Dean Ornish and enlightened ethical egoism

May 28, 2012

Ethical egoism is the philosophical theory that people should always act in their own self-interest, that when faced with choices between what’s good for oneself and what’s good for others, one should always place one’s own interests first. One of the chief exponents of this view was Ayn Rand, who influenced a generation of powerful people, including Milton Friedman, Alan Greenspan, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher, each of whom helped to push forward the neoliberalist agenda that has dominated social and political life since the 1980s. At the heart of neoliberalist philosophy is the idea that greed is good, not just for the greedy individual, but for everyone. There is plenty of evidence, which I will not go through here, that trickle-down economics is a total scam: little if anything trickles down and the dramatic increase in income inequality that neoliberalism brings about is something that negatively affects everyone (for more on this last point see this related post). 

However, while greed is definitely not good (for anyone), there may after all be some truth to ethical egoism, something important in the idea that what is truly good for oneself is also good for others, and that if one is concerned for others, one really should figure out how to best take care of oneself. Recent exponents of this new philosophy are coming from a variety of inter-related disciplines, including nutritional and environmental sciences. One of the best spokespersons for this view is Dean Ornish, founder and president of the Preventative Medicine Research Institute. See, for instance, this  lecture, entitled “what is good for you is good for the planet.” In it, the man who persuaded Bill Clinton to go vegan, explains how a healthy diet is not only in one’s own best interest, but is also the best way to tackle global warming and the energy crisis as well. Needless to say, it is also in the best interests of the other animals with whom we share this planet. One can only hope that this new and improved version of ethical egoism, which I call enlightened ethical egoism, will do for the 21st century what the unenlightened, greed-is-good, ethical egoism did to the 20th century. 

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