Defending Selfishness and Questioning Altruism (on Ayn Rand’s philosophy)

“Why do you use the word ‘selfishness’ to denote virtuous qualities of character, when that word antagonizes so many people to whom it does not mean the things you mean?”
* * *
To those who ask it, my answer is:
“For the reason that makes you afraid of it.”

Ayn Rand, “The Virtue of Selfishness
Image result for the virtue of selfishness ayn rand

Context: This article looks at the virtue of selfishness & the vice of altruism, according to Ayn Rand‘s philosophy – widely referred to as “objectivism”. Rand is a Russian-American writer and philosopher, best known for her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. She has also published two collections of essays: The Virtue of Selfishness and For The New Intellectual. She is a strong advocate for rationality and capitalism (while being a firm critic of mysticism and socialism).

Popular Opinion: Selfishness = A Vice of Negative Value

“Sweetheart, do share your toys with other children, don’t keep it to youself selfishly!”
– parent to child

“How could you be so selfish and only think about yourself when you make decisions?”
– husband to wife

“For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.”
– Bible, James 3:16

“Is selfishness is a virtue or a vice?” If I ask this question, I would not be surprised to see a few folks roll their eyes or stare at me with a isn’t-this-obvious look.

The dictionary definition of selfish often has a negative connotation to it:

The Cambridge Dictionary : Selfish (adj.)
– caring only about what you want or need without any thought for the needs or wishes of other people;
– someone who is selfish only thinks of their own advantage.

It is a popular belief that “selfishness” is a vice to be corrected, and its opposite “altruism” is a moral ideal to be embraced. This narrative is so dominant – in fact, we rarely hear alternatives – that most people have taken it for granted.

However, just because something is “conventional” does not mean it is “wisdom”. Conventional wisdom is no substitute for thoughtful wisdom – and it is time we re-examine what it means to be selfish, and whether being selfish has its own merits.

Ayn Rand: Selfishness is Morally Neutral as a Term

Ayn Rand argues that the negative connotation we assign to the word “selfishness” is misplaced. On the contrary, she argues that the word “selfishness”, at its core, is a morally-neutral term:

This concept (of selfishness as concern with one’s own interests) 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

Applying a similar logic, Rand argues the positive connotation assigned to the word “altruism” is misplaced. Being altruistic itself is not necessarily virtuous or beneficial. Rand says there are “two moral questions which altruism lumps together into one ‘package-deal'”, namely:

(1) What are values?
(2) Who should be the beneficiary of values?

Rand is firmly against the cult of altriusm:

Altruism substitutes the second (moral question) for the first; it evades the task of defining a code of moral values, thus leaving man, in fact, without moral guidance…the beneficiary of an action is the only criterion of moral value—and so long as that beneficiary is anybody other than oneself, anything goes.

Ayn Rand

In other words, Rand is saying the fact that the beneficiary of an action is someone other than oneself (i.e., altruistic) – this fact alone – does not give us any information about this action is more justifiable than others. We learn nothing about the underlying values associated with this action – and hence we should not jump to a moral judgment too soon, too wrong.

Whether a selfish act (or altruistic act) is morally justifiable or not – this is a situational question that should be looked at case by case. Rand presents this thought experiment: imagine two people – A is a “selfish” businessman who produces goods that society wants in order to earn money; B is a “selfish” robber who loots. A and B are both selfish, but most would argue that A’s selfishness actions are more morally justifiable than those of B’s.

In the words of Rand, there is “a fundamental moral 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.

Ayn Rand

It is not contradictory to say: (a) man should selfishly pursue his own interests, and (b) some interests are morally justifiable and others aren’t. Being selfish is a means to achieve one’s goal – whether that goal is ethical is a separate discussion.

Nature vs. Nuture: Is Everyone Born Selfish?

Some believe we are born with the natural desire that the world revolves around us – we are born with selfishness.

For Ayn Rand, being selfish requires one to first have a proper “self”. Having a (proper) sense of “self” is the prerequisite to being “selfish”. Rand defines self differently from popular usage of the term:

A man’s self is his mind – the faculty that perceives reality, forms judgments, chooses values.

Ayn Rand

A true sense of self is based on an active choice of values, rather than a passive imitation of what others value. Sadly, the sense of self is lost to those who live everyday being the person they think others would want them to be:

The abdication and shriveling of the self is a salient characteristic of all perceptual mentalities, tribalist or lone-wolfish. All of them dread self-reliance; all of them dread the responsibilities which only a self (i..e, a conceptual consciousness) can perform, and they seek escape from the two activities which an actually selfish man would defend with his life: judgment and choice.

Ayn Rand

Judgment of reality and choice of values – these are the two prerequisite activities that an “actually selfish” man would perform relentlessly – and he would defend with his life the right to define himself. The best of such men are what Rand calls the “New Intellectuals”, i.e., people who are “willing to think” and “who know that man’s life must be guided by reason”:

There are two principles on which all men of intellectual integrity and good will can agree, as a “basic minimum,” as a precondition of any discussion…a. that emotions are not tools of cognition; b. that no man has the right to initiate the use of physical force against others.

Ayn Rand

Knowing how to be “selfish” in a proper way is a privilege, a skill, a capability – not a trait we are born with, but rather a subject we should study.

Asking the Non-Obvious: What is Wrong with Altruism?

Following a defense of critism, let us switch to the opposite side and look at Rand’s critique of altruism. She calls altruism “the basic evil” that is “incompatible with freedom, with capitalism, and with individual rights.”

As before, let us first clarify what Rand means by the word altruism:

What is the moral code of altruism? The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value.

Ayn Rand

Importantly, Rand says altruism should not be confused with “kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others”. These are possible consequences, but not defining primaries or traits, of altruism (and altruistic actions). I find this analysis of Rand to be extremely powerful:

Do not hide behind such superficialities as whether you should or should not give a dime to a beggar. That is not the issue. The issue is whether you do or do not have the right to exist without giving him that dime. The issue is whether you must keep buying your life, dime by dime, from any beggar who might choose to approach you.

The issue is whether the need of others is the first mortgage on your life and the moral purpose of your existence. The issue is whether man is to be regarded as a sacrificial animal. Any man of self-esteem will answer: “No.” Altruism says: “Yes.”

Ayn Rand

Rand goes one step further to challenge the notion that giving makes the giver happier:

Even though altruism declares that “it is more blessed to give than to receive,” it does not work that way in practice. The givers are never blessed; the more they give, the more is demanded of them; complaints, reproaches and insults are the only response they get for practicing altruism’s virtues (or for their actual virtues).

Ayn Rand

Even from the perspective of a consequentialist, Rand claims that altruism does not lead to “a recognition of virtue”, “self-esteem or moral innocence.” To the contrary, Rand believes altruism suffocates the giver with guilt – placing a burden on him to give constantly, selflessly, tiringly; casting a spell on him to think it is his moral responsibility to give:

If the giver is not kept under a torrent of degrading, demeaning accusations, he might take a look around and put an end to the self-sacrificing. Altruists are concerned only with those who suffer—not with those who provide relief from suffering, not even enough to care whether they are able to survive. When no actual suffering can be found, the altruists are compelled to invent or manufacture it.

Ayn Rand

Concluding Remarks: Being a New Intellectual

At the end of writing about Rand’s philosophy, I must confess that I am fully aware of this: I am getting ahead of myself in writing about Rand. I have read so little of her writings (or writings about her) that my representation of her philosophy could be missing out key pieces.

Despite being new to Rand School, I did not hold back on writing about Rand, with the most important reason being that few philosophers have hit me hard like she did. It is the feeling of exaltation mixed with exasperation when I turn the pages of her books. It is the realization that there are so many questions out there that I have not asked (consciously or subconsciously), so many meanings out there that I have not pondered. It is the impulse that I must never stop the quest to understand the questions that define what it means to be alive, what it means to be human. These and so much more that I am at a loss of words to describe.

I leave you with words of Rand discussing The New Intellectual. I aim to live up to her definition and expectation of what it means to honor one’s intellect:

To support a culture, nothing less than a new philosophical foundation will do. […] The greatest need today is for men who are not strangers to reality, because they are not afraid of thought.

The New Intellectual will be the man who lives up to the exact meaning of his title: a man who is guided by his intellect – not a zombie guided by feelings, instincts, urges, wishes, whims or revelations.

[…] He will be an integrated man, that is: a thinker who is a man of action. He will know that ideas divorced from consequent action are fraudulent, and that action divorced from ideas is suicidal.

Ayn Rand

I part with two quotes (callings) from Rand at the end of her essay:

“Gentlemen, leave your guns outside.”

“The intellectuals are dead – long live the intellectuals!”