John R. Woolner, P.E.
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 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:
"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.
Both Ayn Rand and you state your definitions are from the dictionary. From which dictionary are you stating your definition of selfish? Webster's II New College Dictionary, copyright 1995 states selfish as:
Adj. 1. Concerned only or primarily with oneself without regard for others
2. Arising from, marked by, or exhibiting selfishness. - self' ish ly adv. -self' ish ness n. Syns: selfish, self-centered, self-seeking adj. Core meaning: concerned only with oneself ant: Altruistic.
It is true "concerned only with oneself" is not the exact meaning but the core meaning. Stating the core meaning does NOT make the definition benign nor dishonest and deceptive. Ayn Rand is guilty of a poor choice of words.
It is more than a poor choice of words, and you have distorted the point yourself. You say that your dictionary states that "concerned only with oneself" is not the exact meaning but the core meaning. Yet Ayn Rand did NOT define selfishness as "concerned only with oneself." She defined it as "CONCERN WITH ONE'S OWN INTERESTS," leaving out the "only," which changes the sense entirely. "CONCERN WITH ONE'S OWN INTERESTS" is not the meaning of selfishness, but rather of self-interest. There is a world of difference between selfishness and self-interest, and confusing those two terms could hardly lead to a valid philosophy.
John R. Woolner, P.E.
To understand what Ayn Rand is trying to say, you must read all the essays in The Virtue of Selfishness and Atlas Shrugged. Ayn Rand is not advocating not being concerned for others. One should not be forced to sacrifice to another. A person does not have the right to violate the unalienable rights of another. In normal situations, a person is not bound to give unto another but in times of emergencies, as Nathaniel Branden stated in The Virtue Of Selfishness, a person, who is for life, should help another in trouble. We are not our brother's keeper. We do not owe another a living. This country was founded on the principle that all men are created equal and deserve the same rights to become successful and enjoy our pursuit of happiness. When a person is sacrificed to make another person successful and happy, that person becomes the means to another's end; hence, the person being sacrificed is having his unalienable rights violated. A person should not accept anything unearned nor should he give anything away unearned. This is the idea Ayn Rand is trying to state.
Any person who believes in equal rights and liberty would agree essentially with what you wrote. But what Ayn Rand is doing is a bit more disingenuous than as you state it. It is true, in a sense, that "One should not be forced to sacrifice to another." And certainly, no person should be compelled to sacrifice themselves and what they have worked for in order to benefit someone else who has not expended similar effort. Jefferson said the same thing in these words:
"To take from one because it is thought that his own industry and that of his father's has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association-- 'the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it.'" --Thomas Jefferson: Note in Destutt de Tracy's "Political Economy," 1816. ME 14:466
But what Rand is saying is much more subtle, and destructive. Her philosophy of selfish Individualism reduces society from an association of people who join together mutually and collectively "to effect their safety and happiness," (as Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence), and converts all the members to separate atoms who do nothing collectively except for that which benefits directly each atomized individual. She would remove from a whole nation of people their right to act collectively and to create, for example, government programs that benefit some who fall into misfortune, when those programs are paid for by the members of society generally. Although such programs are not really any great or sacrificial burden on anyone, this is considered a "sacrifice" because some do not wish to contribute to what the majority of the society have determined is beneficial to the whole. This, then, is a philosophy of alienation. It is a philosophy of selfishness that would break up the union of individuals and make them isolated persons seeking their own ends without regard to the welfare of the whole society. Such a philosophy is neither American, nor is it ultimately productive of any good. But it has great appeal to many of those who are lacking in a social consciousness and who delight in this glorification of selfishness.
Definition and redefinition are philosophical tools. Ayn Rand defines selfishness to mean "Concern with one's own interests."
Definition and redefinition may indeed be analytical tools in the search for understanding reality. Redefinition is the process of understanding reality more clearly by discovering new relationships or associations. But to arbitrarily redefine a word for purposes of argument serves no legitimate purpose. It could only confuse, distract, or to make something arbitrarily obscure.Jock Doubleday
After she has defined selfishness, you redefine it and then judge the soundness of her arguments according to your definition.
The purpose of language is communication. There is a standard definition for words like "selfishness" which people use to communicate with one another. I did not "redefine" the word; it is not "my" definition. It is the definition commonly accepted and used for communication as found in the dictionary.
When someone redefines a word differently and uses it differently (which is commonly done in all cults, incidentally), one naturally asks, Why are they doing this? If Ayn Rand wanted to talk about "Concern with one's own interests," why didn't she use the perfectly good word, self-interests?
At any rate, Ms. Rand did not "define" the word selfishness. She did not say she was providing her own definition of the word. She said specifically that was the way it is defined in the dictionary, which is a lie.
You define selfishness as: "concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself; seeking or concentrating on one's own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others."
Any conclusions you reach concerning the virtue of selfishness cannot counter Ms. Rand's conclusions, or refer to her arguments, as her intended meaning has been corrupted.
That assumes that Ms Rand can validly invent any kind of imaginary intellectual world she wants. Actually, she can indeed invent whatever worlds she wishes, and she has; but if she is trying to understand reality, she may not do so validly. If she is conveying a philosophy, she is obliged to confine herself to reality just like anyone else. The products of the imagination have no real existence any more than Galt's Gulch has a real existence. The question that students of philosophy must decide is, do they want to discover reality, or do they want to create a world in the imagination apart from reality. Ms Rand is a novelist. Her worlds generally exist only as an abstract creation of the imagination. Her "philosophy" is a system apart from reality, and as such is at best worthless, and at worse pernicious.