The Purpose of Life is Not Happiness, It is Usefulness.: The difference between self-interest and selfishness.

John Cousins
February 7, 2023
7 min read
Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash

Do you find yourself partying too much or pining for extravagant get-away vacations? Are you working for the weekend? Do you get caught up in TGIF and come down on Sunday evening and Monday morning?

Acting ethically is how we create a life we don’t ache to escape.

A person who makes selfish choices or acts contrary to their conscience can never be at peace. Making great money working in a company whose purpose you question can feel schizo.

Many companies start out with an idealistic mission and diverge as they mature. Juul and Facebook come to mind.

The fundamental concept that falls out of business pursuits is how we conduct ourselves and treat others when pursuing an opportunity. This question is central to business ethics.

Ethics is foundational to proper management and leadership practice.

Business ethics examines ethical principles and problems that arise in a business environment. It applies to business conduct. Ethics is relevant to the behavior of individuals and organizations.

Ethics is not merely a business concern; it is a human concern.

Ethics is the study of how to live a good life. We want our lives to be meaningful, and as such, we want our business activities and the way we make our living to be significant and useful. We want meaning and purpose to drive our pursuits.

Think of developing business skills and knowledge as a way to impress your personal stamp on the world effectively and beneficially, not as an oblique strategy to become successful as a way to impress others with your success.

I chose the word “meaningful” on purpose because that is the center-piece of thinking about ethics concerning business activities. Our goal should be to make a positive impact on people’s lives, including our own.

We live in a time of increased latitude about creating our careers and interacting directly with customers. Our responsibilities in such situations require us to have a firm grasp of ethical behavior. People and brands must deliver on their promise. And part of that promise should be, first, do no harm.

Ethical issues arise in business settings as a result of the tension between the profit-maximizing behavior of capitalism and non-economic concerns. The profit-maximizing behavior may derive from the perspective of the individual, a group, a corporation, or country.

Many questionable business practices can be profitable or expedient. We must all decide how we behave and promote our business activities, and what business activities we choose to pursue and participate in.

Business ethics seems to be taught primarily as a reaction to highly publicized lapses of underlying ethical conduct by stewards of corporations like Enron, WorldCom, Bernie Madoff, Arthur Andersen, the savings and loan scandals of the late 1980s, the banking and financial crises of 2008, and FIFA.

We hear about many cautionary tales of personal greed perverting the decisions and behavior of people in positions of responsibility and power. The actors change, but the story is always the same. Its all about scandal and fraud.

Power is not only abused for financial gain. Sexual misconduct is another example of abusing power.

Business ethics has been added to MBA programs in recent years ostensibly as an antidote and preventative measure to this kind of behavior. Businesses have also added Codes of Ethics and Social Responsibility to their mission statements as ways of acknowledging the dilemma.

It is questionable whether these efforts address the issue at large in any practical way. People have an innate sense of right and wrong. Yet this innate ethical sense is challenged when the right decisions fly contrary to personal gain.

There are obvious issues to address, such as “don’t steal and don’t lie.” These bromides are often quoted without any context. They are trite and unoriginal ideas intended to soothe and satisfy our desire to feel ethical.

Everyone readily agrees with and likes to stand for them. Yet these basic tenets often dissolve into grey areas. It is easy to devise a rationalization for bending the rules when the outcome can be personally favorable.

Ethical concerns about the business world are not new. Industrialists exploit workers with long hours in unsafe environments for little pay. Tensions between wages and workers’ rights and the profits flowing to owners are endemic, as is widespread industrial pollution and the use of public property for private gain.

We have gained more agency in making decisions for ourselves and the people which our careers and businesses impact. The following are some examples of the kinds of ethical questions that currently arise.

Oil and gas industries are very lucrative. They also contribute to pollution. Contaminating groundwater, carbonization of the atmosphere, and acidification of the oceans are byproducts. These large-scale impacts are reducing the biodiversity of the planet by driving species of flora and fauna into extinction and by changing the climate to a point where the Earth is no longer habitable for humans. Should you work for these companies? Should you hold their stock in your portfolio? Should their stocks be in the portfolio of your retirement fund? Should you drive a car that uses gas?

Tobacco companies sell cigarettes even though we know they contribute to all sorts of diseases. Alcoholic beverages are legal and heavily advertised even though we know they are detrimental to our health and lead to bad decision making while under the influence.

Manufactured foods contain salt, sugar, and fats in unhealthy amounts to get us to buy more and eat more. Advertising appeals to us in ways that have little to do with the products sold. In many instances, advertising misrepresents products and services.

Juul is an entrepreneurial startup business success story. Two graduate students started it at Stanford. It is a Silicon Valley success story. It’s also at the center of a public health crisis. It began as a way to help ween addicts off of cigarettes. It is a victim of its own success. Lots of young people developed a nicotine habit. That is a consequence the founder’s didn’t intend, but it is an issue that avoiding doesn’t address.

Juul is just one high profile example of ethical issues that arise in business pursuits. Facebook is another.

Facebook is a wonderful platform for staying in touch. It has also been hijacked to spread misinformation. That is an unintended consequence but not dealing with it because it is lucrative is a serious ethical lapse.

Many business models would not be profitable if they had to take into account the broader impact of what they do to the environment or social order. There are lobbyists, politicians, scientists, and business people who have much to gain by maintaining the status quo business practices.

Not surprisingly, they are very artful at obscuring the issues and misdirecting sympathies to protect their markets, business models, and revenue streams.

Ethics and the Law

Governmental institutions implement laws and regulations to limit and direct business behavior in what they consider to be beneficial or benign ways and away from detrimental conduct. Regulations can also have damaging effects and unintended consequences. And there will always be smart people who are prepared to devise ingenious workarounds and loopholes to any well-meaning rules and laws.

Business Ethics, first and foremost, is about making decisions about career and products and services that positively impact people, places, and things. The Hippocratic oath that physicians take says “first do no harm”. This oath is a proper initial criterion for business decisions.

There are also ethical decisions in career choices relative to the opportunity costs to society at large. Talent gets siphoned off for its highest and best use. Bright, talented, and highly educated people opt to take jobs of questionable long-term societal value instead of pursuing careers solving pressing environmental issues and other social concerns. It’s about money and the attendant status it can purchase.

We all wrestle with these challenges. I am by no means above these issues I am outlining. I have a car, and I drive, and I buy gas. I am responsible for adding to the carbon exhaust problem. I try to be aware of and avoid problematic issues, but we live in a society that makes some choices challenging to avoid.

Acting ethically takes continual awareness, vigilance, and commitment. It is about being aware of the choices we make and acting intentionally. We need to be mindful of where our self-interest and common societal interests align and diverge.

It is essential to understand the difference between self-interest and selfishness. Here are the definitions of the words from the Cambridge Dictionary:

Self-Interest is the consideration of advantages for yourself in making a decision, usually without worrying about its effect on others.

Selfishness is caring only about what you want or need without any thought for the needs or wishes of other people.

Selfishness promotes a petty and small-minded perspective. To combat this narrow perspective, we need to expand our view to see how our actions affect others, especially those relying on us. Also, to negotiate effectively, we need to be able to step into the other side’s shoes and understand their point of view.

Self-interest, on the other hand, is something we all need to cultivate. Practicing self-care is extremely important. We are of little use to others when we are depleted and exhausted. It’s like in a plane emergency: we are instructed to place the mask over our face first before helping others.

The purpose of life is not happiness. It is usefulness. As managers and leaders, we must first be self-possessed and aware of who we are and want to be. This reflective mindset is essential to consider ourselves worthy prime movers.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb said

If you see fraud and do not say fraud, you are a fraud.

Build a life you don’t need to escape from. Peace.

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John Cousins
Author, Entrepreneur, & Teacher

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