To the Editor:
As he did in his review of David Kelley's Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence, Loren Lomasky again dismisses the philosophy of ethical egoism in his review of Tibor Machan's Generosity. He apparently disagrees with the notion that "one ought to act in the way that most advances one's own good." Perhaps he would prefer a principle of "sort of, sometimes" acting in one's own interests? Or perhaps, even better, acting in a way that is most destructive of one's own good?
Reflecting his treatment of the idea of benevolence, Lomasky merely asserts that "Selfish people are not generous" and that selfishness is not a virtue. For him, selfishness is a "constricting...framework." While he accuses Machan of "significantly distorting" the views of other philosophers, I fear Lomasky is guilty of the same charge. Rational selfishness hardly precludes acting in ways that benefit other people more than oneself. It does, however, reject the notion of sacrifice (when that concept is understood as knowingly engaging in actions which diminish or are destructive to one's values).
Lomasky seems somewhat to recognize this latter point in his statement that an egoist believes he "ought to act in the way that most advance's [his] own good" and that one should not diminish one's own interests. This idea becomes a problem, however, only if one's notion of one's "interests" are viewed in the short term and on a strict tit-for-tat basis. (This is the error Lomasky made in his review of Kelley's book.)
An ethical egoist, however, views his life in the long term. Generous actions can be seen as an investment in that future. Even if done for a stranger, a generous action should arise from a respect for one's rational values...including the value of seeing deserving others enjoy a better life. Because a rationally selfish person values life, values happiness, values a society in which human life is promoted, he can (selfishly) aid others even if doing so will increase his welfare (in the short term, at least) less than that of those he helps.
For me, generous actions are virtuous, in part, because they help to achieve the kind of world in which I want to live. The benefits I receive may, indeed, be "side-effects" and may not be "primarily" what I "aim at," but there is no contradiction here with selfishness...unless, again, as Lomasky does, one equates those benefits and aims solely with the immediate and the short term.
For example, on a plane, I may engage in a personal conversation with a stranger because I realize he may need that type of release to deal with some problem. That conversation may cost me a bit of time in the present when I might be doing other things, e.g., reading (and, indeed, that person's problem may be of little real importance to me as an individual ), but I can still be generous with my time and listening skills if I believe this person will benefit...even if he benefits more in the present than do I. I can simply take pleasure in seeing a fellow human being be happier. Yes, I have tried "to make their world more hospitable," but for an Objectivist/ethical egoist/rationally selfish person such as myself, this fits nicely in with my philosophy of voluntary, chosen action.
I don't know the source or reasons for Lomasky's antipathy to ethical egoism, but his characterization of that philosophy and its practitioners -- including those such as myself and Machan -- is wrong and "well, ungenerous."