6.5 Capitalism and the Common Good

So, what then about the capitalist’s argument that we should practice “tough love,” and not help others in order to encourage them to help themselves? In certain situations this seems like the best way to get the best outcome for all of us – if I run a business in a competitive industry, I will be forced by market forces to produce the best products for prices that people will want to pay, and that make me enough of a profit to want to stay in business. I want what is best for me – profits – and my customers want what is best for them – products that are of acceptable quality and cost for their needs. So selfish individual behavior can lead to an overall outcome that is best for all of us. So far so good. There are two problems, however, with this argument. The first is that competition is not always the best way of producing the best outcome for all involved. In some industries competition helps both the producer and the consumer – competition forces the producer to keep prices lower and quality higher. But is this the case in all markets? What about, for example, health care? If we opened up health care to free competition this would mean that hospitals and other health care providers would be offering a service to consumers for the sake of making profits. If the consumer was dissatisfied with the services offered she could just go elsewhere next time and this would encourage health care providers to lower prices and increase the quality of their services. This all sounds good, until we realize that there is something very different between consumer goods and health care services. When I am sick, I often do not have the time or the ability to shop around for the best health care – I need help now. And if I am not satisfied with the poor services offered to me at one hospital as treatment for my illness, I may not get the chance to go elsewhere next time, since there may be no next time. So, and this is a technical point that probably needs much more development to be thoroughly convincing, not all social institutions would be benefit from being opened up to competition, even if in certain cases competition is beneficial.

There is, however a deeper problem with the capitalist’s argument for egoism. Granted that at times competition for selfish gain leads to a better outcome for all of us, we may wonder why an egoism – someone who claims that selfishness is acceptable – even cares about the good of everyone. If we are defending egoism, doesn’t it seem strange to base our argument on a concern for others? Can we even really be defending selfishness in this way? If we claim that selfish behavior can produce good outcomes for all of us, then we are putting our selfish impulses to work for society and not subordinating social concerns to selfish concerns. So calling this argument an argument for egoism is really incoherent, it makes no sense to be claiming that we should always be selfish because that is the way to insure that everyone benefits.

Finally, we have the last argument for Ethical Egoism to deal with. This argument claimed to establish that we should always be selfish because even ethical rules only really encourage us to do what is in our self-interest anyway. I called this the “revisionist argument” since it tries to revise ethical rules in a way that turns them into rules that even purely self-interested people would be willing to accept. The problem here is that when we revise ethics in this way, we lose something important about ethical rules. It might be nice if ethical rules were things that even the most self-involved people among us could easily live with, but unfortunately that is not the case. Ethics makes demands on us that we can’t always just simply accept. For example, even though at times refraining from lying is really in my own best interest, since it helps to maintain trust between myself and others upon whom I rely to tell me the truth, this is not always the case. If there is an ethical rule about usually not lying, it is because at times it probably seems to me that it is in my selfish interest to lie to others, even if there are larger reasons not to lie. Ethical rules frequently ask us to set our self-interest aside for the sake of larger goals or purposes. Of course, we have not yet seen why we should ever do this. But to claim that ethics does not ever really do this is to throw out the proverbial baby with the bath water. If ethics is really reducible to self-interest, merely throwing out those parts of ethics that conflict with self-interest is no way to show this. And all we have to do to seem that it is probably not reducible in this way to consider any situation in which ethics makes demands on us not to do something that it is in our self-interest to do.

Looking ahead

We have seen in this chapter why it is that, as tempting as it might be, we cannot defend selfishness as a fundamental obstacle in the way of ethics. We saw this in the collapse of two different theories in defense of selfishness, Psychological and Ethical Egoism. Neither of these positions stands up to scrutiny and so we are now in a position to move forward with some attempts to finally say what a rationally defensible ethics might look like. As we will see, there are three main ways of proceeding here which go by the names of Social Contract Theory, Utilitarianism and and Kant’s Ethics of Duty. In spite of their differences, all three are attempts to answer the question of why a rational agent like you or me should sometimes set our own interests aside and act for the sake of other people. Each has been and continues to be enormously influential not just in philosophy but also in our public lives, since each articulates a comprehensive picture of the basis of our social lives. We’ll look at each in a chapter on its own.