ethical egoism and Wolf of Wall Street

Wolf of Wall StreetThe following is just a snippet from a book Who Can Say What’s Right and Wrong? which Nick is currently writing

The Wolf of Wall Street (Paramount Pictures 2013) tells the true story of Jordan Belfort, a  young stock-broker who sets up his own company to make as much money as he can, as quickly as possible, and to spend it on drugs, alcohol and sex. For him, life is all about his own personal pleasure. And he doesn’t care who gets hurt in the process – whether it’s the pensioners whose savings he steals through his “pump and dump” share scams, or the women whose dignity he destroys through his humiliating and abusive parties. For him, all that matters is his own pleasure.

For many years, as I have worked with the film industry to write educational resources around new releases, I’ve done much of my film-watching in small screening rooms at the studios, surrounded by serious film executives. However, I watched The Wolf of Wall Street in a regular cinema because I wanted to hear the reaction of the audience. And it spoke volumes. In fact the comments of the film-watchers around me, that night, were more shocking than anything on the screen. They clearly didn’t view the film as ironic satire, or a warning about the dangers of excess, or a wake-up call to a society fixated on money. They cheered as their new-found hero took each new step on his journey of decadence and debauchery. They laughed as old people were conned.  And they clapped as women were degraded. When the credits rolled, a young man behind me summed it all up when he leant across to his friends and said: “That’s what I want – to be just like him.”

The film was brilliantly written and directed, so it was nominated for many awards, including best picture, best director and best adapted screenplay. But for me the power of the picture was the way it illustrated the ethical philosophy known as Egoism, and demonstrated how pervasive this has become in our culture. I wanted to turn around and engage the people sitting behind me in a discussion about Ethical Egoism but that was neither the time nor the place, and indeed they just wanted to hit the bars. However, perhaps at some stage in the future there might be people who can help them to think more deeply about the ethical framework expressed in the film.

Egoism is a normative ethic that assumes it is morally right for people always to do that which is most beneficial to themselves, that which gives them the most personal pleasure – regardless of other people or the world in which we live (except where others and the world can increase their own pleasure). This moral framework has a long history in the past and a deep influence in the present. Indeed, those who hold to it will argue that it is the most honest and truthful of all normative ethics because it acknowledges the apparent fact that everyone always seems to act out of self-interest – even if they won’t admit it. According to this argument, when people say that they act in order to bring good to other people, or good to the world, or in service of a higher purpose, they are quite simply deluding themselves. Whether or not they realise it, they are really acting out of self-interest.

Now, think back to chapter one, where we saw how ethical philosophers seek to describe, with an ethical framework, the sense of “ought” we all experience and then prescribe how that framework applies to practical ethical decisions.  So, in this case, Ethical Egoists argue that they are simply providing an accurate description of the way in which people act (in whatever way gives them most personal pleasure), and then creating a consistent prescription of how people ought to act (in whatever way gives them most personal pleasure). Putting this another way, the Ethical Egoists justify their normative assertion, about how we should act, with reference to a descriptive assertion about the way in which people seem to act.

Read more when Nick has finished writing the book Who Can Say What’s Right and Wrong?

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