Harmony of Interests

One of the big issues in ethics is how we should interact with other people. In a more conventional ethics, other people are the center of the ethical universe. When there's nobody around, you have the problem that ethics doesn't really give you guidance. Or perhaps you need to use a different standard when you're alone. But for reasons already explained, Objectivism requires a single standard of value, your life. So the question is, how do other people fit into your ethical framework. How should you treat them? How should you interact with them?

This thread isn't aimed at answering how we interact with other people, but in discussing the context in which we make that decision. We have to remember that our own lives are our ethical standards, and our method of interacting with other people is going to be dependent on how they fit into that picture. If they're fundamentally a threat to our lives, we shouldn't be nice to them or try to interact with them in a positive way. If they're of enormous benefit to our lives, we shouldn't hurt or insult them. So to understand general principles of social interaction, we have to establish the proper context.

The first general question is whether there is a fundamental harmony, or disharmony, of interests between men. If the interests between men are fundamentally opposed, then one man's gain is another man's loss. We'd be locked in a battle where the only way to get ahead is to destroy the people around you. This is a pretty common view of man, and leads to the belief that someone who's "selfish" is necessarily gaining by hurting others. With that kind of view, the only way for people to get along is through constant sacrifice. It would mean that people need to resist their desires to get ahead in life or they'll make enemies of everyone.

One common belief behind this "disharmony of interests" belief is the idea of zero-sum wealth. The idea is that there is a limited about of wealth in the world, and the only way to get some is to take it from the "pool" of wealth in existence. But of course, if you take some out of this common pool, you leave less for everyone else. Your gain is their loss.

Objectivism rejects this zero-sum view of wealth. Wealth is produced, not just distributed. An easy example is the fact that we have computers today, and no such thing existed a hundred years ago. We didn't take the computers from some pool of existing wealth...we created it. We take what is essentially useless, silicon, and create incredibly useful tools out of it. All wealth is like this. To consume, the wealth needs to be produced first. We create the wealth, not out of nothing, but out of less useful things.

The biggest problem with the zero-sum world is that it almost requires that the wealth exists in an already packaged product available by nature to us. Take oil, for instance. Imagine we start running out (we're not even close), and so one person's gain starts becoming another person's loss. The question of whether there's a problem can't be answered in a void. You can't compare whether it'd be better to not have people using oil, or allowing them to.

The alternative is really between a world where we get none of the benefits of other people, and one in which we do. You can't hypothesize a world where other people produce the oil for you, pipeline it to your home, build you a car, build you roads, and everything else except use oil. To say that there's a fundamental disharmony of interests means that people are necessarily a drain on your life. It means that for you to thrive, you must do it at the expense of other people, and you'd be better off without them.

Obviously Objectivism rejects this idea. We accept that instead of a disharmony of interests, there really is a harmony of interests. In a market-based society, one man's gain is also the gain of another man, and often to many men. When someone makes it rich running an airline company, they don't just take your money from you. They provide you with a service you wouldn't have otherwise. And since you're voluntarily trading one value for another, there's no reason to believe you're losing. The free-market allows both parties of a transaction to win. By taking something that is more valuable for one party, and trading it with what's more valuable to the other party, both sides gain from it. In other words, your gain is beneficial to others as well.

There are lots of other reasons to support the fundamental harmony of interests. Concepts like economies of scale, and economies of scope show that much more wealth can be produced when people cooperate with one another. The extent of technology is not limited by what a single person can understand, but is multiplied by having a large population with specialized knowledge. There are things like talent, foresight, and genius that everyone benefits from in a free-market, and if you were living alone you would miss out on. In countless ways our lives are improved by the existence of other people.

And this is just an abstract sense of the idea. In more concrete terms, our lives are enriched by others in more personal ways. We have loves, friendships, business partners, teachers, role models, etc. We gain different values from each of these relationships.

Now it's obvious to most people that sometimes you don't get what you want when someone else does. If someone else wins the lottery, that means you didn't. If someone else gets that promotion at work, then you don't. It's from this perspective that it's often believed that a disharmony of interests must exist. After all, if one gains, the other loses. You can't please everyone.

Rand argued that there was no conflict of interests between rational men. This is a powerful statement, and if understood can provide a number of insights. For instance, when men are irrational, they come into conflict all the time. If I want to have your car, without paying for it, we're going to have a conflict. When men are irrational, there whims guide them, and of course their whims can contradict one another.

Notice she wrote of "interests", not "desires". Nobody could make the claim that one's desires will always mesh with other people. If you want something, and they want it to, and only one of you can have it, there would be a conflict. Even between rational men. Instead of discussing desires, she wanted to keep the discussion objective. What's actually in your interest. And is there a conflict between them and other people? At a fundamental level, no. That should be easy to see. A person living alone in the woods won't have nearly the life-expectancy or available actions in their life that someone has in civilization. For more on that topic, see her essay titled "The Conflicts of Men's Interests".

So instead of viewing men's lives as being fundamentally in opposition, Objectivism recognizes that they are fundamentally in harmony, or at least can be under the right conditions. We're better off living in free society than with no society. One man's gain is usually a benefit to the people around him, especially his customers. Cooperation and peaceful interaction are beneficial to our lives. We don't just make the best of a bad situation (having to deal with other people). We recognize it as a supremely beneficial value in our lives.

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