Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence and Generosity: Virtue in Civil Society

Compelling, Selfish Justifications of Good Will to Others


Andrew Cohen teaches philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point.
Critics often wonder how an ethics of self-interest has room for good will toward others, since it seems that egoism demands a ruthless unconcern for others. According to this caricature, egoists must cherish independence and eschew helping or being nice to other people. Is this position sound? Must egoists only growl at others?

Philosophers David Kelley and Tibor Machan each explore how an egoistic ethical theory not only permits benevolence but occasionally calls for it. Both authors cast benevolence as a key part of the good life. They argue that enlightened egoists cultivate good will as a means to personal enrichment.

David Kelley pays special attention to the role of benevolence in Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. Kelley sharply distinguishes benevolence from altruism. Benevolence is simply good will toward others; altruism, however, mistakenly holds that one’s duty is to promote the interests of others, even over one’s own interests.

In a world where mutually beneficial exchanges are possible, Kelley argues, benevolence is a form of showing respect for persons. He does not defend such respect by saying that we ought to promote another’s welfare as an end in itself. Benevolence is instead a fitting public sign that you see others as possible values—material as well as spiritual—to yourself. Benevolence helps us “to exploit the potential represented by other people, to create opportunities for trade, to remake our social environment in the image of our values.” Being sensitive, sympathetic, or generous, therefore, is a prudent investment with hopes of future returns.

While we can defend benevolence as a means to rationally selfish ends, some may be chilled by this picture of good will. One is benevolent, on this model, as a way of seeking some long-term payoff. This may be the selfish justification for benevolence, but it had better not be one’s selfish motive. Persons who are benevolent as a means to an end will come off as scheming and insincere.

Suppose a friend supports another in a time of crisis. He might later explain his loyalty to his grateful friend by sincerely saying, “I just care about you.” Alternatively, he might say, “I was hoping my being there for you would later pay off for me.” Any healthy friendship must rest in some way on legitimate expectations of reciprocity. The authentically benevolent person, however, is not explicitly motivated by such factors. He shows good will to another because he cares about the other. While it is true that he cares about the other ultimately because doing so enhances his life in some way, he must treat the other’s interests as if advancing them were an end in itself. Doing so is the best way of securing that long-term payoff.

Machan also sees generosity as a type of benevolence. In arguments Kelley would welcome, Machan claims that generosity is selfish (and virtuous) because it is part of “living successfully as a good human being.” Machan argues extensively that prudent generosity best enhances one’s ability to obtain goods from others in society.

His brief essay branches into many other topics: conceptions of self, negative versus positive rights, the moral significance of free will, the legitimacy of selling body parts, and the public policies that foster virtue. In all such wide-ranging discussions, Machan argues that individual sovereignty and private property are necessary for defining the freedom through which virtue is possible. Redistributing wealth or otherwise failing to take individual rights seriously curtails freedom and so restricts opportunities to be virtuous. At times Machan argues that virtue is impossible when individuals have no right to do wrong. Paying taxes, for instance, is not “generous,” even if the money goes to a “worthy” cause. But a taxpayer may affirm in a spirit of generosity what the government has given him no choice but to do. Machan’s analysis is strongest when he argues that virtue is easier where persons have the freedom not to do the right thing (as they do in free-market economies).

Machan and Kelley have each offered compelling, selfish justifications of good will to others. So long as egoists appreciate how to cultivate authentic virtue, they may stop squirming when asked why they are so nice.


November 1998

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December 2014

Unfortunately, educating people about phenomena that are counterintuitive, not-so-easy to remember, and suggest our individual lack of human control (for starters) can seem like an uphill battle in the war of ideas. So we sally forth into a kind of wilderness, an economic fairyland. We are myth busters in a world where people crave myths more than reality. Why do they so readily embrace untruth? Primarily because the immediate costs of doing so are so low and the psychic benefits are so high.
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