What is self interest? Self interest is energy, it’s what kicks living beings into action, what pushes them to sustain themselves and improve their condition, what propels them to multiply and to live. No movement will ever occur without an initiating force, and no action will be taken by a human being without the force of the will to do it. Under compulsion or the threat of danger, the will is to preserve yourself; set free, the will is to expand and seek pleasure. In all circumstances, the will aims to further the self, however that self is defined. To die for your family is to preserve your offspring, to die for your comrades is to preserve your honor. To contribute your life to society is to work to reshape the conditions around you to be those that you consider favorable to yourself. Co-operation occurs when the forces of self interest of disparate parties are aligned, not when they are denied. To deny self interest is to deny the very energy that sustains life.
Self interest is amoral in the sense that it is not a moral choice, it is merely the energy that fuels our actions and our will to live. Morality only applies in how this energy is to be used, and indeed, whether it is to be suppressed or maximized. Just as a steel blade can be used as a tool to carve objects, to defend life, or to kill, self interest can be put to uses creative or destructive. Society is what structures human community into a formation that is more or less favorable to the majority of those taking part in it. The purpose of a system of moral values is to figure out alignments of interest of the individuals in the community. The creation of moral principles is the method of ordering that community towards their shared goals. Self interest is what moves every individual to action, a moral framework is what guides this energy towards common directions, or at the very least, prevents paths from crossing and thus clashes of interest from taking place. Too much restraint will dampen or even destroy the energy, too much freedom will result in violent clashes.
Selfishness is a word that bears negative connotation in our society. Ayn Rand made the mistake of trying to redefine the word in her philosophy by explaining the creative nature of self interested individuals. Her fault was to attempt to clean up the reputation of a word that was already tarnished beyond repair, and as a result, her critics keep attacking her using her own quotes but their own interpretations of them. Instead: let the word roll down the direction it’s heading, and rather than trying to redefine it, refine the definition: selfish actions are those that harm others for your own gain. It is the case of clashes of interest, of one’s interest prevailing over that of others, your own gain being someone else’s loss. Simply put: selfishness is a force of self interest breaking accepted moral principles to the harm of others. Self interest is the fuel, yes, but it is an ever present force in us all and is not the cause of the clash. The cause is the choice of the individual to transgress accepted moral values.
Self interest is like a current of life flowing across our world, reshaping and remolding it in its path. The objective of our society should not be to try to stop it completely in order to prevent violent clashes with other currents, or to build dams so that the flow is suppressed to a few measly drops that don’t cause anyone any harm, nor do anyone any good. Our objective should be to direct and maximize it so that each and every member of society can realize their full potential without hindering that of others. Denying the force of self interest destroys the very thing that drives us to action. Recognizing it as the very fuel of life and using reason to direct it to our gain allows us to shape our world and our future in a way that is creative, not destructive. Recognizing limits and moral principles that restrain this force in order to prevent it harming others lets us live in a society that allows us to live and work together in peace and co-operation.
Self interest is not something bad or undesirable, it is the opposite — it is what fuels our life and allows for our existence and continued progress — what’s undesirable are the choices we make in how we direct this force for our own ends — i.e. our values and principles — whether we choose to deceive, fight and loot others for our own gain, or whether we choose to recognize and respect human rights and work together towards an outcome that is profitable to each, all the while mindful of our own choices, ensuring we create rather than destroy, that we carve our own path rather than transgress the ground of another.