Enlightened Self-Interest

See my blog at http://brazilbrat.blogspot.com/

There is no substantive evidence for an omnipotent father-figure deity as postulated by the Christian/Jewish/Islamic tradition. So without religion can there be morality? Certainly, because true moral behavior is based upon simple self-interest. The guiding ethic is to truly act in your own best interest. That would mean treating all people fairly, honestly and, as it says in the Hippocratic Oath, “Cause no harm.” Religions invent all other “sins” to increase their control over people.

People such as atheists practice what I term enlightened self-interest. An individual’s self-interest is best served by doing no harm to others except in defense of themselves or those in their care. This thinking does not need threats of eternal punishment to follow, It only requires thinking about what will ultimately yield the best results for yourself. Treating others fairly and generously is always better for yourself, personally, financially, and socially.

For example, robbing a bank may yield temporary wealth, but at the expense of either a prison term or a life of fear, running from the law. Similarly, cheating others in business dealings may increase profits for a time. Eventually, your reputation will be so poor that your business may fail. This is a simple principle that “It’s always cheaper to make a customer happy than it is to make him angry.” That same idea can pay dividends in ordinary human relations. For reasons I don’t understand, few businesses or people appreciate this idea. Maybe it’s because they operate on deist principles? Everything is forgiven if you repent before you die. Although that wouldn’t seem to help those you cheated, treated badly or even murdered.

So should nothing be discouraged? Should everything be permitted? Capable, informed individuals could engage in any activity that interests them even if it puts them personally at risk.

An example would be an automobile race. It is certainly dangerous to drive at racing speeds and it is equally dangerous to stand near the race course to observe or record this event. Two people may choose to do these things if they understand and accept the risks involved.

One question that arises from this would be, what if one or both of these people have a spouse and children that depend upon them for financial and emotional support? Should they still do this knowing that if they are injured or killed it will cause some degree of harm to these dependents? If they choose to do so, does anyone else have the right to prevent them?

Those are ethical questions that can and should be debated, but each person must be free to choose his own answer. No other person, religion, or government should have the right to make these choices for us. You can do what you want if you are prepared for all possible consequences, no matter how remote the possibility.

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Comment by Sky Ironplow on December 15, 2009 at 5:05am
Very true Jaume and I do think the other "group" does own all of the guns in my tiny town.
Comment by Jaume on December 15, 2009 at 4:57am
To me 'enlightened/rational self-interest' is just another way to spell 'reciprocal altruism', if you want the benefits of self-interest to be effective in the long term. The only difference is one of scale: self-interest is to the individual what reciprocal altruism is to the society or the species, and they go hand-in-hand (or it's likely we'd be an extinct species by now.)

As a social species, our self-interest is best sought after through trade and cooperation with others (unless you and you cronies own all the guns in the area, but this is a rather uncommon case). So we make deals with others, and sometimes we accept little sacrifices while others reap larger benefits (like 'wasting' a minute of our time to help a stranger looking for directions, so that they don't lose an hour of theirs), expecting (but with no absolute certainty) to get the same kind of favor from other people in the future.

Globally, in the end, it's a win-win trade. And that's the most solid basis for decent morals and ethics I can think of. No god involved.
Comment by Sky Ironplow on December 15, 2009 at 2:47am
I really liked your post. I felt what you were 'saying' was fairly clear. And I agree with it, I don't know if I would have before called it self interest, I have always referred to it as self-survival. But now I see that it is self interest, learning to adapt, understanding consequence for actions taken, that an individuals best interest is best served by doing no harm to others. I have never felt that any god(s) and their be good or else had any merit. I have just always been kind and empathetic towards others. (was actually rebelling against my own upbringing, kind of If they were vicious, I would damn well be nice attitude) I do not believe one needs a 'god' to be a decent, compassionate person. And I think common sense must be a strong component of a person. I think one of the reasons there are so many rules and laws is that so many people lack common sense. If I can't see, then I shouldn't drive and if I cannot reason that, then people who care about me should help me come to grips with understanding that I should no longer drive. I agree with thinking out the consequences of things, I have several 'religious' friends who have learned severe lessons that playing with fire is not in their best interest, nor in the interest of others. I am not sure how well they've learned from their mistakes, (I won't see em for another oh, 20 yrs, less if they behave, I've heard:). I am probably rambling, sorry, I've just had several people tell me they don't understand how I seem so ethical to them when I don't believe in god, that it felt really good to find a post where people just believe in being decent without having to have a "higher power' relationship.
Comment by James Smith on December 13, 2009 at 8:31am
Or the only one reading LOL! YOu don't seem to be the least bit thick to me.
Comment by James Smith on December 13, 2009 at 8:07am
Obviously, I didn't make it clear that self-interest does mean "scratch you back, you scratch mine". Doing harm to others, except in self-defense is never in one's self interest. I thought that was clear in the part about treating others honestly and fairly. What is contradictory about "Cause no harm" and "treating others honestly and fairly"?

Perhaps I didn't make "enlightened self-interest" as explicit as I should have. I was trying for brevity, but maybe I went too far?

Acting truly in one's own best interest does mean being co-operative with others. Survival has always been easiest for those that are co-operative and adaptable. So it is in own best self-interest to be that way as well as honest and fair in all our dealings. The reward/punishment part is obvious, at least to me. You behave well and treat other well, you prosper. If you are selfish and dishonest, things can go very badly.

Maybe I need to re-write that piece. Perhaps it wasn't as clear as I thought. Thanks for helping me to think about that. As a writer, I know one should never edit his own work, especially for clarity. A mechanical edit for spelling, punctuation, and grammar is easy. Editing for effect is hard because we see what we thought we wrote. LOL
Comment by James Smith on December 13, 2009 at 6:41am
Glen, "So should nothing be discouraged? Should everything be permitted?" Were questions, not statements of what should be. I thought everyone understood that? How should I have expressed it then?
Comment by James Smith on December 13, 2009 at 5:47am
Glen, I suspect you missed my point. That's probably my fault for not expressing it clearly. I was using that instance as an example. Perhaps too extreme of an example, if it was so readily misunderstood.

I never said "no rules" and I have never supported anarchy. Well, I once made bumper sticker saying "Anarchists Unite!" but so few people understood the joke....

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