The Virtue of Selfishness

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Radoslav Dragov's picture
Photo by Fido/ CC BY
Donald Sterling is not a moral man. And that’s probably a good thing.

I like to believe that some day a photo of Sterling would prominently sit next to the definition of “irony”. The owner of a team operating in arguably the most African-American dominated sport, whose mistress herself is of mixed African-American and Mexican heritage, turns out to be a hopeless racist. In a secret recording he chastises his mistress and urges her not to associate with black people in public places. Such characters should exist only as cartoons between the pages of some tasteless tabloid.

But as I stated earlier it could have been even worse: Sterling could have been a man of moral and principle. His two saving graces were his exorbitant selfishness and avarice. For if Donald Sterling was and was not all those things he wouldn’t have done much good in his life. He wouldn’t have made generous grants to many organizations aimed at supporting minority communities. He wouldn’t have bought a whole basketball team or paid his players salaries that befit the current excess and spectacle of the sport.

Is there too much morality?

In the overcrowded field of horrible things humans practice racism takes a top position. Understandably, few people would equate racism, indeed any kind of wrongdoing with morality. But morality as practiced by people is more a set of principles that channel (often misguided) righteousness. Moral principles differ from person to person and culture to culture. Some person’s moral punishment is another person’s act of homicidal bigotry.

I am not a moral philosopher (because I want to work for a living) but I tend to agree with psychologist Steven Pinker who thinks there is too much morality in the world. Pinker reasons that if we add up all the murders perpetrated because of religious, ideological, ethnical and sexual non-conformity they would rival homicides from amoral predation. Think of the blameless victims from crusades, revolutions, ideological genocides, or honor killings.

A moral impulse animated the actions of Osama bin Laden and his ilk. Even the most unrepentant and irredeemable character of the 20th century, Adolf Hitler, was driven by a moral cause. According to his twisted logic sacrifices have to be made and the Aryan race purified in order to bring thousand years of utopia. It was not a matter of practical necessity but of undisputed duty and destiny. What’s fascinating is that while they were pushing the human potential for inflicting misery and suffering, the Nazis enacted the world’s strictest laws against the mistreatment of animals. One imagines they didn’t want animal abuse to give them a bad reputation.

Does Donald Sterling have a racist moral instinct?

Donald Sterling’s brand of more latent racism fits pretty nicely with the established definition of (misguided) morality. In the secretly taped conversion Sterling (who is Jewish) defends his position: “there’s white Jews and black Jews, do you understand?” Prompted by his mistress to say if black Jews were inferior to white ones Sterling replies “a hundred percent” and adds: “it isn’t a question – we don’t evaluate what’s right and wrong, we live in a society”.

Like a categorical (moral) imperative Sterling’s racist impulses go unquestioned because that’s the way of the world. Psychologists have identified that there is certain ineffability in morality – often people cannot give a rational explanation for their objection to statements or actions that jab with their moral feelings. To them it just feels wrong. For Mr. Sterling the obvious thing seems to be that the amount of melanin in the skin is intimately connected with human aptitude and potential. It is good to know that racism itself does not discriminate and manifests in people of all creeds and ethnicities.

Self-interest vs. Morality

Nevertheless, Sterling’s ample selfish instincts prevailed and overrode his damaging racist beliefs. He did not follow through his sincere “moral” instincts and that caused some disconnect between his private life and public actions. Mind you, Sterling was not just an old man who occasionally throws in the odd distasteful and racially tinged joke at the dinner table. This was a person who forbade his mistress to post any photos of her with African-Americans. Sterling’s unease in dealing with African-Americans must have been great but luckily the financial rewards compensated for these feelings.

It goes without saying that the money he gave to all those charities in support of minorities was a cynical attempt to repair his own creaky public image. But as the Roman Emperor Vespasian said to his son after the imposition of the “Urine Tax”: “pecunia non olet” (money has no smell). The funds came from a man rotten to the core but they can be put to good use for purposes opposite of Sterling’s beliefs. This is in contrast to Brendan Eich - another person who was recently tar-and-feathered for harboring unsavory views. In 2008 Eich gave around $1000 to an organization that sought to ensure same-sex marriage remained unconstitutional in California. In my opinion actions (especially donations) can have more far reaching consequences than words from private conversations. By all accounts Sterling is a sleazy and far more unpleasant individual than Eich, but when it comes to donations Sterling’s self-interest prevailed over his personal beliefs. And that was for the better.

The Sterling Redemption

But Donald Sterling is still far beyond redemption. His actions demonstrate a personality that is a mix between Homo economicus and a simple run of the mill racist. Sterling (who is a big name in the property renting business) was repeatedly sued by minority groups for denying them housing. Since the demand for housing was large he could indulge his racist whims (allow only certain people) and risk no dent in his pocket. Again we see the pattern of cold rationality and passionate hatred. Sterling’s true nature shines only when there is a low opportunity cost.

The important fact here is what didn’t happen after the lawsuits: he was neither hounded by the media nor penalized for his actions. Why? The racist property management system probably shook the lives of far more people than his words. Actions may speak louder than words but people close their ears to the former.

In the end, there is no virtue in selfishness but at least in certain cases it can produce marginally more positive results than unquestioned morality. I may be old-fashioned but I recommend adopting reason as an antidote to egocentrism or damaging moral intuitions. After all, it’s in our self-interest!

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