Note: This essay is included in the anthology Rational Egoism: The Morality for Human Flourishing, which makes an excellent gift and is available at Amazon.com.
Can we gain selfish, life-serving values by engaging in acts of benevolence or generosity?
That question might strike you as ridiculous. Of course such acts can be in our self-interest. If we look at our lives and the lives of other people, we can see countless instances of people reaping life-serving benefits by being kind or generous: You hold the door for someone; he or she says, “thank you”; you feel good for having been kind. You feed your neighbor’s cat while he’s away; he’s appreciative; you’re happy to have helped. You mentor a young entrepreneur and provide guidance that augments his success; he’s grateful; you’re delighted. We could multiply such examples endlessly.
But the mere fact that an act of benevolence or generosity makes us feel good does not mean that it is in our self-interest. An altruist “feels good” about selflessly serving others—because he has accepted the notion that doing so makes him “moral”—yet doing so is actually bad for his life. Even a committed egoist can feel good about what amounts to a selfless act of benevolence or generosity—if he doesn’t understand why it is selfless. For instance, he might cheerfully donate to a charitable organization such as Greenpeace, whose mission includes destroying values on which human flourishing depends, such as the fossil fuel industry.1
Not all acts of benevolence and generosity are self-interested.
The objective standard for assessing such acts is not our feelings but the factual requirements of our life and happiness. And understanding how that standard applies to such acts is crucially important on two counts: First, knowing clearly, in terms of principle, when such acts are self-interested and when they are not enables us to act consistently selfishly in this area and thus to flourish all the more; second, such understanding fortifies our ability to champion rational egoism and to defend this vital morality against those who misrepresent and demonize it. So let’s proceed to identify the relevant principles.
Benevolence is the act of being kind or considerate. And generosity is the act of giving more than the recipient has reason to expect or a right to demand.2
Right off the bat we can see that such actions are not universally in accordance with the requirements of human life; thus they are not egoistic virtues per se. Whereas it is always selfish to be rational, honest, and just, it is not always selfish to be benevolent or generous; it depends on the context.3 Being kind to a known rapist, murderer, or jihadist would be immoral (unless you’re feigning kindness to capture him, thwart his efforts, infiltrate his group, or the like). And being generous to such a creature would be even worse.
But being kind or generous to people we know to be morally good—or at least have no reason to regard as morally bad—can be in our self-interest and indeed is in our self-interest when doing so is in accordance with our rational, life-based hierarchy of values.4
We’ll focus first on benevolence.
Consider a few simple instances:
You make your lover a candlelit dinner, put on his (or her) favorite music, and treat him to an evening of bliss; he’s elated; you’re ecstatic; your relationship strengthens and grows.
You tell your friend that she looks stunning in her new dress; she smiles with delight; you feel happy for her joy; your friendship advances once again.
You compliment your gardener on his artful landscaping; he feels proud; you feel good; your world is better for the exchange.
You tell a coworker how much you appreciate him covering for you when you were ill; he’s happy to have helped and appreciative of your appreciation; you both know you’ll reciprocate—and you both benefit from the mutual benevolence.
Similar examples abound. And what they collectively show is that, at least on a commonsense level, benevolence toward people we love, care about, or regard as respectable provides us with some kind and degree of life-serving value. Deeper and broader evidence lies ahead, but at this stage we can see that certain acts of benevolence support or lead to life-serving values, good relationships, even sexual ecstasy. Not a bad start.
The selfishness involved in being kind or considerate to people we love, care about, or respect, however, is relatively obvious. What about benevolence toward perfect strangers? Where’s the selfish value in being kind to a courier who you’ll likely never see again? Where’s the egoistic return in telling a stranger that his wallet fell to the floor? What’s in it for you to let someone pull in front of you in traffic or to give your seat to an elderly stranger in a crowded airport?
Part of the answer to all such questions is simple: It feels good to be kind and considerate, and doing so fosters the kind of world in which we want to live. But feelings are not our means of knowledge and thus are not our proper guide to action; reason is. And although the desire to live in a world where people are generally benevolent makes sense, that desire does not address the question of when acts of kindness are selfish and when they are not. In order to know whether an action is right or wrong, selfish or selfless, we have to know whether it is life-serving or life-throttling.
Are there reasons—as in fact-based principles—by reference to which we can make such assessments? There are.
Toward identifying them inductively, observe some relevant facts and related questions:
Although you may now have friends, you have not always had them. Your friends used to be strangers. How did you meet and befriend them? Did you do so by treating them unkindly or indifferently? Or did you befriend them by treating them kindly and considerately? What would have happened if you had done the former? And why?
Likewise, although you may currently have a job or a career, you’ve not always had one. In working your way into your job or building your career, did you interact with strangers? If so, how did you treat them—and why—and how did that work out? If you’re still working toward a job or career, which approach to dealing with people do you think will best serve your selfish purposes—being generally kind and considerate, or being generally unkind or indifferent?
If you have a boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse, how did you treat him or her when you first met? How did that work out for you? If you don’t have a lover, which approach to dealing with strangers do you think will best serve your rational self-interest—one of general benevolence toward them, or one of general malevolence or apathy?
As we can see by looking at our own lives, a policy of general benevolence toward strangers has been and is a major life-serving value. Although not every such act leads to friendship, romance, or employment, every such act adds to the amount of benevolence in our world—and entails the possibility of leading to substantial improvements in our lives down the line. (More on that latter point below.)
It is no accident that the countless books that have been written about how to make friends and influence people, how to succeed in romance, how to succeed in business, how to succeed in life—all of them, without exception—advise that we treat people kindly. Kindness pays.
And observations to this effect extend far beyond our immediate personal contexts. Every life-serving value ever produced by means of cooperation or teamwork came into existence substantially because the people involved treated each other kindly and considerately.
Could the U.S. founders have created the land of liberty if they had not been generally benevolent toward one another and toward their fellow Americans? Not a chance. How could they have met, befriended one another, and cooperated to the extent that they did? How could they have conceived and drafted the Declaration of Independence, rallied the American people to the cause, and executed and won the war against all odds? How could they have conceived and drafted the U.S. Constitution and established a system of checks and balances and the separation of powers? How could they have done any of this if they had been characteristically less than kind and considerate as a matter of course?
This is not to suggest that the founders never quarreled. They quarreled a lot. But arguing is not the same thing as being unkind or inconsiderate. Nor were the founders always kind. Some of them were, on occasion, downright nasty to each other. But all of that is beside the point. Had the founders been generally unkind or indifferent to one another or to their fellow Americans—had they done so characteristically, as a matter of course—the United States would never have come to be. People simply cannot cooperate under such conditions.
Could John D. Rockefeller have developed his oil-refining technologies, created Standard Oil, and thereby launched the industry that made possible the modern industrial world if he had been less than kind and considerate to people as a matter of course? No way. Who would have worked for him? With what kind of commitment or diligence would they have worked? Would they have liked their employer? What would the ramifications of that have been? This is not to suggest that Rockefeller was always cordial. He was ruthlessly competitive. But that is not the same as unkind. Nor is it to suggest that he was always kind. Perhaps he was not. But had Rockefeller been characteristically unkind or indifferent to people, he could not have succeeded in his efforts and thus would not have improved our world as he did. Complex and sustained cooperation and teamwork require kindness and considerateness.
Could Norman Borlaug have saved more than a billion people from starvation—as he did by means of his revolutionary work in biotechnology and agriculture—if he had been generally unkind or indifferent to people? Who would have worked for him? What would have motivated him to do the work? Could Maria Montessori have experimented sufficiently in classrooms to develop her profoundly life-serving educational method if she had been malevolent or apathetic toward her students and their parents? Could Willis Carrier have invented and manufactured the modern air conditioner . . . Could Henry Ford have developed his efficient and effective assembly line . . . Could Louis Pasteur have discovered the principles of microbiology, vaccination, and pasteurization . . . Could Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers, Sam Walton, Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Joss Whedon, Lin-Manuel Miranda, or any other great producer of life-serving values that require cooperation have succeeded in his work if he had treated people poorly as a matter of course?
None of this is to suggest that great producers never treat people poorly. Some occasionally do. Nor is it to suggest that characteristically unkind people never accomplish anything of value. Perhaps some do (though I’m drawing a blank on that one). Rather, the point is that kindness and considerateness are key ingredients in the human relationships and joint ventures that have given rise to major life-serving values throughout history—and in the absence of a generally benevolent attitude toward others, many of the great producers who have rained values on the world and riches on themselves would not and could not have done so.
This is why companies such as Google, Amazon, and Apple explicitly look for kindness and considerateness in prospective hires, and seek to foster such characteristics in their corporate environments. Such companies are, of course, extremely demanding of their employees, but demanding is not the same as unkind. Google, for instance, looks for people with “creatively benevolent impulses” that “can be backed up by engineering resources and managerial support.” The company needs people who work well together, so, as its senior vice president of people operations explains, “The goal of our interview process is to predict how candidates will perform once they join the team.” A prospective hire’s intelligence and ability are enormously important to Google, but if the person can’t get along well with others, his potential value to the company plummets. “We certainly turn down people who are ridiculously smart, but who won’t be collaborative when they get here,’’ explains the company’s director of staffing.5
By looking at our lives, history, the business world, and reality in general, we can see that benevolence, kindness, and considerateness are part of a psychological substratum on which social harmony, civilized society, and industrial and economic progress depend. Thus, if we value these things, we have reason to champion and uphold the principle of rational benevolence: the general truth that people should be kind and considerate toward one another—unless they have specific reason not to be.6
That proviso—“unless they have specific reason not to be”—is important and worth emphasizing. If you happen upon a stranger with a swastika tattoo, obviously you should not be kind to him. You should ignore him or, if some form of engagement is unavoidable, engage minimally and flatly. (If you discover some explanatory factor such as that he’s in costume for a movie role and the tattoo is fake, you might revise your attitude accordingly.) The proviso is necessary to the objectivity of the principle. But with the proviso, the principle is rock solid. As a general rule, the standing order to treat people kindly (unless we have specific reason not to) is a policy of rational self-interest. This will become even clearer as we proceed.
So far we’ve focused only on the benefits of benevolence, which we’ve found to be massive. Now let’s consider the costs.
Again, we’ll begin with a few simple examples:
You hold a door for someone; it takes a few seconds; he says “thank you” or nods in appreciation. The cost: a few seconds of your time—which you are likely to recoup when someone holds a door for you down the line.
You say a kind “hello” to a barista; you ask how her day is going, or remark on her pretty glasses; you order a coffee and tip her for her friendly, helpful service; she feels good, you feel good, kindness and goodwill expand in your world. The cost: a pittance.
A skier wipes out and ends up several yards downhill from his skis; you stop, collect his skis, and carry them down to him; he’s thankful; you’re happy to have helped; benevolence infuses the day. The cost: a minute and a few calories—both of which you’re almost certain to recoup next time you take such a spill.
Again, such examples abound. And what they collectively demonstrate is that the time and effort required to be kind and considerate are scant relative to the values we gain thereby.
But there’s more. Oftentimes such minor acts of benevolence that cost us little or nothing amount to the beginnings of major relationships that improve our lives dramatically. Suppose you get to know that barista and the two of you fall in love, or start a business together, or become tennis partners, or all of the above—or more? This kind of thing happens all the time—but only to people who are kind and considerate.
Suppose you get to know the person you help with his skis, and it turns out that he’s an executive at Google or Penguin or Cirque du Soleil—and he offers you a job, contract, or audition that launches your career? Again, this kind of thing happens all the time—but only to people who engage in such benevolence.
We could go on. But the point is clear: Given the massive benefits and minuscule costs of benevolence, the standing order to be kind to strangers (unless we have specific reason not to) makes perfect, egoistic sense.
Consider, in this connection, the so-called waiter rule, which points to a related matter of special interest to rational egoists. As humorist Dave Barry famously put it: “A person who is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, is not a nice person.”7 That’s generally true, and the principle involved is broader and deeper than Barry’s memorable quip suggests.
Assuming the waiter in question has done nothing to deserve such poor treatment, why on earth would someone be rude to him? Almost invariably, when someone is rude for no good reason, it is due to a lack of self-esteem.
A person with high self-esteem has it because he has exerted the thought and effort necessary to show himself that he is able to deal with reality (hence his self-confidence) and worthy of success and happiness (hence his self-respect). Consequently, he sees himself as efficacious, he sees the world as amenable to his success, and he sees other people as potential if not actual values. His corresponding policy is precisely the one we have induced as objectively correct: He exudes general benevolence and goodwill—unless he has specific reason not to.
As Ayn Rand put it: “One of the highest values to a man of reason and self-esteem is other human beings. Of any category in the universe, human beings are of greatest interest to him.”
If he can deal with men of ability, of moral character, of stature—if he can see in other men that which he values, if he can see in them the virtues he creates in himself—then there is a selfish gain to him, on several counts. On the practical level, it is to his advantage to deal with other independent, productive, intelligent men. On the so-called personal level, it is to his advantage to deal with men he can respect and admire.8
Because any given stranger could be independent, productive, intelligent, and admirable, a man of reason and self-esteem treats strangers with what Rand called “benevolent neutrality”9 and “initial good will in the name of their human potential.”10
People who lack self-esteem (or have low self-esteem) have no such policy—or, if they do have such a policy, they have trouble upholding it. They often treat others poorly because doing so makes them temporarily feel big whereas their lack of self-esteem makes them characteristically feel small. This observation has important implications for egoists, because we don’t want to get involved in any substantial way with such people.
Self-esteem is a major indicator of one’s psychology, character, and trustworthiness. People who have high self-esteem can make good lovers, good friends, good business partners, good babysitters, even good politicians. People who lack self-esteem (or have low self-esteem) cannot. Of course, anyone can choose to change: A person who lacks self-esteem can choose to begin thinking and acting rationally and thus to raise his self-esteem over time. And if he does, eventually he can join the ranks of the trustworthy. But until he does, egoists should beware.
So we might broaden Dave Barry’s idea and call it the “selfish benevolence rule”: A person who is unkind to others for no good reason lacks self-esteem; thus, if you must engage with him, beware.
As rational egoists, we want to live in a world where people are kind and considerate unless they have good reason not to be. And we have the best reason in the world to want this: Human beings can be and often are enormous values to us, to our friends, and to our loved ones. Thus treating people kindly unless we have good reason not to—and expecting others to do the same—is a matter of rational self-interest.
Let’s set our sights on generosity.
As noted earlier, generosity consists in giving more than the recipient has reason to expect or a right to demand. Specifically, it involves giving a person (or organization) money, time, expertise, information, or some other significant value. When might such an action be in our self-interest? When (a) we regard the recipient as worthy—and (b) we see the act of generosity as consistent with our rational hierarchy of values and thus as non-sacrificial.
Importantly, being worthy is not the same as being entitled. If someone is entitled to something, then giving it to him is not a matter of generosity but a matter of justice and thus a moral imperative. In an act of generosity, the recipient is not owed the assistance; he does not have a moral claim or a right to it. Rather, the giver has determined that from his (the giver’s) perspective, the recipient’s character, situation, and aims qualify him for the money, time, expertise, or whatever the giver is offering.11
Thus, whether a potential recipient is worthy of generosity depends not only on what he has done or seeks to do, but also on the giver’s context, values, and aims.
Do you value a cure for cancer? If so, then contributing to an individual or organization dedicated to curing cancer might be in your self-interest. It depends: Do you regard the person or organization as worthy? And, given your value hierarchy, would the contribution be non-sacrificial?
Do you value economic education? If so, then contributing to an individual or organization dedicated to providing such education might be in your self-interest—again, depending on whether you regard the recipient as worthy, and whether the assistance would be non-sacrificial.
Do you value Shakespearean theater, or technologies that enable the disabled, or the spread of rational philosophy? If so, then contributing to individuals or organizations that produce or advance such values might be in your self-interest—depending on your answers to the two key questions.
If and when we regard both the recipient as worthy and the aid as non-sacrificial, then our choice to be generous is rationally selfish.
Of course, determining whether a potential recipient is worthy and whether the aid in question would be non-sacrificial is not always easy. Indeed, it can be extremely difficult because the context can be highly complex. Even a decision about something as seemingly straightforward as whether to help a friend move into a new apartment this weekend can involve significant complexity: What is the context? How good a friend is he? Is he the kind of friend who reciprocates? Or is he the kind who takes but never gives? What are your other possible uses of the time and energy this project would require? Do you already have plans for the weekend? If so, how important are they? Does it even make sense for your friend to do such heavy lifting and to ask for such help from friends? Is he a financially poor student? Is he a wealthy businessman? If the former, it might make sense. If the latter, you might suggest that he hire a moving company to do the bulk of the work, so the two of you can brainstorm about a new productivity app or play golf or do something more enjoyable than cart heavy furniture and big boxes.
Likewise for decisions about whether contributing to a given charity is in your self-interest. Should you donate to the children’s hospital? What’s the context? How much do you value what this hospital does? What’s its mission? What’s its track record? Has it spent its funding efficiently and effectively in the past? Has it carried out its stated mission and met or exceeded expectations? What are its future plans? What other organizations have a similar mission? What are their track records and plans? And so on.
The complexity that can attend such decisions highlights the importance of establishing and maintaining a clear hierarchy of values. If we don’t have that hierarchy, we can’t think clearly about such matters.12
The bottom line is that if we want to ensure that our acts of generosity are genuinely self-interested, we must bring reason to bear on the matter. We must consider the full context, refer to our value hierarchy, and apply the principle of non-sacrifice. If, in accordance with all of that, we determine that a given act of generosity is in our self-interest, then it is.13
Finally, it is worth emphasizing the role of spiritual values and long-range thinking in all of this. Our values are not merely physical but also spiritual, and they are not only short range but also long range. Our values—in the form of our aims and concerns—can extend even beyond our lifetime (as any parent, innovator, artist, or intellectual can attest).
Ayn Rand provided an eloquent example of this. When a questioner asked whether her choice to speak at Ford Hall Forum for a meager fee (or perhaps for free) constituted an act of altruism, she replied:
You assume that the only possible values one can derive from any activity are financial. . . . That’s placing your self-interest terribly low and terribly cheap. . . .
Well then what’s my purpose? Altruism? No. In any proper deal, you act on the trader principle—you give a value, and you receive a value. Your question would imply that . . . unless I am paid, I have no interest in spreading ideas which I believe to be right and true, that the only purpose is to enlighten others. That would mean that I have no interest in a free society, I have no interest in denouncing the kind of evil which I can see and want to speak against—that all [of] that is not to my selfish interest, that it’s only to the interest of my audience but not to mine. That would be an impossible contradiction. If I believed it, I wouldn’t be worth two cents as a speaker. . . .
I have the most profound and the most selfish interest in having the freedom of my mind, knowing what to do with it, and therefore fighting to preserve it in the country for as long as I am alive—or even beyond my life. I don’t care about posterity, but I do care about any free mind or any independent person that may be born in future centuries. I do care about them.14
On examination, we can see that, although benevolence and generosity are not moral virtues per se, they can be, and often are, profoundly selfish.
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1. For example, see on Greenpeace’s website, “Keep It in the Ground,” http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/global-warming/keep-it-in-the-ground/; and “Oil and Gas: Keep It in the Ground,” http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/climate-change/End-oil-and-gas/.
2. Although some dictionaries define generosity as “the act or giving liberally” (or some equivalent), that doesn’t capture the essence of the concept; the meaning of “liberally” is too vague. For more on the meaning and definition of the term, see Tara Smith, Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 257; and Ayn Rand, Letters of Ayn Rand, edited by Michael S. Berliner (New York: Dutton, 1995), 548.
3. To address a widespread confusion: Being honest is not necessarily the same thing as telling the truth. Honesty is the refusal to pretend that facts are other than they are, and it requires taking into account the full context of one’s knowledge. In the light of that requirement, lying can be an act of honesty. For instance, if a burglar asks whether you have a hidden safe, and you lie to him by saying “no,” you are not being dishonest; you’re being honest; you are accounting for all of the relevant facts—including the fact that he has no right to your property. The burglar is being dishonest; he is ignoring relevant facts and pretending that he has a right to your property. Given the purpose of morality, which is to sustain and further human life, honesty does permit a person to lie—if the lie is necessary to protect a legitimate value from a person (or group) that seeks to steal, harm, or destroy it. For more on this, see my book Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It (Richmond: Glen Allen Press, 2002), 83–85.
4. I speak here and throughout this article of one’s intended hierarchy of values, which is not necessarily the same as one’s enacted hierarchy. For a discussion of the difference between these, see “Purpose, Value Hierarchies, and Happiness,” TOS Summer 2014, https://www.theobjectivestandard.com/issues/2014-summer/purpose-value-hierarchies-happiness/.[groups_can capability="access_html"]
5. Holly Finn, “Think with Google: Missions that Matter,” July 2011, https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/marketing-resources/missions-that-matter/; Laszlo Bock, “Here’s Google’s Secret to Hiring the Best People,” Wired Business, April 7, 2015, https://www.wired.com/2015/04/hire-like-google/; Michael B. Farrell, “The Google Mind: The Internet Powerhouse’s Secrets for Hiring the Best,” The Boston Globe, November 6, 2011, http://archive.boston.com/jobs/news/articles/2011/11/06/got_googliness_an_internet_powerhouse_shares_its_secrets_for_hiring_the_best/. For similar data regarding Amazon’s hiring practices and culture requirements, see Vernon Gunnarson, “3 Questions Amazon's CEO Asks Before Hiring Anyone,” The Daily Muse, https://www.themuse.com/advice/3-questions-amazons-ceo-asks-before-hiring-anyone; Amazon’s “Leadership Principles,” https://www.amazon.jobs/principles; and Heather Wood Rudulph, “How to Get Hired at Amazon” Cosmopolitan, February 26, 2015, http://www.cosmopolitan.com/career/interviews/a36970/interview-insider-amazon-career-jobs/. For similar data regarding Apple, see Jonah Lehrer, “The Steve Jobs Approach to Teamwork,” Wired, October 10, 2011, https://www.wired.com/2011/10/the-steve-jobs-approach-to-teamwork/; “7 Teamwork Lessons from Apple,” TwentyOne Leadership, http://www.twentyoneleadership.com/resources/7-teamwork-lessons-from-apple/; and Maya Kosoff, “Apple Employees Reveal the 19 Best Things about Working for the World's Most Valuable Company,” Business Insider, January 22, 2016, http://www.businessinsider.com/best-things-about-working-at-apple-2016-1/#the-salaries-are-pretty-good-for-many-positions-1.
6. Ultimately, this is an application of the onus of proof principle: The onus (or burden) of proof is on him who asserts (or assumes) the positive. Treating someone poorly assumes a positive—namely, that he has done something morally wrong and thus deserves to be treated poorly. In order legitimately to treat a person as having done something wrong, we must have evidence to that effect. To treat someone as guilty without evidence is to treat him as guilty for no reason, which is absurd and unjust. Thus, if we have no evidence that someone has done something wrong, we have a logical and moral responsibility to treat him as innocent. This applies to strangers as well as to people we know.
7. Dave Barry, Dave Barry Turns 50 (New York: Ballantine, 1998), 185.
8. Ayn Rand, Objectively Speaking: Ayn Rand Interviewed, edited by Marlene Podritske and Peter Schwartz (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009), 160.
9. Ayn Rand, Journals of Ayn Rand, edited by David Harriman (New York: Penguin, 1997), 246.
10. Ayn Rand, “The Ethics of Emergencies,” in The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964), 54.
11. Cf. Smith, Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics, 256.
12. For a discussion of how to establish and maintain such a hierarchy, see “Purpose, Value Hierarchies, and Happiness.”
13. The question of whether and when it can be selfish to risk one’s life to help others, including strangers, is a subject for another essay. I expect to write something about this in the near future.
14. From the Q&A following Rand’s Ford Hall Forum lecture, “Censorship: Local and Express,” 1973, https://campus.aynrand.org/works/1973/01/01/censorship-local-and-express/page1.[/groups_can]