-of-town. This method of constructing ethical scenarios is very typical in academic philosophy — and it’s completely wrong. It requires us to pretend that moral agents can infallibly foresee the consequences of their actions, all the while ignoring the likely consequences of those actions.

Second, the store owner would know that his demand for payment was unjust and immoral, even if no one else ever discovered it. (An unwillingness to perform such an action in public indicates that a person knows it to be morally indefensible.) The store owner would thus be undermining his commitment to justice in his dealings with others, not to mention his integrity. And that would surely harm him in the long run. In other words, the Objectivist virtues aren’t only virtues when other people are looking.

Third, can you imagine Howard Roark or Dagny Taggart acting in this fashion? I hope not. Unlike the store owner, these characters wholly reject the idea that moral principles are expendable when a few dollars are at stake.

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