Acceptable Selfishness?

Acceptable Selfishness?

Tibor R. Machan

A big debate among business ethics professionals–teachers, consultants, etc.–concerns who should be the beneficiary of business management, share (or stock) holders or so called stakeholders. Ordinarily it is the former who are owed service from managers since they were hired to provide service to them. It’s a matter of delivering on a promise, plain and simple, no different from when one hires other professionals, such as those providing health care or car repair. But in the academic world of business ethics there has been a major influence from all sorts of people who want business to become public service professionals. It is called the corporate social responsibility or stakeholder movement and the pitch is for business professionals to become public servants like bureaucrats are supposed to be. (But a bit of reading in public choice theory will clear up this matter!)

Somehow if people in the business world strive for profit, for prosperity, they are supposed to be failing to do the right thing. Not that they are not supposed to help make the firm prosper but that’s not supposed to be their primary professional purpose. That is what many in the business ethics academic community advocate. But contrast this with how many look upon the task of other professionals, especially artists or performers. A comment by the millionaire pop artists Paul McCartney bears on this issue directly. Here is what he is reported to have said:

“A lot of critics go: ‘Why is he doing an orchestral thing, or a children’s song, what’s gone wrong with him?’ But this is my life, so I’m doing these things for me. If other people like them, I am really happy, that is the ultimate. And if they don’t, well, you can’t please everyone. As an artist, you just keep plugging on.” (THE WEEK, June 23, 2012, page 10)

McCartney’s reasoning is generally not deemed to be objectionable, not just regarding what pop artists do but regarding artists as such. The most humble as well as the most ambitious artists are widely appreciated for doing their own thing, following their muse, etc. No one is talking about social responsibility when it comes to their work, although some of them do, of course, engage in charitable and philanthropic projects. But as far as their artistic works are concerned, it is taken to be a very selfish undertaking, done to fulfill a personal, private agenda and not to serve anyone else. It is mostly in totalitarian countries that artists are drafted into public service, like the Third Reich, North Korea or the former Soviet Union.

Why so when those in the business community are always hounded about serving society, humanity, the community, etc.? Why are the personal, private objectives of artists deserving of respect but if people in business pursue their own goals, they are accused of being selfish in that sneering way–how dare they serve their own interest?

Is all this just a kind of careless hypocrisy or does it indicate some sort of bifurcation in how we are supposed to live our lives? When we select a profession that pursues the creation of beauty, then it is just peachy to ignore the interest of others, but when we pursue our prosperity we are not doing the right thing. But why? What is wrong with serving our economic muse? After all, wealth creation–what I like to call wealth care–is quite as worthy a pursuit as, say, health care/creation, as in medicine (or education or in science), is it not?

When a dedicated composer or painter or novelist spends years on his or her artistic projects it is surely time that might have been spent on serving one’s fellows. Isn’t that so. Why is this not some kind of insidious selfishness? Why is it OK to be devoted to one’s artistic vision, never mind how much time and effort it may take–and thus take away from public service–whereas when one engages in economic improvements one is widely denounced? One is a profiteer and people organize huge marches–Occupy Wall Street, for example–to protest this. Why not descend upon Soho, museums, galleries and other centers of artistic pursuits and complain that these people are being selfish and cruel to their fellow human beings, the poor, the sick, the unfortunately who could benefit from work done for them instead of in service to the muse?

Go figure!

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