Self-Interest as the Ethical Basis for Capitalism?

John Mackey and David Kelley Spar Over How to Brand Free Enterprise


John Mackey, the co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market, has asserted that self-interest is not an adequate ethical basis for capitalism and that capitalism has a branding problem. During his recent keynote presentation at the International Students for Liberty Conference, he also dismissed Ayn Rand and objectivism.

“Great novelist. Very inspiring. I don’t agree with her ethics.” To win the moral high ground, he said, “we basically need a new ethical foundation for capitalism.”

As an alternative, he championed “conscious capitalism.” Under this banner, he advocated changing the narrative towards higher purposes for entrepreneurial activity—“the good, the true, and the beautiful” and value beyond profits alone. In a Ralph Nader-like manner, he offered Southwest Airlines as an example. Southwest “democratized air travel,” he said, and gave people “the freedom to travel” by shaking up what was a virtual oligopoly of airlines.

Mackey went on to say how his approach turned out to be more profitable than the alternative, as had been the case with Whole Foods Market. This recourse to self-interest seemed contradictory to me, and I suspect to others in the audience.

Fortunately, David Kelley, chief intellectual officer of the Atlas Society, was also at the event. Kelley is one of the leading objectivist thinkers of this era, and he has debated Mackey on this matter. He was glad to give me an interview, which you can listen to here (four minutes):

[audio:|titles=David Kelley Defends Self-Interest in Capitalism]

The essence of his position and argument is a somewhat narrow conception of what self-interest is. It tends to be short-term, monetary, and he’s trying to contrast that with… the things that you might do for other people to create good relationships. And my response is, what are you creating those relationships for? Is it not ultimately because they create value for you?

Objectivism and Ayn Rand’s conception of self-interest is precisely that. Your interest is defined not by the range of the moment or what you happen to feel. It is defined by your lifelong pursuit of happiness, which includes other people, and you act to achieve value in relationships by understanding that you must provide value, but ultimately it is for your own life.

Kelley does not believe there is a substantive disagreement. Rather, he sees Mackey’s differences with objectivism as a matter of semantic confusion, and his concern is that such confusion props up the critics of capitalism who denounce it as based on self-interest.

“Mackey is playing to that moral premise [a hostility towards the idea of self-interest], which I think is wrong… It’s false marketing if you say capitalism is all about altruism.”

You can watch a full debate between David Kelley and John Mackey on this matter below, from the 2011 FreedomFest (55 minutes).

Fergus Hodgson About Fergus Hodgson

Fergus Hodgson is an economic consultant, financial editor, athlete, and traveler. He holds degrees in economics, finance, and political science from the United States and New Zealand, and he has lived in eight countries. Follow @FergHodgson.


  1. moralibertarian says:

    @TheStatelessMan @ferghodgson @theatlassociety The ethical bases for capitalism is not self interest per se:

  2. moralibertarian says:

    @TheStatelessMan @ferghodgson @theatlassociety All human action is necessarily self interested;

  3. moralibertarian says:

    @TheStatelessMan @ferghodgson @theatlassociety Actors act in hopes of exchanging a less satisfactory state for a more satisfactory one.

  4. moralibertarian says:

    @TheStatelessMan @ferghodgson @theatlassociety The ethical bases for capitalism is voluntarism and nonaggression.

  5. moralibertarian says:

    @TheStatelessMan @ferghodgson @theatlassociety The absolute respect for persons and property is anything but “narrow minded self interest”

  6. moralibertarian says:

    @TheStatelessMan @ferghodgson @theatlassociety Going after Rand is a straw man.

  7. moralibertarian says:

    @TheStatelessMan @ferghodgson @theatlassociety It doesn’t change the categorical difference between voluntary and invasive interaction.

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