Collaboration and Distinguishing the Selfish from Self Interest

Something which seems to be a repeating query over time is the question of altruism and whether it genuinely exists as a function of humans…



The popularity of questioning the idea of doing something which is good for the sake of it is more common than I expected.  I wonder if part of it is a fashion which emerges from a trendy post modern ability to criticise even the actions which have positive outward effects in an attempt to be intellectual or if it is a side effect of the philosophy of Objectivism which has permeated Western culture since Ayn Rand wrote her famous book ‘The Virtue of Selfishness’. Here she introduces her concept:


“In popular usage, the word “selfishness” is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment. Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word “selfishness” is: concern with one’s own interests.


This concept does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us whether concern with one’s own interest s is good or evil; nor does it tell us what constitutes man’s actual interests. It is the task of ethics to answer such questions. The ethics of altruism has created the image of the brute, as its answer, in order to make men accept two inhuman tenets: (a) that any concern with one’s own interests is evil, regardless of what these interests might be, and (b) that the brute’s activities are in fact to one’s own interest (which altruism enjoins man to renounce for the sake of his neighbours).”

[Page 1, The Virtue of Selfishness;, A New Concept of Egoism with Additional Articles by Nathaniel Branden, Ayn Rand, Signet Books, Copyright © 1961, 1964]



Ayn Rand’s philosophy has gained huge success amongst those who subscribe to the ideological idea of free market economics or laissez-faire capitalism. The term laissez-faire is French and means “let them do,” and is used to suggest “let it be,” “let them do as they will,” and “leave it alone”. Essentially, the idea in it’s extreme is that if you don’t regulate anything, then everything will work out better than if it were managed or governed.


The philosophy of selfishness which Ayn Rand puts forward as Objectivism, has often been used to relate Adam Smith’s ideas of economics and society.  Famous for writing ‘An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations’, (usually referred to as the ‘Wealth of Nations’), Adam Smith was a moral philosopher before being an economist and largely gave definition to the systematized subject of political economy (economics) which we know today.  In his writing he has key distinctions from the selfishness which Ayn Rand suggests as a foundation of her Objectivism.


Adam Smith begins the first chapter of his book ‘A Theory of Moral Sentiments’ on Sympathy: “No matter how selfish you think man is, it’s obvious that there are some principles in his nature that give him an interest in the welfare of others, and make their happiness necessary to him, even if he gets nothing from it but the pleasure of seeing it. That’s what is involved in pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we see it or are made to think about it in a vivid way.


The sorrow of others often makes us sad—that’s an obvious matter of fact that doesn’t need to be argued for by giving examples. This sentiment, like all the other basic passions of human nature, is not confined to virtuous and humane people, though they may feel it more intensely than others do. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened criminal, has something of it” [Page 1, A Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith, Copyright ©2010–2015 All rights reserved. Jonathan Bennett electronic print version]


The perspectives of Rand seem to have coloured the public perception of Smith’s thesis, and I would argue that her work is used to vindicate unthoughtful positions which lack empathy.  Rand takes a reductive position that neglects very significant aspects of collectivised systems of care and empathy which form the noble heart of institutions which have evolved over millennia – i.e. offices which are often formed in societies.


“Remember that forcible restraint of men is the only service a government has to offer. Ask yourself what a competition in forcible restraint would have to mean.”

[Page 107, The Virtue of Selfishness;, A New Concept of Egoism with Additional Articles by Nathaniel Branden, Ayn Rand, Signet Books, Copyright © 1961, 1964]


This philosophy, when contrasted with the perspective of Adam Smiths, is clearly of a very different type.  Smith, being the progenitor of the term Capitalism, seems to have a view which builds upon his moral philosophy suggesting equity rather than serving the self.  For example, to the institution of Government he suggests a progressive taxation system, so that wealth might be more evenly spread.  His notions of self interest deviate from those of self serving:


“The necessaries of life occasion the great expense of the poor. They find it difficult to get food, and the greater part of their little revenue is spent in getting it. The luxuries and vanities of life occasion the principal expense of the rich; and a magnificent house embellishes and sets off to the best advantage all the other luxuries and vanities which they possess. A tax upon house-rents, therefore, would in general fall heaviest upon the rich; and in this sort of inequality there would not, perhaps, be anything very unreasonable It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion”

[Page 691, An Inquiry Into The Nature And Causes of The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith, An Electronic Classics Series Publication]


This philosophy has been taken into many modes of thinking and related out into social life in terms of a vulgarised Darwinism and aggressive competitiveness.  Dominant competitiveness is not a good way to gain the best potentials of an individual or a society, as it neglects those things which need cultivation to flourish and fruit.  The success of homo sapiens has relied on a collaborative characteristic of behaviour.


There is evidence which suggests that throughout human evolution, brain structure and cognitive function have helped define bonded group size and social complexity. Group size is a convenient index of the cognitive ability to deal with increasing social complexity.  The success of homo sapiens over neaderthal man has been suggested as being connected to the social characteristics of homo sapiens and the extended networks which they formed.



For Neanderthals:  “assuming similar densities, the area covered by the Neanderthals’ extended communities would have been smaller than those of Anatomically Modern Humans.


Consequently, the Neanderthals’ ability to trade for exotic resources and artefacts would have been reduced, as would their capacity to gain access to foraging areas sufficiently distant to be unaffected by local scarcity. Furthermore, their ability to acquire and conserve innovations may have been limited as a result, and they may have been more vulnerable to demographic fluctuations, causing local population extinctions.”

[New insights into differences in brain organization between; Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans, Eiluned Pearce, Chris Stringer and R. I. M. Dunbar, Proc. R. Soc. 2013 280 20130168, published 13 March]



Culturally, it might be telling that when we look up the etymological root of ‘idiot’ that we find “person so mentally deficient as to be incapable of ordinary reasoning;” also in Middle English “simple man, uneducated person, layman” (late 14c.), from Old French idiote “uneducated or ignorant person” (12c.), from Latin idiota “ordinary person, layman; outsider,” in Late Latin “uneducated or ignorant person,” from Greek idiotes “layman, person lacking professional skill” (opposed to writer, soldier, skilled workman), literally “private person (as opposed to one taking part in public affairs),” used patronizingly for “ignorant person,” from idios “one’s own” (see idiom). [Online Etymology Dictionary, Taken From Internet 12/07/2014:]
But possibly more importantly we find the root word ‘idio’ which is word-forming element meaning “one’s own, personal, distinct,” from Greek idio-, comb. form of idios “own, personal, private, one’s own” (see idiom). [Online Etymology Dictionary, Taken From Internet 12/07/2014:]


Is it that selfishness underlies the idea of the idiot ?  Is it that there is some inherent wisdom in the idea and behaviour of caring about the welfare of others ? Is education and learning intrinsically involved in notions of community ?  I have come to think so in exploring the effects of social networks and having positive social relationships.  In reading different views on what logical claim we can lay to the idea of acting in the best interests of others, I was struck by the thinking of Raymond Smullyan why is one of the great logicians of our time:


“The Taoists and Confucianists both agreed that human nature is fundamentally good, that the unborn “natural” state of man was a good one. Some of the Taoists thought, of course, that Confucianism was corrupting the natural state of man by preaching morality, but there was no disagreement about the fact that man was fundamentally good. As Confucius said, “Men are by nature born good, but few retain their goodness till old age”. As opposed to both the Taoists and the Confucianists stood the Chinese Legalists (sometimes called “Realists”) who believed that human nature was fundamentally bad and hence that to govern realistically one must treat human beings according to their true corrupt nature.


The Legalists set up as hideous a totalitarian regime as had ever existed, in which thousands of Confucian scholars were executed. The government burned all the classics it could lay its hands on, torture and disfigurement were the approved punishments, and everyone was required to spy on everyone else. If a person failed to report a “crime against the government” he was held as guilty as the “criminal”. The ideological difference between the Taoists and Confucianists were trivial compared to the enormous differences between either of them and the Legalists.


Raymond Smullyan
Raymond Smullyan

Naturally, I am on the side of the Taoists and Confuscianists. Of course human nature is fundamentally good ! Why am I so sure of this ? That is what I want to tell you. The proposition “Human nature is fundamentally good” is a logical consequence of two other propositions, both of which are as self evident to me as any axioms, but either or both of which the reader is, of course, free to reject.


The first of my two axioms is that I am fundamentally good. This to me is so utterly obvious ! By “fundamentally” good, I mean, of course, that I was born good. I say this because I distinctly remember coming into the world in complete good faith, loving and trusting everybody, with good will to all and malice towards none. I only developed hostilities, hatreds, pettinesses, envies, jealousies, etc. as a result of having been mistreated and distrusted.


Now, I haven’t been all that badly treated, and that’s why I’m not half bad as I now stand. But wahtever badness I have, t’is nothing more nor less than a reaction to the badness I have experienced. I did not bring this badness into the world when I arrived ! Of this I am certain. Thus my first axiom is unequivocably, “I am fundamentally good”. My second axiom is that it is obvious that I am no better than anyone else ! Fundamentally better, I mean.
Of course, I sometimes act better than other people and sometimes worse. But it is inconceivable to me that human natures can be so radically different that some are good and others bad at birth ! No, that is ridiculous ! So, if I am fundamentally good, then everyone is fundamentally good.   And since I am fundamentally good, then everyone is fundamentally good.”

[Page 59, Are People Fundamentally Good ? The Tao is Silent, Raymond M. Smullyan, ISBN: 0060674695]


These are all thoughts which help articulate the rationale and motive behind the Ragged project in attempting to create public value, build communities and networks, support people in their creative and intellectual trajectories and enrich the civic life of the world I encounter.  It is important to deal with the philosophical roots and implications of the work I engage in to understand the reach of the effects of my actions and conceive of the extents of the effects of a collectivised action with similar behaviour.  None of this is possible with the self limiting notion of selfishness.


There is a transcendent notion of self and identity, and within it we might infer that to be able to look after others we must also appreciate our own self; equally, there is the reciprocal to this which suggests that to be complete and happy we need to look after others in the same capacity for our individual bodily self.  It is in this transcendent notion of self that I situate community and understand the good of action as well as the moral contemplation.