Objectivism and Thomas Jefferson
Seven Essays on the Philosophy of Ayn Rand


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. We are social creatures, and that fact influences every facet of our being. As Jefferson wrote,

Anything that is destructive of human 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 multitudinous ways in which our welfare and our destinies are all tied together can hardly be considered profound. Indeed, the very essence of profundity in religion and philosophy is when they explore the depths of meaning in man's relationship to man and to the universe. A philosophy that focuses on the self and its interests apart from this connection to others 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:

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

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 rational self-interest and selfishness, and that ultimately 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 based on precise knowledge 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. They are then used to blur distinctions and to manipulate concepts in order to beguile.

[See Open Forum Discussion on this point.]

Using such 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 and to ride rough-shod over others. Some no doubt are honestly taken in by this. 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. And a philosophy that would pervert those normal and natural interests into ones that also reinforce our lesser nature and its tendencies is likely to find a ready market.

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.

[See Open Forum Discussion on this point.]

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.

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 quite 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.

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.

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 and self-examination is replaced by philosophical certainty and self-worship. Rand leaves no doubt of where she stands here.

The philosophy of selfishness, in fact, replaces a sense of morality which identifies the individual with one's fellow man, and substitutes a rationalization for an exclusive concern with oneself. It is viewed as "moral" providing one permits everyone else to adhere to the same sense of self-concern. Morality then consists in a respectful isolation and alienation from everyone else. Everyone thinks only of themselves, and considers it moral if everyone else has the right to think only of themselves also. One individual will help a second only if it is in some way to the benefit of the first individual.

Jefferson embraced no such all-for-myself individualism. He clearly distinguished between a society of people who willingly work together and the isolated individualism of those who think only of themselves.

A corollary of this philosophy of selfishness is that one should not use another person for one's own ends -- which sounds nice, until one realizes that social interaction means that one is always using others for one's own ends. Even if one person helps a second only if it benefits the first, that first can be said to be "using" the second for his own benefit. Thus, this corollary is a mere illusion. The only genuine moral relationship with others is where one acts responsibly towards the other. And since there is NO responsibility to others in selfishness, this corollary becomes a smoke-screen for the most overt use of other people in the name of self-interest. Cutting through the sophisms, it becomes obvious that there can be no morality in dealing with others apart from a sense of responsibility towards them. If one's sense of morality includes only whatever serves one's own self-interest, then morality has been eradicated by self-interest.

There is nothing new about a philosophy of self-interest and selfishness. Jefferson himself addressed it as one of several approaches to morality which he had taken under consideration.

As Jefferson points out, self-interest has nothing to do with morality at all. It is our relations to OTHERS that establishes the field of morality; our relation to ourself is merely one of identity, and such self-interest, as self-identity, avoids and ignores the significance of relationships. To propose selfishness as the basis of morality is to isolate the individual from others, and can only serve to break up any sense of relationship and community the individual may have. Instead of serving as a foundation for morality, it is a foundation for the exact opposite. Proposing it as virtue might only serve as comfort to those whose lack of maturity refuses to face the responsibilities of genuine morality.

Morality refers to our relationship to others. Selfishness is its opposite, paraded before the unsuspecting as virtue in order to lead them away from genuine morality.

NEXT PAGE Rand's Caricature of Altruism


Go to the Essays

Front Page | 1. Reason as Absolute
2. Safety in Error | 3. Happiness as Moral Purpose
4. Selfishness as Virtue | 5. Capitalism Over Self-Government
6. Non-Initiation of Force | 7. Adversaries of Democracy

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