This four-part series by The Atlas Society Senior Scholar Stephen Hicks, Ph.D is a justification of capitalism and of Ayn Rand’s ethics of egoism in business. The series was originally published as one article in the Journal of Accounting, Ethics, & Public Policy in 2003. Fifteen years later, Hicks’s arguments remain important. Today, sundry politicians and activists cynically perpetuate the myths of Socialism by targeting profitable businesses with regulations and fines in the name of the environment and the needy. Bureaucrats attempt to usurp credit for the accomplishments of Capitalism by claiming “Nobody in this country got rich on their own.” Hicks makes the case that Ayn Rand’s moral defense of individualism and Capitalism remains the best refutation of the anti-business agenda.
Introduction: Business and the Free Society, Part One
Advocates of the free society think of business as an integral part of the dynamic, progressive society they advocate. In the West, the rise of a culture hospitable to business has unleashed incalculable productive energies. Business professionals have taken the products of science and revolutionized the fields of agriculture, transportation, and medicine. Business professionals have taken the products of art and dramatically increased our access to them.
We have more food, we are more mobile, we have more health care, we have more access to works of fiction, theater, and music than anyone could reasonably have predicted a few centuries ago.
The result of business in the West, and more recently in parts of the East, has been an enormous rise in the standard of human living. We have gone, in the space of a few centuries, from a time in which perhaps 10% of the population lived comfortably while 90% lived near subsistence to a time in which 90% live better than comfortably and 10% live near subsistence. And we haven’t given up on the remaining 10%.
Intellectuals who study the free society have, in the fields of economics and politics, a good understanding of what makes this possible: individualism. In economics there exists a well worked out understanding of how, starting with autonomous individuals engaging in voluntary transactions, goods, services, and information flow efficiently to where they are needed. In politics there exists a good understanding of how protecting individual rights and limiting government power prevent the arbitrariness and stultification that suppress individuals’ creativity and incentive in all areas of life. This is not to say that individualist theories in economics and politics have carried the day; but they have had a major impact, they have had and continue to have many able advocates, and even their opponents give them a respectful hearing.
The same is not true, however, for individualism in ethics. Individualism in ethics is the thesis of egoism: the view that the individual is the standard of value, that individuals are ends in themselves. But traditional ethics has always found egoism to be highly problematic. So it has always found large-scale and consistent expressions of egoism problematic—such as those in the business world. The business world is a network of individuals, each with his own agenda in life, each working primarily for his own profit, and each interacting with others only if it is to his benefit. Business is a social world governed by self interest, and moral evaluations of self interest that determine moral evaluations of the business world.
My purpose in this essay is to defend the egoism that the business world depends upon. Business is about production and trade. Production is a consequence of individuals’ taking responsibility for their lives and exercising rational judgment about their needs and how to fulfill them. Trade is a consequence of productive individuals’ willingness to interact cooperatively to mutual benefit. These principles—responsibility, rationality, cooperation—are core principles in any healthy moral system, and form the core principles of the business world.
Of course not all individuals in the business world act responsibly, rationally, and cooperatively. Such problem cases are, however, aberrations. Business exists and flourishes to the extent individuals in the business world are productive and cooperative, so the major part of business ethics should be about what principles enable individuals to function productively and cooperatively. But because of the problems that can be created by irresponsible, irrational, and uncooperative individuals, part of business ethics deals with how productive individuals should solve the problems caused by the irresponsible.
This thesis, however, implies a recasting of current business ethics, since the currently dominant models hold the reverse—that business is, in principle, amoral or immoral, and that ethical behavior is the exception.
My thesis is that the core of business is moral just as the core of any valid profession is moral: education, science, art. The profession of education creates value: the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next. The profession of science creates value: the discovery of new knowledge. The profession of art creates value: objects that express and evoke important human themes. In each profession, some individuals act unethically. But such individuals are quite rightly not taken as representative of the nature of education, science, art.
Business, however, is placed by most ethicists in a special, problematic category. In doing so, most contemporary business ethics does business a disservice. Worse than that, its proposed cures are plagued with intended and unintended consequences that are often much worse than the problems it is attempting to solve. So my task today is fourfold.
- To delineate the axioms of current business ethics—namely that self interest and the profit motive are not moral, and that selflessness is required for ethical behavior.
- To probe the underlying ethical‐theoretical considerations that lead to the rejection of self interest and the promotion of selflessness—namely, that economics is a zero‐sum game and that human nature is inherently destructive.
- To argue that a rational conception of self interest solves the problems caused by taking human nature to be destructive or economics to be zero‐sum—namely that humans are ends in themselves, that requirements of production are primary in ethics, and that reason applied to production eliminates the zero‐sum scenario.
- To sketch what an ethic of rational self interest implies for business ethics—namely, that all parties be seen as self-responsible agents who interact only to mutually agreed upon terms.
The Contemporary Literature: Business as Amoral or Immoral
In the current literature in business ethics, business is assumed to be at best an amoral enterprise, and the expectation is often that business practice is more likely than not to be immoral.
The reason for this is a nearly universally held thesis among business ethics: that moral considerations and the considerations that generally drive business are in completely different categories. Business is driven by self interest and profit, but for all major business ethicists self interest and profit are either amoral or immoral.
Alex Michalos, philosopher and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Business Ethics, writes: “Insofar as one is acting primarily in the interest of increasing profit, it is trivially true that one’s primary interest is not in doing what is morally right.” Michalos’ point is that it is not even arguable that profit-seeking and moral behavior are in different categories.
Two philosophically informed business professors write in Academy of Management Review: “Two normative views are common ... . The first holds that, because executive level managers are agents for shareholders, maximizing the present value of the firm is the appropriate motivating principle for management. The second (e.g., normative stakeholder theory) holds that principled moral reasoning ought to motivate management decisions.” Here we contrast moral reasoning with maximizing the firm’s owners’ self interest.
Amartya Sen, Harvard philosopher and economist, writes in a book on the relation between ethics and economics: “The self-interest view of rationality involves inter alia a firm rejection of the ‘ethics‐related’ view of motivation.” Here we contrast self interested motivation and ethical motivation.
Al Gini, co-author with leading business ethicist Tom Donaldson: “Doing the right thing because it’s fashionable or in your own best interest doesn’t ethically count—even if the desired results are achieved.” Here we read that ethics is not concerned with self interest.
The list could be extended indefinitely. It is worth noting that the above quotations are taken from moderates in business ethics, i.e., from those who do not see themselves as in principle hostile to business or as wanting total government regulation of economic activity. The point is simply that the separation of ethics and self‐interest is taken as axiomatic in current business ethics literature.
Participants in the literature then divide into two groups:
- Those who think morality and self interest are in different categories—
but do not think there is a general antagonism between the two.
- Those who think morality and self interest are in different categories—
and that there is a general antagonism between the two.
Members of the first group hold that the results of self interested and moral consideration will sometimes conflict and sometimes coincide. The general purpose of business ethics, then, is to get businesses always to consider their actions from a moral in addition to a self interested perspective and, if a conflict should arise, to be willing to sacrifice self interest.
Members of the second group argue that morality is opposed to self interest. For example, philosopher Norman Bowie writes: “The conscious pursuit of self-interest by all members of society has the collective result of undermining the interests of all.” Business ethicist Oliver Williams reports the conclusion of a conference on business ethics: “...there would be no facile resolution of the conflict between the values of a just society and the sharply opposing values of successful corporations.” William Shaw and Vincent Barry, authors of a widely‐used business ethics textbook, write: “Morality serves to restrain our purely self-interested desires so we can all live together.” In each case, self interest is the enemy—of justice, morality and the collective interest. Again, the list of quotations could be extended indefinitely.
For members of this second group, accordingly, the general purpose of business ethics is different: it is to oppose the self interested practices of business in the name of morality, to try to get businesses generally to limit their profit seeking, to get businesses to distribute more altruistically whatever profits they do make, and to strengthen other social institutions capable of opposing the advance of business interests.