Quick, what's right and wrong? - many folk might give as a fast answer: Don't lie, cheat or steal. And that's not bad for a start.
Trouble is that those same folks solemnly went a-voting not long ago, and helped elect representatives who do little else but lie, cheat and steal, yet came back with the feeling of a public duty well done; so I fear it might be said of them, that they can't tell the difference between right and wrong. So let's take a deeper look at this subject of morality. What should be the basis of it, the standard of right and wrong?
In our culture the Bible is very powerful influence on that. Whether or not many people observe it, the ideal is usually held to be self sacrifice; loving one's neighbour as oneself, etc. The supremely "good" person is defined this way: "Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." That would be a fair statement of what's seen as most "moral". Selfishness is held to be an evil, and selflessness the essence of goodness. Those are the values that, over a couple of thousand years or so, have been built in to our culture; they've become "conventional wisdom."
Well, this column enjoys standing conventional wisdom on its head, so let's do something rather unusual and examine this, the least examined premise of life.
It really is bunk, when we come to look at it fair and square. If you take a child on your knee on an aeroplane, what's the first thing you get told, by those who have thought safety through logically? - to connect the oxygen mask to your OWN mouth first, and to the baby's mouth second! Would it be good and moral to do the opposite - to see that the child could breathe first, risking one's own life as conventional morality requires? - no, it would be dumb. The baby would breathe fine while you expired, and then for the next ten critical minutes and fifty important years, it would be motherless or fatherless.
But it's not just one unusual example: self-sacrifice is damaging or fatal in every case, once we start to think about it.
To put one self first instead of second or last, is actually the most moral way to live, and here's why. This first and foremost requirement for any living thing is to survive. That is obviously true, but thanks to conventional morality, it does need saying. If members of a species fail to observe that Golden Rule, the species fails. A person who will not or cannot sustain his or her own life becomes a burden on everyone else; the whole of society progresses slower. If everyone does it, the entire species dies out.
In contrast consider a person who keeps himself to himself but who works hard and amasses a fortune, yet never gives to charity. What is he commonly called? A miser? A skinflint? A "robber baron", to quote one of the favourite names used in government-school textbooks to describe those who built the highest, and most widely enjoyed, standard of living in the history of mankind?
That's not what I'd call him. I'd say he is a very upright person. First, he's made sure that nobody has to sacrifice to keep him or his family; he is self- sufficient. Then, in consistently pursuing his own "greedy" purposes, he has created goods or services that other people willingly bought because they valued them more than the money they had to pay; so in the course of amassing his fortune, he enabled a huge number of people to get a good bargain from him - by their own judgement. He raised living standards, in other words; or he created wealth for the people. He may have been so mean that he didn't want to do that! But he did it anyway, for it was the only way he could get rich. Then, having amassed his fortune, for his own selfish interests he either spent it or invested it. Here again, be he ever so mean, in doing either he greatly benefits his fellow man. If he invests it, the capital creates jobs immediately and wealth for society a little later, as above. If he spends it, he pays someone money at once in exchange for something they value less than the price (otherwise, they'd not sell!) and so they, too, get a bargain at his expense.
There is therefore no way our "robber baron" can either acquire or enjoy his fortune, without directly benefiting everyone else every step of the way. The only way he could avoid doing so would be to destroy the money (or hide it under the mattress) after making it; and that conflicts with our assumption, that he is a selfish person, greedy to acquire wealth, not just tokens of it.
Notice, I'm not just debunking the false altruism of the socialists, who like to call themselves "liberals" - those who sacrifice not just themselves but everybody else: who are generous with your money and mine. That's a caricature of selflessness, and is worthy of no further attention. Rather, I'm suggesting that REAL selflessness is destructive; that its opposite, selfishness, is actually the highest virtue! Not mean-spiritedness, though as we saw above that makes no particular difference, but selfishness.
Think about it: conventional wisdom holds selflessness to be good. But to be "good", the selfless person must find a beneficiary, someone to sacrifice himself FOR. But that person is necessarily NOT selfless; he's on the receiving end. Therefore, for every "good" person, there must be an "evil" (selfish) person to make the sacrifice possible. Accordingly, conventional morality is fatally flawed; it cannot possibly be practised by much more than half of any society! No wonder the entire world seems to be in perpetual conflict.
So, does our Revised Version of right and wrong lead to any of those bugaboos, lying, cheating or stealing? - not at all. If I am Looking Out for Number One, the last thing I want round my neck is a reputation as a liar, a cheat or a thief; how then could I get people to trust me in business, and so get rich? I will set out to be truthful and honest, because it's in my own interests!