Virtue and Self-Interest
Early in Peter Abelard's Dialogue Between a Philosopher, a Jew, and a Christian, the philosopher (that is, the ancient Greek) and the Christian easily come to agreement about what the point of ethics is: "the culmination of true ethics ... is gathered together in this: that it reveal where the ultimate good is and by what road we are to arrive there." Further, they also agree that, since the enjoyment of this ultimate good "comprises true blessedness," ethics "far surpasses other teachings in both usefulness and worthiness. (1) As Abelard understood them, both fundamental elements of his twelfth century ethical culture, both Greek philosophy and Christian religion, held a common view of the nature of ethical inquiry, one that was so obvious to them that his characters do not even state it in a fully explicit way. They take for granted, as we take the ground we stand on, the premise that the most important function of ethical theory is to tell you what sort of life is most desirable, or most worth living. That is, the point of ethics is that it is good for you, that it serves your self-interest.
This idea sounds very strange to modern ears, and is scarcely made less so when it is stated, as it is by Abelard, in terms of the concept of happiness or, to use the somewhat broader term that is now widely used, of "flourishing." It still sounds as if things are being combined that cannot be put together. Nonetheless, Abelard's depiction of his intellectual heritage suggests - at least to me - a historical generalization which I think it is fair to say is at least close to being right: the idea of self-interest, as expressed through the notions of happiness or flourishing, dominates the ethical thinking of both ancient Greek and medieval Christian philosophy in more or less the way I have just described. It is also fair to say that there is at least one other idea that very characteristically dominates thought during the same periods: namely, the idea of virtue. It was generally assumed at that time that ethics tells you what sort of person you should be: it discovers which traits, if you should have them, would make you a good person.
This close historical association between virtue and self-interest suggests (again, to me at any rate) a further hypothesis: that there is some close connection between the concept of virtue and that of self-interest. This impression is reinforced by the fact that, as the concept of self-interest and related notions receded from the focal point of Western ethics, the idea of virtue did so as well. Both ideas were already sharply demoted in the work of Hobbes, beginning a trend that resulted (sometime in the middle of the twentieth century) in an ethical orthodoxy within which virtue was never mentioned and the agent's own well-being was regarded as at best irrelevant to his or her ethical merit, and at worst repugnant to it.
In what follows, I would like to present one piece of evidence that these two ideas do indeed belong together, related in something like the way they are in the classical, pre-Hobbesian tradition. More precisely, I will argue that the notion of happiness or (the term I will use hereafter) flourishingenables us entertain a much closer connection between virtue and self-interest than modern prejudices will generally allow.
To make this point, I will focus on an ethical doctrine in which this connection is alleged in is most extreme form, namely, ethical egoism. It is perhaps obvious that the notion of flourishing can be relevant to the development of egoistic theories. Though there are various different forms of egoism, it must by definition hold, in one way or another, that a distinguishing mark of the right or the good in human conduct is the fact that they conduce to the self-interest of the agent. The concept of flourishing can readily serve as a first approach toward understanding what self-interest is, as an outline sketch that can be filled in later in various different ways. One way to explain what self-interest is - among other ways, some crucially different - would be to specify that what is in a person's self-interest is to live the sort of life that is most desirable, most worth living. In a word, self-interest is flourishing. One can then inquire about what sort of life this is, and what it is that makes it the best life.
If flourishing can be used to explain, or begin to explain, what self-interest is, then it can also be used to specify the content of a doctrine of ethical egoism. I will argue in what follows that it makes a great deal of difference whether an egoistic theory begins in this way or in a certain alternative way. It makes a difference to the plausibility of ethical theories and, more fundamentally, to the relevance of self-interest to ethics and to central ethical concepts, most particularly including virtue.
I will begin by setting out on some familiar difficulties egoistic theories must deal with, and with solutions to these difficulties which can be drawn from the work of one proponent of flourishing-based egoism, one who is often mentioned in discussions of egoism but seldom read closely or discussed with care by professional philosophers. I am referring, as some readers may already have surmised, to Ayn Rand.
Difficulties for Egoism
The first difficulty I want to focus on is a very simple but also, I think, very influential objection to ethical egoism. It is based on the fundamental fact that ethical egoism is, as one might put it, a theory of reasons: it does not, as such, pass judgment on people, their traits, their ways of life, or the acts that they do but, rather, tells us what constitutes a good reason for such judgments. Egoism says that in some ultimate way, actions, traits, and ways of life have value because they are beneficial to the agent who has or does them. This is what gives us a reason to do actions, to have traits, to live a given way of life, or to admire them in others. The objection I have in mind alleges that egoism, regarded as a theory of reasons, and in particular as a theory of reasons for action, clearly clashes with common sense(2). Most of us think that the good of others is, to take a phrase used by Michael Slote in a similar context, a "ground floor" reason for action, that the fact that an action produces some good for some other person is sometimes, simply in itself, a reason for doing it.(3) Yet this seems to be just the sort of thing that egoism denies.
To the extent that a theory does clash with common sense, it must present people with arguments to change our minds, at least if its proponents mean to convince people who do not already agree with them. Here the clash with common sense seems very deep, and the burden of proof correspondingly large. In the absence of compelling arguments to the contrary, Slote says, "a properly conservative approach seems to dictate . . . that we prefer a common-sense account ... to the egoistic view."(4)
The second objection I want to consider is one to which Derek Parfit drew attention a few years ago. Like the first one, it arises, more or less naturally, when we regard egoism as a theory of reasons for action. It goes like this. Egoism, interpreted as a theory of reasons for action, distinguishes between good reasons and bad ones by using a certain aim, or outcome, as the standard: namely the agent's own good. The problem, according to this objection, is that this outcome will probably not be achieved most effectively by people who are trying to achieve it, and who have no other ultimate aim. We can readily imagine reasons why this might well be the case. If people were to realize that I act as if I value their well-being simply in order to get something out of them, all sorts of results that are bad for me will tend follow: to one extent or another, other people will object to being "used" in this way and will refuse to cooperate with me. They will also dislike me, and they will think I am a bad person. However, it is good for me that others cooperate with me, like me, and think I am a good person; thus, to the extent that these results can be expected to follow from it, egoistic behavior undermines the aim of egoism.
As Parfit has pointed out in his own response to this sort of objection, the problem it raises is not a logical contradiction: It does not mean that egoism logically entails its own falsity.(5) We could take it to mean, rather, that egoism advises us to conceal our ultimate aim from others and perhaps from ourselves. It may actually be easier to get others to respond in a favorable way to us if we actually come to value their well-being as an end in itself. This in turn, may mean that egoism would require us to believe theories that are inconsistent with itself, that it would require is to think (for instance) that things are actually good that, according to egoism, are really worthless. It would not follow from this, however, that according to egoism, egoism is false. Strictly speaking, it would only entail that, according to egoism, we really should have these attitudes and believe these theories. Egoism would (according to itself) give the true account of why we ought to do and believe these things.
Parfit has apparently taken the position that, if this objection does not convict egoism of self-contradiction, it is no objection at all.(6) It seems to me, though, that it is an objection, and one that should be taken seriously. Ethical egoism, like any other ethical doctrine, is meant to guide the conduct of life. If it should turn out to be true that it can only be followed by using secrecy, lying, self-deception, and holding contradictory beliefs, this would raise several problems for anyone who wants to believe the doctrine. To mention only the most obvious one, it would seem to mean that this guide to life is an extremely difficult one to follow. To the extent that one guide is difficult to follow and another is not, that other is, all other things being equal (for instance, if the reasons for thinking they are true are about evenly balanced), clearly preferable as a guide. Later, I will say more to reenforce the idea that this constitutes a problem. For the time being, I hope it has enough intuitive appeal to at least motivate the reader to continue to follow what I am saying.
One Version of Egoism
Neither of these two objections is, at least in my version of it, a knockdown refutation of ethical egoism. Both have the character, rather, of considerations that weigh against it and must somehow be balanced by considerations that weigh on the other side, creating a burden of proof that apparently must be shouldered by anyone who wishes to defend ethical egoism to people not already convinced of its truth. Despite this appearance, I will argue in what follows that there is at least one sort of egoism that can afford to lay down this burden. I am referring to egoistic doctrines that make suitable use of the idea of flourishing. Such theories can be formulated in such a way that the above objections simply do not apply to them. This, in fact, is one of the principal advantages these theories enjoy over other varieties of ethical egoism, for there are varieties to which these objections do apply. To make a case for these claims I will, as already indicated, focus on one particular example of flourishing-based egoism: namely, the one formulated and defended by Ayn Rand. In the present section of this paper I will describe this version in what I hope is enough detail to provide a basis for discussion. In the section that follows this one, I will briefly show how the possibilities opened by the flourishing-based approach enable it to side-step these two otherwise persuasive objections.
One of the most direct and revealing statements of Rand's ethical egoism is a statement in her philosophical novel, Atlas Shrugged, one that she deemed important enough to quote some years later in her essay, "The Objectivist Ethics."
"Man has to be man - by choice; he has to hold his life as a value - by choice; he has to learn to sustain it - by choice; he has to discover the values it requires and practice his virtues - by choice. A code of values accepted by choice is a code of morality."(7)
There is much in this statement that invites comment of one sort or another, but for the present I will only call attention to one aspect of it, one that I will later argue is important. She does not describe the moral task as, fundamentally, one of selecting acts nor, by the same token, as one of selecting acts that optimally achieve some goal. In place of a goal, she presents something that cannot in any straightforward sense be maximized, something we would not ordinarily think of as a goal at all: namely, one's own life. It is the value that must be achieved - or, as she says "sustained." Further, she presents this task as one that apparently can only be carried out by one means or method: by identifying the requisite values and - what is evidently a closely related matter - practicing the appropriate virtues.
When she gives an even more explicit statement of her ethical egoism, a few pages after quoting the passage from Atlas Shrugged, she says:
"The Objectivist ethics proudly advocates and upholds rational selfishness - which means: the values required for man's survival qua man."(8)
Here, again, though the reference to virtue is dropped, there is still no direct reference to action at all. This pattern, as far as I know, is sustained throughout her work: in her direct statements of her doctrine, she does not present it as a thesis that is directly about what we should do.
Naturally, as with any ethical theory, action must come into it at some point. In a rough sort of way, it is relatively easy to say how action enters into this one. Among the many values that can become helpful in sustaining the ultimate value, three are of such importance that they can be singled out as the means to its achievement:
The three cardinal values of the Objectivist ethics - the three values which, taken together, are the means to and the realization of one's ultimate value, one's own life - are Reason, Purpose, Self-Esteem.(9)
In turn, "these three values," as she has her character John Galt say, "imply and require all of man's virtues."(10) In "The Objectivist Ethics" she selects three virtues for special consideration as "corresponding" to the three cardinal values: rationality, purposiveness, and pride.
Finally, though Rand does not directly connect self-interest with action, she does establish such a connection between action and virtue: "Value," she says, "is that which one acts to gain and/or keep - virtue is the act by which one gains and/or keeps it."(11) Self-interest as an ethical standard is connected with action, but the connection is make indirectly, through the intermediary concepts of value and virtue. One's interests are sustained only by achieving that which is of value, while that which is of value is achieved by means of virtue. The acts of which such virtue consists, whatever they might be, are the ones that her ethical standard singles out for praise and commendation.
To see just what these connections between standard and action amount to, it is probably most helpful to understand what self-interest means for her. To that end, consider the following story, which I draw from the life of the great architect, Louis Sullivan. In 1917, Sullivan's career was in desperate condition. His innovative aesthetic was out of fashion and he had completed no projects of any importance for three years. If he did not receive a commission soon, he was facing the degrading possibility of real poverty. Then the directors of a small banking firm in Sidney, Ohio approached him about designing a building for them. He traveled to Sidney and, after inspecting the site and reflecting on their specifications, had a meeting with the directors which an early biographer describes in this way:
"He announced to the directors that the design was made - in his head - proceeded to draw a rapid sketch before them, and announced an estimate of the cost. One of the directors was somewhat disturbed by the unfamiliarity of the style, and suggested that he had rather fancied some classic columns and pilasters for the façade. Sullivan very brusquely rolled up his sketch and started to depart, saying that the directors could get a thousand architects to design a classic bank but only one to design them this kind of bank, and that as far as he was concerned, it was either the one thing or the other. After some conference, the directors accepted the sketch design and the bank was forthwith built with not a single essential change in the design."(12)
This incident presents us with a definite narrative sequence, concluding with a happy ending: Sullivan is in serious danger, yet faces it with unflinching courage and, perhaps because of this, things turn out very well for him. He is able to pay his rent a while longer, and he avoids violating his architectural ideals. But wherein does this turning out well consist?
Rand created a memorable fictional incident, probably inspired by this historical one, which poses a striking answer to this question. There is an episode in her novel, The Fountainhead, in which the architect-hero, Howard Roark, confronts a professional crisis virtually identical to the one we have just seen Sullivan facing: if he does not get an architectural commission almost immediately, he will have to go to work as a laborer, possibly giving up his career forever. He is asked to design a commercial building, and there is a request for classical ornaments that are inconsistent with the rest of the design. But Roark is not as lucky as Sullivan was. The board makes it clear that this represents their final offer. As he prepares to leave, a representative of the company begs him to reconsider, if only for the sake of his own well-being:
"`We want your building. You need the commission. Do you have to be quite so fanatical and selfless about it?'
"`What?' Roark asked, incredulously.
"`Fanatical and selfless.'
"Roark smiled. He looked down at his drawings. His elbow moved a little, pressing them to his body. He said:
"`That was the most selfish thing you've ever seen a man do'."(13)
By making things turn out worse for Roark than they did for Sullivan, Rand compels us to consider what self-interest really is. Sullivan manages to secure for himself two sorts of goods: those involved in designing the sort of building he believes in, and those involved in being able to pay his rent. Because he achieves both, we have no need to think about the relative roles of these two sorts of values - which we might roughly capture by calling them "ideals" and "money" - in constituting the interests of the individual involved. In Roark's case these two sorts of goods conflict, and he must choose between them. In evaluating the effect of this episode on the hero's fortunes, we must consider which choice better supports his well-being.
Rand and her character make it very clear that their solution to this problem is not the one that many people would give, including many philosophers who have discussed ethical egoism. Typically, one's ideals are thought to be for the most part antithetical to one's interests while money is treated as if it were infallibly conducive to it, and this is clearly not what Rand and Roark think. Obviously, there is a heterodox theory about the nature of self-interest involved here.
Whatever this theory might be, it certainly cannot simply amount to the claim that acting on one's ideals is necessarily in one's interest. It is too evident that some people's ideals really are bad for them. Rand never says, quite explicitly, what "interest" or "self-interest" mean when she uses them, but she does make some relevant and highly illuminating comments on the thing that she takes as representing the opposite of these things: namely, sacrifice. "'Sacrifice'," she tells us, "is the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a nonvalue."(14) She goes on to give an example:
"If a man who is passionately in love with his wife spends a fortune to cure her of a dangerous illness, it would be absurd to claim that he does it as a "sacrifice" for her sake, not his own, and that it makes no difference to him, personally and selfishly, whether she lives or dies. ... But suppose he let her die in order to spend his money on saving the lives of ten other women, none of whom meant anything to him.... That would be a sacrifice."(15)
Now I am in a position to say more about how it is, in Rand's theory, that value and virtue connect action with self-interest. An account of the connection that is both suggested by and consistent with the passages I have quoted in the last several paragraphs would go like this. One's interests consist in achieving what is of value. Since things that are of value are unequally valuable and conflict with one another, this would have to mean achieving what is of greatest value. But this cannot be accomplished without knowing what is, in a given situation, is of greater value and what is of less. Since acting on the basis of this understanding is what virtue is, this also means that achieving one's own interest would be is impossible without virtue.
How does this version of ethical egoism fare in the face of the objections against egoism that I raised earlier? In the case of the first one, I think the answer is fairly straightforward. This one rested on the claim that egoism clashes with the idea that the good of others is a "ground floor" reason for action, and that it, consequently, is incompatible with common sense. As I have presented it, this claim could mean two different things.
First, it could mean that common sense holds that the fact that a given act advances the good of others is a reason for doing that act and, further, that there is no reason why this is so. There is no reason why it is a reason. This, of course, does not seem to be a tenet of common sense at all. Indeed, it seems consistent with common sense to say that the good of people you know is a reason for action because other people are of great value to you, that promoting the good of others, at least of certain others, is an indispensable part of the sort of life that it is best to live, the sort of life that is the most desirable. In fact, parents - most of whom can be taken to represent common sense to some extent - often try to convince their children that this is true. Of course, it is debatable whether such common-sense ways of explaining the value of the good of others is egoistic, but it is worth noting that, if they are, they are instances of the flourishing-based egoism. Something is shown to be in one's self-interest by showing that it is part of a certain sort of life. This sort of life, it is assumed, is what self-interest is.
However, it seems likely that few people would be influenced by this objection to ethical egoism if this is what it means. An alternative and more persuasive way of understanding the objection would have it claim that common sense denies a certain conception of the reason why the good of others is a reason for action. According to this conception, the only reason for which we should seek to bring about the good of others is that their well-being in turn brings about a certain further result - namely, of course, our own self-interest.
It is certainly very plausible to say that this conception clashes with common sense. However, it is not so obvious that it is implied by ethical egoism. In particular, Rand's theory seems to have no such implication. It does not recommend that we seek the well-being of others on the grounds that their well-being causes one's own interests to be realized. Rather, one's own interest is (consists in) the attainment of value, and one of the most valuable things is the good of other - that is, certain other - people. One's own self-interest is not some further result, in addition to the attainment of one's values, and one's values include, as a part of them, the good of certain other people.
What this means is that, as I have already hinted, her egoism is of the flourishing-based sort. The notion of attaining value functions here as part her account of which sort of life is best. Things are shown to be in one's self-interest by showing that they are part of this sort of life. The reason why something does fit into such a life - why it is a value - may be a matter of what further effects it has on the agent, but that is another matter. To say that the good of others fits into such a life is not the same thing as saying that it has such effects. This is why Rand can claim that she is an ethical egoist and yet embrace the common-sense view that the good of others is a ground floor reason for action in that it is worth pursuing in itself.
So much for the first objection to ethical egoism. A closely related reply to the second one, which alleges that egoism requires one to adopt a certain self-defeating attitude toward other people, is also available. The reply I just gave to the second, and more likely, interpretation of the first objection rested on the idea that it assumed an arbitrarily narrow notion of egoism as a theory of reasons. The existence of flourishing-based explanations of self-interest opens up the possibility of an egoism that is more inclusive in the reasons for action that it treats as legitimate. The same sort of thing can be said in connection with the second objection. In both cases, it is assumed that, according to egoism, a consideration becomes a good reason for action simply and solely because, if one acts on it, it brings about a certain result: the agent's own self-interest. In the second objection this assumption implies that, if we act as egoism recommends, we are viewing the interests of others in a certain way: as mere instruments to be manipulated to produce a certain result. As we have already seen, this assumption is not necessarily true and, in particular, it is not true of Rand's egoism. In her view, the achievement of one's values is related to self-interest, not by causality, but by identity. That is what self-interest is. Given that the good of (at least certain) others properly is among one's values, it is in one's self-interest to pursue it, even apart from further, future results it might bring. To put the same idea in more abstract and theory-neutral language: it is in one's self-interest, not because it causes flourishing, but because it is partly constitutive of it.
Of course, whether an ethical egoism that is formulated in this way is true, or even fully coherent, is another matter, but at least it we can say that it is not logically committed to a repulsively manipulative attitude toward other people which, according to the second objection, must be concealed from them and, possibly, from oneself.
My responses to the two objections, as I have presented them so far, are very brief. Obviously, much more remains to be said about them. Especially, I must deal with the inevitable replies, and that is what I will do for most of the remainder of this paper. I have claimed that these objections do not necessarily apply to a certain sort of egoism: namely, the sort that, at least implicitly, uses the flourishing-based approach to explaining what self-interest is. In addition, some of my comments have suggested rather strongly that such objections do apply to a certain other sort of egoism, and may even cause it some serious damage. Accordingly, I have exposed myself to two sorts of attack: one from people who find fault with type of egoism I have defended, and the other from people who find fault with the way I have implicitly rejected the other sort. Some people would likely wish to claim that the notion of flourishing cannot help egoism in the way I have suggested it can, while others will say that non-flourishing-based egoism has no need of such help.
I will take the latter sort of attack first, using as my principal focus a version of the attack presented by Peter Railton.(16) Following some suggestions by Parfit to which I have already referred, he contends that, contrary to what I have supposed, the second objection, properly understood, really presents no problem at all for the theories at which it is aimed: the self-defeatingness with which it charges them is actually not a bad thing. What prevents it from being a bad thing, in part, is the concept of virtue. He states his argument in terms of egoistic hedonism, but it is easy to see how it can be generalized to apply to egoism in general.
Egoistic hedonism (hedonism for short) is the theory that says that all actions that an agent might do are good only if they cause a certain state of consciousness in the agent: namely happiness or pleasure (which, for brevity, I will call pleasure from now on). Stated as a problem about hedonism, the second objection rests on the familiar truism that people who make pleasure as their sole ultimate aim often achieve this end less well than people who have ultimate ends - goods sought as good in themselves - other than (perhaps in addition to) pleasure. Doing something because it results in a certain state of consciousness in oneself is quite a different thing from doing it for love of the activity itself. They are different, in spite of the fact that the latter way of acting will also produce pleasure. In fact, for a number of reasons, a life filled with these sorts activities will probably contain more pleasure than a life in which everything is calculated to achieve this result.
As Railton treats it, this problem is simply an instance of a more general psychological one, which is created by the fact that the temptation to indulge in excessive reflection about one's ends tends to interfere with the achievement of those ends. A problem that seems to function as a paradigm for him is one that he calls "a famous old conundrum for consequentialism": If all actions are to be judged by their outcomes, then it would seem that we must deliberate not only about actions but about how much time to spend on any deliberation, including these deliberations about our deliberations, and so on to infinity.
One can avoid this problem, he says, simply by refraining from deliberating about time allocation. The "sophisticated consequentialist" can "develop standing dispositions to give more or less time to decisions depending upon their perceived importance, the amount of information available, the predictability of his choice, and so on."(17) Similar things, he points out, can be said of a wide range of problems involving self-defeatingly goal-based thinking. There is the tennis enthusiast who is so obsessed with winning that he would actually win more if he forgot the score and became absorbed in the details of the game,(18) the timid employee who will never have the nerve to ask for a needed raise if he deliberates about whether to do it, the self-conscious man who, if he thinks about how he should act at a party he is attending, will fail achieve the goal of such thinking, which is to act naturally and, ultimately, to enjoy the party. Finally, there is the tightrope walker who will not be able to concentrate if he consciously focuses on the fact that his life depends on his keeping his concentration. In each of these cases, Railton tells us, the individuals involved can improve the consequences of their action by avoiding "consequentialist deliberation." This can be done by developing personal traits, "habits of thought," which tend to forestall such deliberation.(19) Because of their manifest importance in enabling us to live as we should, such traits would naturally be regarded as virtues.
This argument brings to the surface two important threads in the nest of issues I am treating here, ones I want to comment on very briefly before going on to the question of the cogency of Railton's argument. First, one moral that can be drawn from examples like the case of the tightrope walker and the others just cited is that deliberation and conscious reflection are not the same thing as rationality, even when they contain only factually accurate thoughts and are carried out without violating the formal constraints of logic. There are times when conscious refection, just because it is conscious reflection, would be profoundly irrational.(20)
The other thread that deserves some immediate comment has to do with the nature of Railton's ultimate concerns. He is not defending egoistic hedonism against attack because he believes it is true. His interest is based on the fact that his own doctrine, what is usually called consequentialism, has been subjected to the same attack, and he believes both can be given the same defense. Fundamentally, the defense he offers for egoistic hedonism is the one he also offers for consequentialism. The fact that an intelligent person could find such a strategy plausible rather obviously suggests a further fact, which I believe is both true and important: namely, that, consequentialism is indeed closely related to egoism. This, however, is only true of a certain sort of egoism.
Consequentialism decides the rightness or wrongness of actions based on their total causal outcome, their effects on everyone who is affected by them. The relevant sort of egoism decides the rightness or wrongness of acts based on their effects on the agent alone. Obviously, these two ideas have something in common: they both are ethical theories which decide the rightness of acts, and they do so based entirely on the results that these acts cause to happen. Since both these views appeal only to consequences, they probably should both be treated as varieties of consequentialism: one might be called collective consequentialism and the other could be called individual consequentialism. It is worth bearing in mind the possibility that the problem Railton poses and tries to solve for egoistic hedonism is indeed a problem for consequentialism in general, including all consequentialist varieties of egoism, as well as his favored collective variety of the doctrine. If his solution is not a satisfactory one, then this doctrine may be flawed in all its varieties.
I say this is worth bearing in mind because I think that, in fact, the proposed solution is not a satisfactory one. The reason for this has to do with the nature of the traits that are solve the problem faced by the tennis player, the tightrope walker, and the others who experience the temptation to become irrationally reflective and deliberative.
Those traits are, as Railton says, "habits of thought." It is important to ask exactly what this means. Habits are traits on the basis of which individuals act. The fact that an act is done from habit has no necessary connection with the thoughts, beliefs, or values of the person who does it. It is in this sense that habits might be said to be mindless. Suppose that I develop a habit of abstaining from fatty foods because I value health. Later, I change my way of thinking and no longer value health, but from habit I still refrain (for a while) from eating those foods. In both cases the actions involved (which happen to be abstentions) are habitual and are done from the same habit. The relation between habit and thought is loose. This does not mean that there is tension or incompatibility between habit and thought, any more than there is any tension between an inert hammer and the skillful deliberation of the carpenter. It means that, to the extent that it is habitual, the act does not necessarily proceed from any thought or any valuation.
It is partly for this reason that such habits are not traits of character. If I develop a habit of not thinking about my score while playing a game, this might be a result of wisdom. It might also be a cowardly evasion, in which I conceal from myself the fact that my real goals and interests are of the sort that I despise. Wisdom and cowardice are traits of character, while the habit of thinking or not thinking of something is not. This is, in part, because conduct that is wise or cowardly necessarily arises from what one thinks or values, while habitual behavior, including habitual thoughts, do not.(21)
In spite of their mindlessness, or perhaps because if it, these habits of thought serve to advance the purposes set by our thoughts and evaluations. This can be so, for instance, when conscious thinking would take more time than we should spend on it, or when its results would be so inaccurate that a very rough but readily available approximation to the right answer would actually serve better. Things that do not have the nature of thought can serve as a substitute for thought. These particular substitutes can mimic, approximately, the results that conscious thought can be imagined to produce, if it could only work in some ideally rapid, logical, and well-informed manner.
There are times when such thought-substitutes are desirable, and the particular way in which they are desirable can help to explain why they are feasible as well. To see why such an explanation is necessary, consider the state of mind of the tightrope walker who finds that he must develop a habit of avoiding certain states of consciousness: he must not look down, he must not think about what it would feel like to lose his balance, he must not visualize the ugly results of landing on the ground beneath him. Usually, avoiding thought in a situation where there are important problems to solve is not only undesirable but, for the sort of person who is good at solving problems, difficult to do. Why, then, is the performer able to so in this case?
Part of the answer, no doubt, lies in the fact that here one is not avoiding thought in general, but only certain particular thoughts. These particular thoughts, moreover, are, from the agent's point of view, eminently worthy of being avoided. Admittedly, the information that the tightrope walker can represent to himself by imagining his mangled body lying far beneath him might be accurate, but this is not a situation in which the collection of accurate data is per se valuable. His only concern at the moment is what he should do, and only the data that can inform him on that point have any legitimate interest. The data that he fails to collect by not looking down have no implications that go beyond what he already knows - indeed, beyond what he is already doing. The fact that he would become a bloody mess if he were to fall is all the more reason why he should focus his consciousness on the rope and on his destination at the other end. By not thinking about this fact, the only thing he misses that is connected with his present concerns is the emotional power it has to confuse and disorient him.
It would be easy, though tedious, to show that similar things can easily be said about the tennis enthusiast, the self-conscious man, and the timid employee. The general idea that applies to all of them is this: When we deliberate, we think about which particular act is the right one to do. Sometimes, thoughts we might have can interfere with identifying and doing the right thing. Under such circumstances, developing a certain habit of thought, in which such thoughts are avoided, can help to achieve the end of deliberation. Developing such a habit is possible, in part, because the individual literally has no reason to think these thoughts. In such situations, habit is a mind-mimic.
Railton's argument fails because the problem faced by the hedonist, and by consequentialists in general, whether individual or collective, is fundamentally different from situations of this kind. In particular, it lacks the characteristic that we have just seen allows habits of thought to be a feasible solution. To see why, we must look a little closer at this problem actually amounts to.
First, it has to be admitted that the problem involved in this sort of case is in one way the same as that faced by the tightrope walker and the others: in both cases, the problem is how to avoid having certain thoughts. Consider, however, concrete instances of the thought to be avoided in the former sort of case. A plausible example of the sort of thought that would give me trouble if I were an egoistic hedonist would be the realization that, by stealing the contents of my friend's wallet, I can be expected to be better off on balance than I am now. Insofar as the consequences of individual acts can calculated, this seems to be the sort of thought that can be supported by the preponderance of evidence. Further, it seems to be a plausible thought, not only from the point of view of an egoistic hedonist, but from that of any sort of consequentialist egoism.
It is easy to find examples of thoughts that would have the same sort of plausibility for the collective consequentialist and would create the same sort of trouble. Consider, for instance, the following facts. I spend some of my income on making my son's diet nutritious, varied, and interesting to him. This is not needed to keep him alive, it only serves to improve the quality of his life. If I were to give this money to the right charities, I could probably save the life of some child in the third world. Resources at my disposal that merely bring goods like improved health to my son might very likely mean the difference between life and death to a stranger on the other side of the earth.
There is one good reason for avoiding these two sorts of thought that applies equally to both of them. At the moment I see increasing my property as a good enough reason to take my friend's wallet, I view my friend as having a definite and very limited sort of value. Similarly, at the moment I decide to divert resources away from my son simply because it would benefit the larger group of which he is a mere part, I am viewing his value as limited in exactly the same way. In both cases, the other person is seen as an entity whose interests can conflict with that of some other entity, and that conflict is seen as, in itself, a good enough reason to sacrifice the interests of the person.
Obviously, it would be very bad if one's attitude toward other people amounted simply to this. In particular, it would be regarded as bad within the points of view of both individual and of collective consequentialism. As far as the individual standard is concerned, this willingness instantly to sacrifice everyone for the sake of some advantage to oneself is the source of the problems I cited earlier, involving loss of trust and respect from others and resulting damage to one's own well-being. It also harms one's interested in a more immediate, and possibly more devastating way. Anyone who, supposing it is possible, has this attitude toward others is obviously incapable of forming close personal attachments to other people, the sorts of attachments that are involved in love and friendship. Such attachments seem to be absolutely essential components of human well-being.
From the point of view of individual consequentialism, this fact is very important. It is also important, and equally so, from the point of view of collective consequentialism. If everyone used consequentialist ideas in the daily course of deliberation, everyone would be incapable of close personal attachments to others. But this would mean that no one is living a good life, which runs directly against the standard that defines this point of view.
From the point of view of consequentialism, whether individual or collective, it is crucial that this same point of view be kept out of the perspective of deliberation, in which human beings actually choose their conduct. One problem faced by the consequentialist, the one we are now considering, is how to do this. We can now see why habits of thought are not a feasible solution to it: we have reason to think that a genuine consequentialist - someone who consistently believes consequentialism - will not be likely to be able to develop effective habits of suppressing the relevant thoughts.
The problem of the consequentialist differs from the sort of problem for which habits of thought are clearly a workable solution in at least two relevant ways. First, the troublesome thoughts in the case of the tightrope walker and its relatives are simply a miscellaneous collection of facts united only by an emotional connection with the issue faced by the deliberator. In the consequentialist cases, the thoughts really are about the issue at hand: the problem of which course of action is the right one to do. This of course is exactly what deliberation is about. This immediately creates a problem, for people whose habits of mind are those of a rational human being, of how to motivate oneself to screen these thoughts out of one's consciousness. Such people would view the possibility of developing such a habit with deep suspicion, partly because they would need assurance that such habits would not also suppress thoughts that they really should be having.
Naturally, if we know these habits only suppress certain thoughts, and if we know that if they have any bearing on the issue at all, they have the same implications that the preponderance of one's unsuppressed thoughts have, then we have the assurance we need. As I have pointed out, in cases like that of the tightrope walker, this is just what we do have. In the consequentialist cases, however, this assurance is starkly absent, and this is the second way in which such cases differ from the others. In fact, the thoughts to be avoided would imply that the action supported by one's unsuppressed thoughts would be wrong. According to individual consequentialism, failure to steal my friend's wallet, under the circumstances we have imagined, would be the wrong thing to do. The same thing is true, according to collective consequentialism, of failure to deprive one's child of resources that could bring greater benefits to the children of strangers in other countries. It is crucial, from the point of view consequentialism, to keep such thoughts out of one's deliberative thinking. One thing that makes this particularly difficult to do is the fact that, to put it bluntly, such thoughts should not be systematically suppressed. After all, according to any conceivable ethical standard, there really are times when we ought to prefer our interests to those of our friends, and there are times when we ought to prefer the interests of stricken and desperate strangers over the desires of our children. However, for consequentialists, thinking about the consequences of one's conduct in such contexts is not a safe enterprise. For non-consequentialists, such considerations are a normal and inevitable part of deliberation. For consequentialists, ironically, they are not: such thoughts threaten to engulf their deliberative thoughts and poison their relations with others and with themselves.
The problem is a particularly nasty one because of the nature of the obstacles the consequentialists, whether individual or collective, must try to overcome. Among the things they would have working against them are (a) their desire to consider everything that is relevant to issues about which they are thinking, and (b) their eagerness to identify the things that, by their standards, are the right thing to do. I think this means that their adversaries would include both their rationality and their moral integrity. These are not the sort obstacles we ought to be contending with.
The Possibility of Flourishing-Based Egoism
I think it is clear from what I have already said that flourishing-based egoism is not doomed to face these problems. The flourishing-based explanation of self-interest makes it possible for me to say that my friend's good is partly constitutive of my own good. If I do take this position, there is no prima facie reason to think that I will advance my interests by stealing his wallet, even if he never suspects me and, in purely consequentialist terms, I "get away with it." If my relationship with my friend is, to use Rand's terminology, "one of my highest values," then by betraying his trust and victimizing him I would be damaging my own life just as I am damaging his.
This said, however, I must deal with the remaining one of the potential attacks on my line of reasoning as set out at the beginning of the preceding section of this paper: the one that I can expect to be launched by people who find the notion of flourishing-based egoism, in one way or another, implausible. Here I face a somewhat awkward problem. The particular aspect of this sort of egoism that I have chosen to focus on and defend, the aspect that is relevant to the point I wish to make, is its potential for being developed in non-consequentialist ways. The problem is that, as far as I know, this aspect of this sort of theory has never been clearly and unambiguous identified and attacked. I will have to guess what sorts criticisms might be made against it.
The fact, if it is a fact, that this sort of view has not been criticized suggests that the most likely doubts that people might have about it would concern whether there really is such a thing as non-consequentialist egoism. That is, one might doubt that the doctrine can be fully formulated without collapsing either into consequentialist egoism or into some non-egoist doctrine. The following would be one way of setting out these doubts. One's interests, one might say, consist in achieving what is of value or, in more antique language, possessing the good. But not just any value or good will do. It is not in my interest to have what is good for, or of value to, someone else but is not good for or of value to me. It must be good for me, of value to me. If something is good for me, it must have some effect that falls on me rather than someone else, an effect that is in some way favorable to me. Now, if self-interest is the standard of ethical merit, that would have to mean, in one way or another, that actions are evaluated on the basis of how much they produce of good for the agent, and this would mean that actions are evaluated on the basis of the effects that they have on the agent. But this, of course, is consequentialist egoism. The only way egoism can avoid being consequentialist is by avoiding egoism, probably by opting for an impersonal, non-agent-relative notion of the good.
What should immediately arouse suspicion against this argument is the fact that the conception of self-interest that it uses implies - in fact, this is virtually the point of it as employed here - that actions can never have value in themselves for the agent who does them. Presumably, insofar as an act has value in itself, it is not good for any one person as distinguished from everyone else. This is not plausible on the face of it. People treat many of the things that they do with friends and lovers as good in themselves and, precisely as such, as good for them. There is at any rate no obvious reason why they should not do so. Further, most people live their lives as ends in themselves, and not as processes that only have value because they serve some end other than themselves. Since a life is made up of actions - one's life is simply everything one does - this would seem to mean that many actions, and probably many kinds of actions, are being treated as good for the individuals who do them, and in themselves. The people who would raise the objection I am considering here would have to say what is wrong with this - and it is not obvious what their explanation could be.
No doubt, such people would also claim that non-consequentialist egoists also have something they need to explain. They might well want to know precisely how the good of others can become good for oneself in a non-consequentialist way. This seems a reasonable question to ask. After all, consider the image that is most naturally formed when we try to imagine how it is that human beings are actually related to each other. I am here and my friend is over there. Empty space separates us. There many sorts of relations that hold between us, but inclusion is obviously not one of them. How then can his good be included in mine, as a part of it?
There is no way I can present a full answer to this interesting question here, but I think is will suffice if I suggest a way in which it can be answered.(22) What I would like to suggest is this. My friend's good is not a characteristic of my friend as an inert object, but as a living being. More precisely, it is characteristic of his life, of the way he lives and functions. This of course is simply a way of putting the matter flourishing-based terms. But events in my friend's life can also be, and often are, events in my life as well. This is partly because many of our actions are actually shared projects, or things that we both do. The dinner we shared the other day in a Vietnamese restaurant, the book we are writing together, the long conversation we had with his former classmates from Germany - these are all things we both did. Beyond that, the event in my friend's life are things of which I am conscious, and I am raised or lowered by this consciousness. By that fact alone, they will be goods or evils in my life as well.(23)
There is at least one more thing, however, that critics of non-consequentialist egoism would probably say its proponents would need to explain. Whatever the faults of consequentialism might be, they might wish to point out, at least it has an explanation of how it is that a course of action can be good for or of value to me and not someone else. Supposing that the account does not work, what is it that does make the things we do good for, of value to, or in the interests of one person?
This of course is a reasonable question and must be answered by any theory that claims to be egoistic. All I am prepared to do here is to make a few comments how one sort of answer can begin. We can find an interesting clue to an answer in a comment that Rand makes immediately after she presents the definition of sacrifice I quoted above.
The rational principle of conduct is the exact opposite [of sacrifice]: always act in accordance with the hierarchy of your values, and never sacrifice a greater value to a lesser one. This ... requires that one possess a defined hierarchy of rational values (values chosen and validated by a rational standard). Without such a hierarchy, neither rational conduct nor considered value judgments nor moral choices are possible.(24)
Presumably, the exact opposite of sacrifice would be doing what is in one's own interest. The reasoning involved here seems to be this. Since the reason why it would be a sacrifice on my part to save the lives of ten women I do not know which letting my own wife die is that it would involve preferring a lesser value to a greater one, the reason why a particular act is an instance of acting in my own interest must be that it would involve preferring a greater value to a lesser one. Of course, it is possible for people to have perverse or foolish values or to rank their values in perverse or foolish ways, so not just any values will count. There must be a way to limit which ones count. The way that Rand uses is the same employed by the Stoics: the values and their ranking must be rational.(25) Given that assumption, a course of action will be in your interest - and so of value to you or good for you - if it meets two conditions: first, that it is in accordance with your values and, second, that your values and their hierarchical order are rational.
Of course, this way of answering our question is no doubt apt to be controversial, in no small part because some people would disagree with the conception of reason it employs. Given my rather limited objectives, I will confine my comments to two other aspects of this answer, ones that should be considerably less controversial.
First, the explanation of self-interest she has given is plainly a flourishing-based one. To describe a settled hierarchy of values is, equivalent to describing a way of life: the sort of life that is lived on the basis of that hierarchy. She has explained what self-interest is, not by tracing the consequences of the actions involved, but by asserting that it must fit into a way of life, one that is good or the best, and by offering an account of what it is that makes this life good or the best.(26)
Second, this way of explaining self-interest leads very naturally to an explanation of virtue or, more precisely, of why certain traits have the status of virtues. Many traits that are traditionally viewed as vices could be seen as the error of valuing something too much or too little. Cowardice is valuing safety too highly, for instance, and gluttony is valuing certain pleasures too highly. The contrary virtues, then, would seem to consist in placing the right value on the same good, neither valuing them too high nor too low. This is precisely what having a rational hierarchy of values would mean. This, on the flourishing-based notion of self-interest we are now considering, can explain why they are virtues. They are essential to human well-being, not because they lead to it, in a consequentialist sense, but because they are constitutive of it. The order that these traits bring to our values is what well-being is, or an essential part of it.(27)
Virtue and Self-Interest, Again
If we adopt the flourishing-based explanation of self-interest, ethical egoism loses some of the wildly counterintuitive appearance it is apt to present on first hearing. It is in that case not liable to two rather obvious objections which might otherwise provoke reasonable people to reject it. Of course, one might still reject it on other grounds, and nothing I have said here is meant to affect that possibility.
Nonetheless, I hope that what we have seen here might prove to be useful to people who have no interest in this particular ethical doctrine. After all, the features of the consequentialist notion of self-interest that give the egoistic doctrines that make use of it their strange and repugnant appearance are problematic for non-egoists as well. The consequences that we have seen following from idea that self-interest is simply a matter of the causal outcome of one's acts make the notion unattractive for any sort of ethical use at all. If this is what self-interest is, then pursuing it would seem to require a state of mind dominated by an calculating sort of attitude toward the future, and toward other people. In particular, the attitude toward other people that would seem to be required is manipulative and possibly dishonest. To try to explain the value of a virtue by connecting it with self-interest in this sense is to degrade it somewhat, to make it seem less lofty than the others. It is very natural to try to segregate an idea like from all issues having to do with ethical merit. That, of course, is just what the post-Hobbesian tradition did.
On the other hand, if we accept the an appropriate flourishing-based explanation of self-interest, it becomes equally natural to see self-interest and considerations of merit as far more closely related.(28) This is true even if one balks at making the relation as close as the ethical egoist does. In particular, the ancient, flourishing-based conceptions of self-interest have a particularly close connection with the ancient and long-ignored notion of virtue. At the very least, the such notions of self-interest can explain why certain traits are virtues: the ones that maintain a properly hierarchical relationship among the values that the agent holds. This is surely an important fact even if one holds that self-interest is not the full explanation of why these traits are virtues, and even if one thinks that there are other virtues to which this explanation does not apply.(29)
Egoists are distinguished by the fact that they hold that self-interest in some sense is the explanation for feature or another of the ethical realm, and perhaps of the entire realm itself. In a way, they are monists. Those who resist monistic views can at least be open to the possibility that it is anexplanation. To the extent that one accepts the flourishing-based explanation of self-interest this possibility ought to be an attractive one. Then another possibility will arise, as eminently worthy of exploration: that at least part of the point of ethics is that, as Abelard was trying to tell us, it is good for us.(30)
Lester H. Hunt
Philosophy, University of Wisconsin - Madison
1. "Dialogue 2: Between the Philosopher and the Christian," in Peter Abelard, Ethical Writings, trans. Paul Vincent Spade (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1995), pp. 93-4.
2. "Common sense," in this context, means: the views that people in a given culture hold before theoretical considerations convince them to change those v iews.
3. Michael Slote, From Morality to Virtue (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 91.
4. ibid., p. 92. The objection to egoism that Slote raises in this passage is actually about egoism regarded as a theory of what makes actions admirable, and not (at least not explicitly) about egoism as a theory of reasons for doing actions. His claim is that egoism clashes with "the ground floor admiration for acts and traits that help others" which "most of us are disposed - and happy to be disposed - to feel." The objection I have just presented is stated as an objection to egoism as a theory of reasons for acting and thus constitutes a different, though related, problem. It seems likely that an adequate response to my the objection I am considering would contain clues pointing to a response to the problem Slote raises, but an adequate discussion of the latter problem would require more attention than I will be able to devote to it in this paper.
5. This theme runs throughout much of Chapter 1 of Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), especially sections 1-8.
6. See the preceding footnote.
7. Ayn Rand, "The Objectivist Ethics," in The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964), p. 23.
8. ibid., p. 31.
9. ibid., p. 27.
10. Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, (New York: Random House, 1957), p. 1018.
11. "The Objectivist Ethics," p. 25.
12. Hugh Morrison, Louis Sullivan: Prophet of Modern Architecture (New York: Norton, 1935), pp. 180-81.
13. Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1943), p. 206.
14. "The Objectivist Ethics," pp. 44.
15. ibid., pp 44-5. She has John Galt put the same idea this way: "If you exchange a penny for a dollar, it is not a sacrifice; if you exchange a dollar for a penny, it is. If you achieve the career you wanted, after years of struggle, it is not a sacrifice; if you then renounce it for the sake of a rival, it is. If you own a bottle of milk and give it to your starving child, it is not a sacrifice; if you give it to your neighbor's child and let your own die, it is." Atlas Shrugged, p. 1028.
16. My main source is his "Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality," Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 13, no. 2 (Spring 1984), pp. 134-171. See also his "How Thinking about Character and Utilitarianism Might Lead to Rethinking the Character of Utilitarianism," Midwest Studies in Philosophy, vol. 13 (1988), pp. 398-416.
17. "Alienation, Consequentialism, and Morality," pp. 153-4.
18. ibid., p. 144.
19. ibid., p. 154.
20. For discussions of the ways in which human reason is able to avoid pointless or counterproductive thinking, see Michael Polanyi's The Tacit Dimension (New York: Doubleday, 1966), Chapter I, and Knowing and Being (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), Part III.
21. For further discussion of the difference between habits and traits of character, see Chapter I of my Character and Culture (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997).
22. I can also refer the reader to Aristotle's account of the value of friendship, which is both egoistic and non-consequentialist. See Nicomachean Ethics, Book IX Chapters 4 and 9. Another example would be Rand's account of love relationships, which is actually rather similar to Aristotle's account of friendship, and which can be found dramatized and discussed in various passages in Atlas Shrugged, but especially in the character Francisco d'Anconia's speech about the meaning of sex. Atlas Shrugged, pp. 489-95.
23. The fundamental idea that underlies what I have just said is a point made in a number of ways by Aristotle: my friend and the good of my friend can be valuable in themselves and for me if only because my being conscious of them is valuable in the same ways. An episode from Ayn Rand's life illustrates this idea vividly. In a letter to John Hospers, she explained why a favorable letter from him about a book she had just published was more important to her than a blisteringly unfavorable review in Newsweek: "It is not an issue of how many people will see your letter vs. how many people will see the review. Your letter proves the existence of a man of intelligence and integrity; the review proves the existence of a fool and a knave. The first is important, the second is not. (Or, to use your terms: the existence of the former is an `intrinsic' good - while the existence of the latter is not even an instrumental evil.)" Michael S. Berliner, ed., The Letters of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1995), p. 562. It would not be so plausible to say that, if he had written the same letter to someone else and she had never learned of it, the letter and its author would still be an "intrinsic" good (ie., good in themselves) for her. But she does know about them, and that in itself seems to suffice to make give them that status.
24. "The Ethics of Emergencies," p. 44.
25. See Epictetus, The Discourses, I.2 and I.4.
26. Tara Smith and Irfan Khawaja have pointed out to me that Rand, in one of her later writings, uses strongly consequentialist language that appears to conflict with the non-consequentialist interpretation or her position that I am presenting here. See "Causality Versus Duty," in Philosophy: Who Needs It? (New York: Signet, 1982). In the main, this essay is a critique of Kantian deontology on the grounds that thinking in terms of consequences and, more generally, causal thinking, is absolutely essential to rationality. I think the first thing to say about this is that this argument is, so far, perfectly consistent with the view I am attributing to her. Non-consequentialist egoism does not claim (as deontology does) that thinking in terms of consequences does not belong in the ethical realm, it only denies the consequentialist claim that nothing else does belong there. It can also claim (what seems clearly true) that thinking in terms of consequences (eg., will this food nourish me or poison me?) is an indispensable part of discerning what one's interests are, or of rationality in general. It only denies that the relationship between them is identy. There is, however, one passage in Rand seems to go beyond this, and claim that thinking in terms of consequences is identical to rationality in ethics (p. 99, third full paragraph). I would argue that here she is falling into the understandable temptation of overstating the difference between herself and Kant, and that the same argument can be given (perhaps more cumbersomely) in non-consequentialist terms.
27. The idea that something virtue and self-interest are virtually identical is typical of philosophers in the tradition of flourishing-based egoism, including that of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics. For an insightful discussion of the views of the Stoics on this issue, see Michael Slote's comments on Stoicism and Epicureanism as opposed forms of ethical egoism in From Morality to Virtue, pp. 201-210. The Epicureans, of course, were proponents of consequentialist egoism.
28. I cannot resist making the following comment, which will have to wait for fuller development. One could say that what flourishing traditionally did for the concept of self-interest is precisely analogous to what virtue traditionally did for the concept of ethical merit. In both cases, there is a certain shift from the act to the agent and from the episodic to settled and the structural. When we evaluate what a person does from a virtue-based point of view, we do so on the basis of what it indicates about the person who did it, and the things that it is treated as indicating are relatively enduring aspects of the person. In that case, the value of the act is explained by the sort of life of which it is a part. This is exactly what happens when we understand self-interest by way of the notion of flourishing.
29. I should mention that, according to my own view of these matters, there are a number of radically different sorts of virtues, and only one of them has the hierarchy-preserving function that is essential to the argument I have just given. See my Character and Culture (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997), chs. 1-4. The virtues that do have this function are the subject of ch. 2. It would take us too far afield to discuss how self-interest and egoism are related to the other sorts of virtue and, to tell the truth, my views on these subjects are presently amorphous and changing.
30. I have benefitted from comments by many people on various drafts of this paper. Tara Smith served very ably as the commentator when it was presented at the 1996 annual meetings of the Ayn Rand Society. Ellen Paul was good enough to send me comments in writing, as was Irfan Khawaja, Eyal Mozes, Douglas Rasmussen, and Chris Sciabarra. Remarks made in oral discussion by Richard Kraut and Richard Arneson also proved to be helpful.