Success and virtue


Sir, – Joe Humphreys’s interview of philosopher Vittorio Bufacchi has an interesting discussion on the differences between success and virtue (“Why be good when it seems like nasty guys finish first?” , Unthinkable, May 2nd).

One thing that success and virtuousness have in common is that they are not choices, but goals. You have to work to achieve either. Nor are they mutually exclusive. Good people can be successful, and unsuccessful people can lack virtue. However, it may be that proportionally fewer successful people are virtuous, and this may be especially true of capitalist societies. One reason for this may be that ambition and greed can be useful in attaining success. Capitalists stubbornly hold to a naive view that these traits can be harnessed, and encourage them in employees and managers. Companies actively seek ambitious people; corporate cultures create bonus structures that reward greed.

A simplistic understanding of evolution underpins this naivety. Survival of the fittest becomes a self-congratulatory mantra for the materially successful. Everything is about a competition they see themselves winning.

There is no appreciation of how survival relates to environment; that there are many strategies for surviving in an environment, hence all the different species; that cooperation can deliver survival advantages; or that a species can push a trait too far, and that what was once an advantage can become the undoing of a species.

The hotchpotch of influences that encourage greed and selfishness are not just an ugly mishmash of partially understood science and economics, they produce an ethically dangerous philosophy. Using greed to push people towards the same greedy goal has obvious pitfalls, including engendering behaviour that led to the recent catastrophic financial collapse. As we continue to operate systems which select for ambition and greed, we preferentially promote people whose decision-making is a disastrous mismatch for managing the looming climate crisis our greed and selfishness are causing. We are denying ourselves the capacity to act for the benefit of others, especially if those others haven’t been born yet.

It is a mistake to want leaders to be perfect, but we should look for leaders who at least know an ethic from their elbow. We need to recover in our culture values that instil altruism, sacrifice and cooperation. To meet the global challenges we are facing, we need decision-makers who can take account of the effect of our actions on the future, and those leaders need our support. We may be the dominant species now, but we are consuming too many resources to maintain that position. If we do cause catastrophic climate change and destroy the habitat that sustains us, our species may not be among those best adapted to survive the dramatically changed environment. – Yours, etc,


Templeogue, Dublin 6W.