#011 The Communal Interest
“Man — every man — is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself” (Ayn Rand)
Suppose Ayn Rand, in this statement, had it right.
What if pure self-interest - acting in a way that only benefits ourselves, and pure selfless (altruistic) interest, acting in a way that benefits only others, are equally dangerous in that they have the potential to make us resentful, inconsiderate, socially unappealing or bitter.
I contend selfishness & altruism are in fact the two extremes of social morality - putting our own interests above the interests of others, or sacrificing our own interests for the interests of others, are both objectively unfair, through irrationally favouring the self over the other or vice versa, and therefore unbalanced and unethical.
Is it not rational then to conclude, acting in ‘the communal interest’, a way which benefits both ourselves and the other(s), where real ethical value lies? given any situation where more than one person is in any way affected.
In seeking a balance between ‘pure’ egoism and ‘pure’ altruism, we can find a balanced outcome that satisfies both ourselves and others, one which avoids a self-centred outlook, which can alienate our fellow human beings, but one which at the same time avoids the erroneous idea our self interests, preferences and desires do not and should not matter.
If everyone thought this way, happiness would grow exponentially as, generally speaking, the more people act with your interests in mind, the more you are likely to act with their interests in mind.
Therefore all decent societies should be built around striving toward the communal interest and this morality should also be at the heart of an individual’s aspirations, however the logical conclusions of this argument are interesting in that actions which may appear self-centred or greedy on first glance, for instance charging a small amount of interest on lending a friend money, actually becomes ethically reasonable, as this way everyone benefits, meaning, following an agreement, the lender does not feel taken advantage of, and the borrower gets earlier access to money than he or she would otherwise get.
Another example and logical conclusion of this line of thinking, is a communal food access system, where everyone in a household both contributes and takes from the supply unrestricted. Whereas on the surface such a thing may appear selfless, hippy or altruistic, it actually benefits everyone to contribute to the food supply (directly & indirectly) because it means there is more food to share between everyone, including themselves. This example is common sense and represents, more broadly, the idea a national taxation system should be based on, where everyone pays in, according to their ability, and similarly takes from depending on their need. As long as these systems aren’t abused, which in theory they wouldn’t be if everyone strived to follow this communal interest ethic rationally, they work very effectively, both practically & philosophically.
A further example could be the concept behind the National Lottery. The National Lottery is effectively a great way of encouraging people to donate their money to charitable causes, as they do it not out of pure altruism, but because they know there is a small chance it can benefit them financially, potentially even life-changingly so. By mixing self interest with altruistic sacrifice, in this case involving money but the currency could equally be time, effort, goods and so on, the National Lottery is able to generate 34 million pounds on average per week for a variety of causes, alongside changing individual lives who happen to get lucky.
For the majority of cases ‘the communal interest’ makes sense, but are there situations where pure or near pure egoism, or pure or near pure altruism, are or become justifiable?
Can pure altruism even ever really exist?
‘Utilitarianism’ philosophy holds that ‘the best moral action is the one that maximises utility’ where utility is defined as ‘the aggregate pleasure after deducting suffering of all involved in any action’, so under this reasoning altruism would be ethical if the other’s gain outweighed the individual’s loss, meaning the net effect of the action is positive overall. For instance a situation could occur where the gain of an altruistic act, far outweighed the loss, say a stranger asks to use your mobile phone with unlimited minutes for a quick but necessary phone call. The giver would lose a very small amount of time, a little bit of effort and no money but the receiver could potentially benefit massively from this act.
However in practice it is very difficult to compare one action against another in terms of virtue, for instance, the act of giving a deprived person on the street you have never met £100 or a day of your time (or both), with a view to help them out of their bad situation, with no self interest at all in mind (pure-altruism). What value does this money or time have to you (when given away) and what benefit can it bring the other, how does this compare? it surely depends on what the time or money was spent on, how much money you have, your own time and financial commitments and so on.
So whilst there are further depths to consider in certain circumstances, where (near) altruism may have a role to play, for most scenarios the communal interest idea holds ethically.
The places where utilitarianism and altruism may come into play morally however, remain subjective and generally rare overall.