In moral terms I describe myself as egoist, one who acts in accordance with one’s own rational self-interest. Opponents tend to label it “selfishness”; and in fact some proponents of rational self-interest – such as Ayn Rand – take that label themselves. I agree with much of what Rand argued, but I think her acceptance and use of the term selfishness was a tactical blunder, because once that word is used to describe one’s ethical outlook you find your viewpoint blacklisted. Like it or not but we live in times in which altruism is regarded to be one of the highest virtues. Selfishness, by comparison, is anathema.

I’ve never took to the word selfishness. I’ve always preferred the, albeit more obscure, description “rational self-interest.” In fact, I would go so far as to say that there are differences between the two. I think the difference lies in the use of the word ‘rational.’ Selfishness is self-interest without the rational element, and I’ll explain that statement later.

Whenever I’ve discussed my moral position I’ve typically faced three questions: “So, do you love your wife solely for your own benefit?” “If you were trapped in a burning building would you save yourself and let your son die?” “So, you shouldn’t really bother giving to charity then – to hell with everyone else?” Such questions as these are almost always given as rhetorical: the obvious answers being “no” to all three, and therefore the implication being that there is something wrong with rational self-interest, or at least with my claim to live according to it.

But, lets take a closer look at each of these scenarios above. I’m in a burning house and have two options: I could jump out of the window and guarantee my own survival, or I could risk my life and try to save my son too, or instead of me. Lets go even further and add that if I try to save my son I will probably die in the process. If I decide to save him does this go against my claim to live in accordance with my own rational self-interest? Surely not. I know that if I didn’t try to save my son my own life would be unbearable, my own quality of life would be drastically hindered if not ruined if I knew I saved myself and just allowed him to die. So taking the risk to save him actually is in my own rational self-interest. Perhaps a selfish person would simply save themselves. But such a person isn’t thinking of the bigger picture or the longer term effect of their actions; they aren’t acting rationally. They have no regard for how their decision will impact their own life and well-being, and they lack understanding of how the fate of other people does indeed affect us.

As a person acting in my own rational self-interest I realise that I am not an isolated individual. My own happiness is inextricably linked to the happiness of other people – not all other people, but particularly those who are my family and friends. On occasions it might well be that my longer term happiness is furthered by putting the happiness of someone else before my own immediate happiness. In extreme cases I may rightly desire to die if doing so I can save someone like my own son. It seems clear enough to me that sacrifice is consistent with a philosophy of rational self-interest.

And now to look at love. Do I only love my wife for my own benefit? I love to ask those who use this challenge why they are with their own partner. Solely for the benefit of their partner? Hardly. They first found their partner physically attractive, emotionally engaging, mentally stimulating and socially enjoyable. They therefore wanted to spend more time with their partner, because it made them happy, excited, uplifted, loved and wanted. I have yet to meet anyone who found someone ugly, emotionally repellent, mind numbingly stupid, boring, no fun to be with, and yet married them anyway out of altruistic motives. And how would someone feel upon being told by their partner that there is nothing of value in them, nothing attractive, nothing positive – that they were married out of altruistic pity. But, comes the retort, how would your wife feel if you told her you only married her for your own benefit? Again the question is misguided. Those who act for their own rational self-interest will know that their own happiness is bound up with other people – particularly those we love. Marriages are two way: my wife and I endeavour to make each other happy, and thus ultimately increase the happiness we experience over and above what we might have if we were apart. Rather than being insulting is it not a great compliment to my wife that out of 6 billion human beings on the planet I chose her as the one who can make me happier than anyone else? That in my eyes she’s the single best person alive? Love is not altruistic when it’s outside of Hollywood. To think it is is what destroys love, for it puts an unbearable demand on us: to love and give without concern for getting anything in return. Human beings aren’t built for that, and a philosophy of rational self-interest is the only one that is both realistic and true to human nature. Conceiving of love in altruistic terms might be considered romantic but it’s utterly unrealistic, and quite possibly contributes to the high divorce rates we find today.

And lastly charity. Those who act in their own rational self-interest will ignore the needs of everyone else – is that true? I must say that on occasions egoists have not given a good account of themselves. I would love Ayn Rand to have given a more positive appraisal of charity. I’ve read numerous articles from the Ayn Rand Institute which seem to disparage charity as sacrificing oneself for the benefit of others. That’s a pity. I support two charities, one of which involves sponsoring a child in the Dominican Republic. Why do that? Often capitalists are charged with putting money before everything else. But we don’t. Personal happiness is our sine qua non, which is why a capitalist will gladly pay £200 for a dinner – a loss of money in exchange for something that will bring a little bit of happiness and enjoyment. Not everything is valued according to financial return on investment, and this is one of the biggest misunderstandings in the minds of capitalism’s opponents. Sponsoring a child costs me money that I will never see again. But I enjoy doing it. I love investing in the life of a young kid, and the knowledge that I’m able to help make his life better and give him a better future in turn makes me happy and to me makes the investment worthwhile. My rational self-interest is not compromised.

Seeing the bigger picture, having a view of the long term, and realising that our own happiness is often inextricably linked to that of others is what separates rational self-interest from selfishness, and what defends it from the criticisms of altruism.

Stephen Graham