Capitalism and Selfishness

As effective altruists make increasing forays into politics, I thought it would be good to share what I have found to be one of the most useful conceptual distinctions in recent political philosophy. Many people think if you’re in favour of capitalism you have to be in favour of ruthless selfishness. But this isn’t so. As the philosopher Jason Brennan has argued,[1] we ought to distinguish capitalism – a system of ownership from selfishness – a social ethos.

Capitalism = The private ownership of the means of production.

Socialism = The collective ownership of the means of production.

People have an ethos of selfishness insofar as they pursue their own self-interest.

People have an ethos of benevolence insofar as they pursue the interests of others.

Why accept these definitions? Firstly, they align with the commonsense and dictionary definitions of ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism’. The elision between capitalism and an ethos of selfishness tends only to happen in an informal or unstated way. People unfairly compare capitalism + selfishness with socialism + universal benevolence and conclude that socialism is the superior system, when in fact universal benevolence is doing a lot of the work. Secondly, if we conceptually tie capitalism and an ethos of selfishness, then we will be left with no term for a system in which the means of production are privately owned and everyone is perfectly benevolent. On the other side of the coin, if we conceptually tie socialism and benevolence, then we will be left with no term for a system in which the means of production are collectively owned, but people are extensively motivated by selfishness.

With these definitions in tow, we can infer the following important point:

  • The stance one takes on the correct social ethos implies no obvious stance on the justifiability of capitalism or socialism.

Many effective altruists are strongly critical of the ethos of selfishness: Peter Singer believes that you should give up on all luxury spending in order to help others. However, this does not mean that capitalism is bad because capitalism is not conceptually tied to selfishness.

The question of which system of economic ownership we ought to have is entirely separate to the question of which ethos we ought to follow. Effective altruists and others have made a strong case for an ethos of benevolence, but finding out whether capitalism or socialism is better involves completely different empirical questions.


Thanks to Stefan Schubert for advice.

[1] He attributes the original point to Sharon Krause.