The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


Objectivism and Thomas Jefferson


4. Selfishness as Virtue

Ayn Rand described her philosophy as "a philosophy for living on earth." But as we shall see, a philosophy founded on selfishness, as her's unabashedly is, is short-sighted and self-centered, and appeals to our lesser nature. Ultimately, it undermines the social cohesion of a nation and is for that reason an unproductive guide to living on earth. Anything that is destructive of community is ultimately unworkable, since we necessarily live in communities and our destinies are tied to communities. This is a lesson that industrialists had to learn the hard way: capitalism cannot flourish by relying only on capitalists; it needs a whole nation of people with sufficient income to buy the products of industry. If our nation goes down the drain, we as individuals will go down the drain with it. It is just that simple. A philosophy that does not recognize the ways in which our welfare and our destinies are all tied together can hardly be considered profound. Rather it is narrow and short-sighted. Its popularity can only be reflective of a "Me Generation" mentality and a disintegration of society--things that are all too evident in America at the close of the 20th Century. It becomes a justification for the neglect of God, duty, country and community, and, apparently, brazenly so.

In her Introduction to "The Virtue of Selfishness," Rand makes the following statement:

    "Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word 'selfishness' is: CONCERN WITH ONE'S OWN INTERESTS."

Beginning with this basic conceptual circumscription, she proceeds to construct the whole of her philosophy. This "exact meaning," however, is just not exact at all. The dictionary defines selfish as follows:

    "1. concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself; seeking or concentrating on one's own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others. 2. arising from concern with one's own welfare or advantage in disregard of others." (emphases added)

To reduce the definition of this word to a benign "concern with one's own interests" is more than dishonest and deceptive. It is the first step in a whole philosophical system that misleads, that removes the distinction between self-interest and selfishness, and that condones and reinforces actions that are essentially anti-social. To say that this manipulation of the definition does not matter, because "Rand deals with concepts, not mundane definitions of words," is to admit that Objectivism has moved from being a reputed philosophy to being a form of propaganda. The definitions of words are significant because they are the means of communication. When words are used ad libitum, they cease to be a means of communication, and become a means of obfuscation and deception.

Using an intellectual sleight-of-hand to convert selfishness into a virtue appeals to a tendency of our lesser nature to think and to act for short-term interests that ride rough-shod over others. Some no doubt are honestly taken in by this, because a healthy interest in one's own life and progress, together with a sense of self-worth, are indispensable for our proper functioning in society. There are many elements in society, some of them even our families and friends, that would undermine our self-esteem. But it is possible to counteract such forces without letting them push us into anti-social sentiments. Dealing rightly with destructive forces is as much a part of developing good character as learning how to be fair and just to others. As Jesus taught, it is our dealings with those who wish us ill that are the true test of what we are.

As someone else said so well, "Lies are the language of control and manipulation," and such a diversion from precise meaning when trying to establish philosophical principles is unforgivable, more especially when it is used to form a basic concept that becomes the foundation of a whole system of thought.

The fact that there are additional rules in this philosophy that call for a respect for "equal rights" has little meaning when the foundation for that respect, a genuine concern for the interests of others, is eliminated. Indeed, under such a philosophy "equal rights" become merely the rights of others to be as alienated and anti-social as we are.

    "[Man] must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life." --Ayn Rand

As with so many of Rand maxims, most people would agree with at least some senses of that statement. But the problem arises with what exactly this statement may mean, since words are ambiguous things in Rand's hands. The convenience of such a use of words is a person may easily dodge criticism when challenged. The inconvenience is it becomes just another means of self-deception.

What, then, is rational self-interest? To say that "man must work for his rational self-interest" is to say little, because the real question is, How do you define rational self-interest? As the saying goes, The devil is in the details, and cleverly hidden away in this instance. Does a rational self-interest include consideration of the whole of society without which the life of the individual is reduced to animal survival? Does it include duties owed to that society in order for it to continue to exist as a protective society? Does it include participation in that society, not only for what is necessary for oneself, but for what is collectively determined to be desirable for the society by the society itself? Does it include agreeing with policies to which you object just because most people support those policies and you wish to maintain unity? Objectivism gets pretty thin when spread that far.

The real work of philosophy consists in determining what is rational self-interest and how it is achieved, not in merely saying that is the goal. If a "philosophy" goes no deeper than naming rational self-interest as a goal, it leaves the bulk of significant meaning unsaid. In other words, self-interest becomes merely a slogan to support the individual in his present state of mind and offers nothing enlightening. Thus, "selfishness" and even "rational self-interest" become merely the buzz words of a feel-good set of dogmas.

To name one's own self-interest as a principle without its social context is to blatantly ignore the corrupting influence of interest as spoken of by Jefferson.

    "All know the influence of interest on the mind of man, and how unconsciously his judgment is warped by that influence." --Thomas Jefferson: Autobiography, 1821.

We notice that in her editing of the definition of selfishness, Rand eliminates those very words that relate to community interests outside the self: concern "excessively or exclusively with oneself," "without regard for others," "in disregard of others." How, then, does one distinguish between rational self-interest and destructive, irrational self-interest? The term "self-interest" alone provides no guidance. In fact, it is as likely to lead a person astray as to serve as a proper guide.

If self-interest however understood is an ideal, if it is suggested that it is synonymous with selfishness, then a person is given carte blanche to determine this by himself without reference to considerations outside himself. Rand instituted a process whereby her followers undergo a kind of rational analysis to assure that all their activities relate to a "rational" self-interest. But we have already seen that her understanding of self-interest is divorced from any duty or responsibility to the community or nation in which one lives. This "self-interest," therefore, lacks the fundamental moral element that makes it truly rational, and the process proscribed becomes, in fact, a form of brain-washing: a way to train the thought processes to be in accord with a stated ideology. It does not provide insights into everyday situations, but is a form of training in a specific mental methodology. Rather than having an expanded consciousness, with this kind of process, the follower receives a narrowed consciousness and is turned into a True Believer, not a broader and better human being. Such a process sanctions an internal revision that is just the reverse of what Jefferson thought necessary for the development of character.

    "The human character, we believe, requires in general constant and immediate control to prevent its being biased from right by the seductions of self-love." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1816.

A philosophy of selfishness, then, is really a rationalized system of self-adulation, an abandonment of immediate control and a carte blanche for the seductions of self-love about which Jefferson spoke. Combined with the absolute nature assumed for reason, it become an impregnable fortress of dogmatic belief. The endless process of character development is replaced by philosophical certainty.

    Rand's Caricature of Altruism

A real philosophy of human existence will help us to determine the point at which our tolerance and relationship to others with whom we interact for our mutual benefit is indeed in our "rational self-interest." This is the whole point of altruism: it is not a sacrifice of ourselves for persons we deem somehow more worthy than ourselves, nor is it a denial of ourselves for the sake of others. It is a generous out-flowing, a gift of ourselves, an identification with others, because our deepest insights realize, not that "there but for the grace of God go I," but rather "there by the grace of God am I!" The poet was a thousand leagues ahead of Ayn Rand when he wrote that "no man is an island."

The dictionary defines altruism as "unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others." In its noblest sense, it refers to a person who views the welfare of others as his own. It is an act of love, of giving. It is the spirit behind the maxim, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," thus acting towards others as if they were equals to oneself and as worthy of equal concern with self. It raises the other up as a person worthy of high consideration simply because that person is a fellow human being.

Rand, however, turns altruism on its head, using the term to suggest that the other is thereby considered, not just an equal, but one superior to oneself. In this caricature, one does not bring the other up to equality; one sacrifices oneself in favor of the other! Having established such an absurd straw-man, all would agree that it should be knocked down.

    "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: "Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World."

Unfortunately, there are many unscrupulous people in this world who try to impose just such a principle on others, perhaps even referring to it as "altruism," or "love thy neighbor," or some such palliative, just in order to use and manipulate others. It is often a tactic used by relatives, and for that reason the denigration of the term "altruism" is readily acceptable to many. But this is another distortion. No man can properly honor another as equal to himself, no man can rightly "do unto others as you would have them do unto you," if he does not first honor himself and subscribe to his own rights and dignity.

    "The irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute, is self-sacrifice--which means: self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction--which means: the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as a standard of the good." --Ayn Rand

Those who are irretrievably selfish themselves love to make their victims think they should make such a sacrifice. "Become selfless, so I can use you to my heart's content." But that is a corruption and a pathological distortion of altruism, and no valid philosophical concepts can be built on such misrepresentation. The proper remedy for such attempts to defraud is to recognize the tyranny, not to abandon rightful behavior. If we view generosity as a threat to self-interest, we cut ourselves off from the warmth of human contact. The self is not a standard of good or evil; it is merely subject to a deviation from what is right by cupidity and by ignoring its connection with others. The selfless is not a standard of the good or an ideal of self-denial; it merely suggests the overcoming of this tendency to forego generosity. To exaggerate and distort these concepts can only pander to undeveloped consciousnesses that want support and assurance without looking into themselves. It is an inexpensive way of getting self-esteem by merely lowering the standard for decency.

There is no room in this philosophy for those who act for posterity, for their country, for mankind. The following statement by Jefferson, for example, is entirely outside this self-centered philosophy:

    "A first attempt to recover the right of self government may fail, so may a second, a third, etc. But as a younger and more instructed race comes on, the sentiment becomes more and more intuitive, and a fourth, a fifth, or some subsequent one of the ever renewed attempts will ultimately succeed... To attain all this, however, rivers of blood must yet flow, and years of desolation pass over; yet the object is worth rivers of blood and years of desolation. For what inheritance so valuable can man leave to his posterity?" --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1823.

For whom are those making such attempts working for? Themselves? Their own private self-interests? Not hardly. They are doing it for their broader self: their people, their nation. And our nation was established by just such people, many of whom died in the process.

Guided by a philosophy of selfishness, there would never have come into being the nation we have or the blessings of liberty we enjoy. Indeed, everything about this country we now have was won for us by people who thought and fought, not just for themselves, but for interests that extend beyond the self: family, country, human rights. Those who come lately upon these blessings, who gladly live under them, and then say they owe nothing to the broad sentiments that established them are truly the parasites of out time. A philosophy of selfishness has no room for:

    "Love your neighbor as yourself, and your country more than life." --Thomas Jefferson to T. J. Grotjan, 1824.

But when faced with such utter contradictions by Jefferson to their philosophy, Objectivists will say, "Well, Thomas Jefferson was wrong in that instance." What they fail to realize, however, is that these expressions are not just an isolated sentiment. They are all of a piece with Jefferson's whole philosophy. Everything else builds on these premises.


Any system of thought, such as Objectivism, is by its very nature, anathema to Jefferson. The very existence of a set of beliefs that adherents subscribe to, that are issued by authorities who ostracize those who deviate from the "true doctrine," that embrace the delusion of certainty, are contrary to Jefferson's whole approach to life. This is one reason why he never wrote a book on political theory. He did not want to establish a set of doctrines for believers, since he was not such a believer himself.

    "I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever, in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else, where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent. If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all." --Thomas Jefferson to Francis Hopkinson, 1789.

Rather than adhere to dogmatic theory, he considered the whole universe of ideas his source. The principles he recognized were derived from nature, not from an abstract system of analysis. Concepts like "individualism" are like molds into which thought is poured. Rather than work with such abstract concepts, he studied nature and man himself, and discovered philosophic necessity by observing and understanding both. As emphasized so many times by Jefferson, man is a social animal, and

    "The Creator would indeed have been a bungling artist had he intended man for a social animal without planting in him social dispositions. It is true they are not planted in every man, because there is no rule without exceptions; but it is false reasoning which converts exceptions into the general rule." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Law, 1814.

The immature young person does not readily accept social dispositions and responsibilities. Not only are they "not planted in every man," but they are usually undeveloped in the very young. Part of growing up is becoming socialized and being able to relate to the world outside oneself in a mature fashion.

Those who feel alienated from society welcome a philosophy that provides them with self-esteem in spite of their alienation. They feel uplifted if they receive a boost to their sense of self-worth, not on the basis of acceptance or achievement, but on the basis of a contrived self-confidence alone. A mere adjustment of thinking that assures a person they are OK is a lot easier than working on one's character. And it makes a person feel better to blame society for his failure than to look deeply within himself.

The philosophy of selfishness and individualism is the whole focus of Objectivism. Individual rights exist in order to permit selfishness, and

    "the purpose of law and of government is the protection of individual rights." Ayn Rand

Well, of course a free state must protect individual rights! If individuals are not protected, no one is protected. As Jefferson wrote,

    "It is to secure our rights that we resort to government at all." --Thomas Jefferson to Francois D'Ivernois, 1795.

But compare Rand's statement and Jefferson. With Rand, government exists for the individual. But with Jefferson, WE--us individuals-- resort to government to protect OUR rights. WE, collectively, create this thing for the benefit of us all. Government is not an institution that offers protection for isolated individuals. Government is OUR institution that performs certain functions for US. The whole principle of this government is SELF-GOVERNMENT. It is US acting. It is not an agency that performs services for registered subscribers. It is a cooperative.

Under Rand's interpretation, government is not an agency created to serve the needs of a nation of individuals, but rather to serve each individual separately, and even then mainly to keep them apart, to prevent them from injuring one another and to let them live as they please with no duty or obligation to one another. This government does not provide services which the people being served wish it to provide; it only prevents individuals from forcibly violating the rights of other individuals.

Objectivism is described as "an integrated system of thought that defines the abstract principles by which a man must think and act if he is to live the life proper to man." What it defines, however, is an abstract system of individualism that ignores the life of a nation as a society of people living and working together. Ultimately, by ignoring this social aspect, it cannot define a life that is proper to man, or even a life that is practicable for man, because civilized life apart from society is impossible. Or, as Jefferson put it,

    "Man was created for social intercourse." --Thomas Jefferson to Francis Gilmer, 1816.

His life and the government under which he lives is shaped by this social aspect.

    "To us is committed the important task of proving by example that a government, if organized in all its parts on the representative principle, unadulterated by the infusion of spurious elements, if founded not in the fears and follies of man but on his reason, on his sense of right, on the predominance of the social over his dissocial passions, may be so free as to restrain him in no moral right and so firm as to protect him from every moral wrong." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Vermont Address, 1801.

The individual freedom that restrains his in no moral right and protects him from every moral wrong is all in the context of "the predominance of the social over his dissocial passions." Such a government, if founded as indicated, may then offer that level of individual freedom.

Self-government--government of the people--is a cooperative collective organized for the benefit of its members. It provides each with individual liberty, but it also requires from each collective responsibilities. It was not established solely for each individual's selfish ends. It acts in general for the interests of all, but those actions may not be in accordance with the wishes of some individuals at one time or another.

    "Every man cannot have his way in all things. If his opinion prevails at some times, he should acquiesce on seeing that of others preponderate at other times. Without this mutual disposition we are disjointed individuals, but not a society." --Thomas Jefferson to John Dickinson, 1801.

It is difficult to know what to say to those who purposely choose to be "disjointed individuals." We can say, "Fine, but that's not the way we operate here. It's give and take here, and if you want all take and no give, you're not going to like it here." A free society that is nevertheless a cooperative society provides considerable slack for those who refuse to cooperate. Nevertheless it is a society, and it makes certain requirements of its members, and this aspect of it is, fortunately, supported by the vast majority of its members, who see no need to accommodate those who would promote the disintegration of society. But as long as those who do not wish to be a part of a cooperative society obey the laws created under this form of government, they remain free to believe what they wish, and are even free to try to convince others.

    "No government can be maintained without the principle of fear as well as duty. Good men will obey the last, but bad ones the former only. If our government ever fails, it will be from this weakness." --Thomas Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes, 1814.

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