Capitalism Resources

Self-Interest and Egoism

Capitalism begins with the individual as the primary unit of political, social, and economic life. It recognizes that each individual has moral sovereignty over his own life. Each man must choose his own course of action—whether he becomes a CEO or a day laborer—according to some moral code. In a capitalist system, it is morally proper for individuals in general, and businessmen in particular, to pursue their own self-interest. Underlying the system of capitalism is a morality of egoism.

The inventor who designs a new factory tool to save human labor power to the financier who devises a new method for allocating capital to worthy ventures, those who produce material goods—the lifeblood of capitalism—do so because it serves their own interests. These producers produce not because it serves others or helps the poor; they do so because they have a deep selfish motive for doing so—it advances their own well-being. Each individual faces the same basic choice, he must either act to produce or labor for the values he needs to survive and, ultimately, to flourish, or he faces poverty, sickness, and, ultimately, death. Each must choose to produce the material values necessary for his survival. From the primitive tools used for hunting to advanced factories that create computers, human beings have had to produce in order to survive. Man's needs—winter coats, MRI machines, apartment homes, televisions, etc.—are not provided by nature, they must be created.

All of these goods came about because some individuals acted in their own interest in pursuing their own survival. Every great producer, from Thomas Edison to Henry Ford to Sam Walton, has been driven by what most satisfies and fulfills his own life. Although each of these men has greatly benefited humanity by providing it with light bulbs, cheap automobiles, or cheap consumer retailing, his motive in working toward these ends must be his own satisfaction and fulfillment. Each of these men, and the millions of producers throughout history, have enjoyed a personal and selfish reward in the act of production itself. The uncountable hours of labor, mental energy, and effort that each put into the act of production could only have been possible if the work itself was personally rewarding. It was for their own lives, first and foremost, that they acted, not for the social consequences of their work.

The act of pursuing one's goals does not come automatically; these goals must be discovered and chosen. Likewise, the means of pursuing those goals is not built into human nature; they, too, must be discovered. Scientists, businessmen, inventors, and other creative individuals throughout history have had to confront their circumstances and figure out what things are good for human life and what things harm it. They have ascertained, for example, that some foods provide optimal nutrition and others cause disease or even death. They have learned that building homes with good airflow and light promote human life whereas dank and dark hovels do not. At a deeper level, though, their process of establishing these basic requirements for survival points to a deeper truth—that certain methods of making one's choices and pursuing one's values leads to success and happiness and that other methods lead to pain, suffering, and death. The method that leads to human flourishing is the method of reason.