A Case for Moral Selfishness

“[H]aving lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that, the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment of others.” – Benjamin Franklin

I am a skeptic.

To an outside observer, my skepticism may look a lot like cynicism. I don’t just believe people and companies are motivated by self-interest, I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

A person doesn’t simply buy a book from Amazon because they believe it will help Amazon make money or employ more people. They buy it because they want or need the book for themselves — either to inform, improve, or entertain. This is most often true when people realize that they’re spending their own resources – they tend to spend it in a way that benefits them, not others.

If they’re spending other people’s money, they tend to be less careful with it.

This doesn’t make everyone manifestly selfish, necessarily, because self-interest can indeed be naturally reconciled with service to others, without requiring one person to pick another’s pocket to do so.

For instance, recently I bought and read A Project Guide to UX Design because I believed it would make me better at my job. Continuous personal improvement improves my marketability (self-interest), but only if my improvement leads me to help others get what they want (service to others).

I also get a lot of joy (self-interest) by making a tangible and substantial contribution to the financial success of other companies (service to others), their employees (service to others) and the satisfaction of their customers (service to others).

It’s remarkable how often those things go hand-in-hand, when you work in a service industry, when regulations do not unnecessarily restrict your abillity to operate freely.

Once you realize that no one is more important to individuals than themselves, you tend to require stronger evidence that supports others’ claims of all the great things you’ll get if you just follow their lead.

A personality or “brand” may persuade you to be either less or more stringent with your requirements for evidence, which is just another way of saying that you trust those people and companies who have previously delivered on their promises, to the best of your knowledge.

However, healthy sketpicism, in light of moral self-interest, will allow the evidence to lead you wherever it may, even if it contradicts what you previously believed.

As a skeptic, I’ll be the first to admit that the process is sometimes uncomfortable, but it also allows you to be less judgmental of other people’s errors in thought and deed (which are intertwined), because you will realize that, in pursuit of your self-interest, you’ve managed a few whoppers yourself.

However, if there is a self-interest that should transcend all others, it should be the pursuit of the truth, which requires being capable of contradicting yourself when you find  your thoughts and deeds to be erroneous. Do not let love or hate of either personalities or brands to stand in the way of your dedication to think critically. – Cam Beck