A Tale of 3S: Self-Esteem, Selfishness, Sexuality

Ayn Rand’s Three “Hallows” of Life

Ayn Rand, a 20th-century philosopher known for championing Objectivism, proposes three hallows that one must hold “as the supreme and ruling values” of life:

  1. Reason: as the “only tool of knowledge”;
  2. Purpose: as the “choice of happiness” that reason serves;
  3. Self-Esteem: as the “inviolate certainty” that one’s mind is “competent to think” and one’s person is “worthy of happiness”.

Elan Journo summarizes Rand’s definition of self-esteem into two key questions: Am I able? Am I worthy?

Selfishness = What Defines Self-Esteem?

What do selfishness and self-esteem have in common?

Other than they start with the same first 4 letters – this does not count.

Check out this answer given by John Galt, a key character in Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged“:

“The first precondition of self-esteem is that radiant selfishness of soul which…seeks above all else to achieve its own moral perfection, valuing nothing higher than itself.”

For Rand, selfishness is the fundamental prerequisite for self-esteem:

The attack on “selfishness” is an attack on man’s self-esteem; to surrender one, is to surrender the other.

Ayn Rand, “The Virtue of Selfishness”

It is common yet unfortunate for us to measure our self-esteem based on how much esteem (we perceive) others to accord us. Thus, it is ironical that we have dropped the first half of “self-esteem” – the values of the “self” are lost, contrary to what Rand suggests. We measure our self worth based on external factors such as exam scores, salaries, praise from others etc., Yet, the more emphasis on we put on pleasing others, the more vulnerable our self-esteem is to collapsing, and the more difficult it is to break free of the puppet strings of (imaginary) societal pressure that are tightening.

Of course, Ayn Rand’s advocacy of selfishness has been under attack. The word “selfish” itself has negative connotations – when we say someone is selfish, we often mean it as a vice of being insensitive or inconsiderate of others’ needs. Rand acknowledges this:

In popular usage, the word “selfishness” is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment.

Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word “selfishness” is: concern with one’s own interests. This concept does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us whether concern with one’s own interests is good or evil; nor does it tell us what constitutes man’s actual interests. It is the task of ethics to answer such questions.

Ayn Rand, “The Virtue of Selfishness”

Rand goes on to critique altruism & altruistic acts. For one thing, she sees it as contradictory with the rule of “everyone watchout for himself” in the “survival of the fittest” game of evolution:

Since nature does not provide man with an automatic form of survival, since he has to support his life by his own effort, the doctrine that concern with one’s own interests is evil means that man’s desire to live is evil—that man’s life, as such, is evil. No doctrine could be more evil than that.

Ayn Rand, “The Virtue of Selfishness”

In addition, Rand makes a nuanced point that we must pay attention to the “difference between a man who sees his self-interest in production and a man who sees it in robbery”:

The evil of a robber does not lie in the fact that he pursues his own interests, but in what he regards as to his own interest; not in the fact that he pursues his values, but in what he chose to value; not in the fact that he wants to live, but in the fact that he wants to live on a subhuman level.

Ayn Rand, “The Virtue of Selfishness”

To paraphrase, Rand argues that every man has a moral duty to oneself to be “selfish”, i.e., prioritize one’s values and live up to one’s moral code. However, being “selfish” (in Rand’s definition) does not prevent us from forming a value judgment on whether a value system is justified. We could still say that a robber’s selfish pursuit of seizing other’s property by force is morally wrong. However, what is wrong here is the robber’s underlying moral code, not the fact that the robber was going after his code.

For Rand, being relentlessly selfish means relentlessly going after one’s goal, and this desire to act is to be applauded. Going after one’s goal (selfish) is a different ethical question from whether the goal itself is an honorable one. What Rand is really applauding by applauding selfishness is the audacity & perseverance in working hard towards one’s goal – she is not arguing that all goals are equally honorable. Viewed in this light, the word choice of “selfish” could mislead us in understanding Rand’s arguments.

How is Sexuality Tied to Self-Esteem?

A man’s sexual choice is the result and the sum of his fundamental convictions. Tell me what a man finds sexually attractive and I will tell you his entire philosophy of life.

Francisco in Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand

Frank Underwood said (in)famously in the show House of Cards: “Everything is about sex. Except sex. Sex is about power.”

Image result for frank underwood power

Whereas Frank looks outwards at what sex reveals about our relationship with others, Ayn Rand looks inwards at what sex says about our view of ourself. Whereas Frank believes sex is about one’s desire to dominate others, Rand argues – or rather her fictional character argues – that sex is about one’s drive to control & gain self-esteem.

Rand distinguishes between two types of men – those with low vs. high self-esteem. The first group aims to “gain self-esteem from sexual adventures”, which Rand thinks is a futile attempt, “because sex is not the cause, but an effect and an expression of a man’s sense of his own value.” The second group with higher certainty in their self-worth “will want the highest type of woman he can find, the woman he admires, the strongest, the hardest to conquer – because only the possession of a heroine will give him the sense of an achievement ,not the possession of a brainless slut.”

(Man) will always be attracted to the woman who reflects his deepest vision of himself, the woman whose surrender permits him to experience – or to fake – a sense of self-esteem.

Francisco in Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand

To conclude, according to the Rand school of philosophy, self-esteem is defined & rooted in “selfishness” (stay true and devoted to one’s moral code), and manifested & reinforced in sexuality. Together, the 3S form an intricate web and help us answer two questions core to our identity: Am I able? Am I worthy?