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Fearless Philosophy For Free Minds: The Virtue of Selfishness

Friday, March 18, 2005

The Virtue of Selfishness

Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism is just as controversial and misunderstood today as in her own time. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Objectivism is the virtue of selfishness. Most of us are taught from a very early age to put the needs of others ahead of our own. We are also taught that greed is bad i.e. “The love of money is the root of all evil.” Though these ideas are well-intentioned and sound ‘moral,’ are they?

In my debate with Gary on the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, he brought up the following point:

“Ayn Rand’s Objectivism shows that if you apply only reason you come up with a self-centered set of values that doesn’t even require parent to care for their own children.”

There Are No Selfless Acts
To answer Gary’s criticism, I have to ask the question: is there any such thing as an unselfish act? Most parents value and love their children; therefore the children are an extension to his or her self-interest. As a parent, I want the best things in life for my children and as a husband; I want the best for my wife. These values of mine are by no stretch of the imagination selfless (putting their needs ahead of mine) but rather selfish because they are what I value in life and I will do everything necessary to take care of them. Because I value their love and affection, I must take care of them emotionally, financially, and physiologically. Love itself is a selfish emotion particularly when you choose a mate and take him or her to be your spouse. When you marry someone you agree to be faithful only to that person in exchange for his or her faithfulness to you. Consider this: you cannot say “I love you” without first saying “I”.

All human motivations are based in selfishness. When you volunteer for a cause, donate money to charity, or “pay it forward” (Great movie; when you give someone a helping hand), though many regard such an action as ‘selfless’ it really isn’t because helping people makes you feel good about yourself. A truly selfless act means you receive no sense of satisfaction or benefit from doing the act and would require doing something against your will (such as at gunpoint).

Capitalism: An Economic System Based on Selfishness
If we truly lived by the philosophy: “The love of money is the root of all evil,” we would have to conclude that capitalism is evil and favor either socialism or communism. Karl Marx summarized his theory of communism writing: "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need." Communism and socialism surmises that pursuit of money is evil; the goal of both economic theories is to eliminate social classes, evenly dividing the wealth. On its face, socialism and communism appear to be selfless economic theories. Upon further inspection; however, those who subscribe to these theories tend to be envious of those who have what they do not. Envy is itself a form of selfishness; “If I can’t have it, no one can.”

Capitalism on the other hand is the polar opposite theory. Capitalism works because it is an economic theory based on human nature, especially selfishness. As individuals look out for their selfish interest to make money and acquire capital, the ones who can cater to the selfish needs of their customers the best are the most successful. Customers look out for their selfish needs and desires by seeking out the companies that have the best products or services, prices, or customer service. It is this kind of selfishness that inspires entrepreneurs to invent products, perfect services, and drive our economy. If everyone tried to deny their self-interests, very little if any of this could be achieved.

The fall of the Soviet Union is a great example of how flawed communism and socialism is. During the Cold War, the U.S.S.R. fought very hard to keep up with the U.S. technologically, politically, and militarily. At the end of this struggle, the United States’ capitalistic system eventually prevailed. Ronald Reagan recognized that communism was fatally flawed and engaged in some high-stakes poker with Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan made his intentions to the world clear that the U.S. was going to build SDI, A.K.A. the “Star Wars Defense System.” The cost of the Cold War was very expensive for both world super powers but in the end, the U.S.S.R’s economic system could not keep up with the West. SDI was the straw that broke the camel’s back. In reality, the technology was probably not available in the 1980’s to build such an ambitious technological feat (we probably do not have the ability even today), but the Russians did not know that. Maybe Reagan was bluffing; maybe he was serious, either way the strategy worked. The Russians witnessed Niel Armstrong walking on the moon, something many scientists thought impossible at the time. How could Communist Russia motivate its citizens to compete against the U.S.? National pride perhaps? The Soviet Union crumbled on by its own weight; it expanded too far to sustain itself.

Though the Soviet Union was defeated many years ago, communism and socialism is far from dead. We find it creeping into our own government and culture. We don’t call it socialism or communism here; we call it Social Security, Medicare, and Minimum Wage. We the people call for affirmative action, and equal results rather than equal opportunity. We hate how ‘greedy’ Bill Gates is; after all, doesn’t he have enough money? Why can’t he share his wealth? The rich don’t pay enough taxes, yada, yada, yada. Rather than teaching our children how wrong it is to be selfish, why not teach them that its not selfishness that is wrong, but rather how it is directed? Selfishness is a virtue that promotes a better world, not worse.


Blogger T. F. Stern said...

Other than a few minor sticking points I would agree with a good deal of how this topic was approached.

I linked to this blog, Go back to sleep.

10:57 AM  
Blogger Gary B said...


I feel qualified to comment on this because at one time I studied Objectivism, acquiring and reading several of Ayn Rand’s and Leonard Peikoff’s books and absorbing their philosophy. This was during a time when I was testing some of my fundamental Christian beliefs and Objectivism was somewhat attractive to me.

I don’t have time right now to comment extensively, but let me just say that I agree with much of your post. It is absolutely true that self-interest is a healthy motivation. Only the genuinely self-interested don’t want to go to hell and are willing to do whatever it takes to stay out.

However, self-interest and selfishness are not the same thing--at least not in most people's lexicons and not for my purposes here.

Self-interest says “The universe has certain self-evident natural and even spiritual rules which will, if I align myself properly with them, quite naturally reward me.” Healthy self-interest is really just trying to live by what is genuinely true.

Selfishness, on the other hand, has no underlying foundation or justification other than satisfying one’s appetites--for pleasure, for gratification, for adulation or whatever the self wants at the moment. A selfish person would shoot another person just to take his shoes. A self-interested person would not, because he would realize there is a higher reward for not doing so.

Objectivists call sacrifice absurd for the same reasons you spoke of. However, they mischaracterize sacrifice. Sacrifice does not mean given up something greater for something lesser. It means giving up or foregoing something you want to do for something you ought to do. And that’s usually not easy, no matter how rational it is. You may want that hamburger and fries, but you may also want to lose 10 pounds. Forgoing the food is a sacrifice, ask anyone who has settled for a salad. But it is also very self-interested. It’s just looking at the bigger picture.

Paul wrote in the book of Romans, “Present your body to God as a living sacrifice, which is your most reasonable service.” It is most reasonable because in the long run it produces the greatest reward.

But there are times, in the Christian view, that we are asked to make the ultimate sacrifice--to give up our lives for others. Most parents would probably rather die than see their children die. Dying for another person, however, cannot be considered selfish in the same way stealing someone’s lunch money is selfish. It requires one to give up everything in this life when we are programmed for self-preservation.

Rand has no provision in her ethics for this kind of motivation, other that to say if you value your children do what you feel you need to for them. But she never said you should value your children, neither did she say why you should. She couldn’t. Her philosophy just wasn’t built that way. The reason being her ethics were totally occupied with this present life, she did not believe in ultimate rewards. She had no reason to expect anyone to die for anything because doing so could not be “selfish,” unless it was a self-indulgent suicide.

4:43 PM  
Blogger Stephen Littau said...


I can see that you have given this concept a lot of thought and you have made some great points. I'm by no means an expert on objectivism, I consider myself a student who is giving it some careful consideration. This article reflects my understanding of Rand's premise of selfishness. I think that the difference between selfishness and self-interest is a matter of semantics. Your definition of self-interest probably better describes my position and understanding of this philosophy. In fact, I almost titled this article "The Virtue of Self-Interest," but I thought defending selfishness would be a better and more interesting challenge and made for a more provocative title. Since I chose to hold up selfishness as a virtue, let me see if I can defend it based on my original arguments.

You made the argument: "Selfishness, on the other hand, has no underlying foundation or justification other than satisfying one’s appetites--for pleasure, for gratification, for adulation or whatever the self wants at the moment. A selfish person would shoot another person just to take his shoes."

I would answer that by saying, selfishness cannot be one's ONLY virtue. Selfishness in of itself isn't wrong; it’s the underlying values one has. Some of the other virtues of objectivism are productiveness, integrity, honesty, and justice. If the selfish person holds these other virtues as well, he or she will likely not "kill a person just to take his shoes."

Also, I would point out that being selfish doesn't mean taking everything you want by any means. Sometimes the selfish person has to compromise in order to achieve the higher goals, wishes, and needs. Cheating customers, for example, is counter-productive to the selfish person. It may be better to have a short-term loss as opposed to losing a customer and possibly his or her reputation.

The employer/employee relationship, you could say is based on this concept as well. I might not WANT to work overtime but if I want the extra money and want show my boss I am willing to go the extra mile for the (selfish) interests of the company (my selfish interests), I will forgo my desire to go home at the normal time for those purposes.

1:14 PM  
Blogger Gary B said...

Fundamentally, Objectivists misinterpret Christian "sacrifice." But many Christians misinterpret Christian sacrifice as well, thinking that "giving things up" or "suffering" are virtues in themselves. They are not unless they serve a higher goal. For example, giving up a bit of TV watching in order to spend time with someone who needs a friend. Or being willing to endure ridicule for what one thinks is right.

Where Objectivism and Christianity truly part on this is that Objectivism's highest value is self-preservation, whereas Christianity's is the glory of God.

There are time's when God asks us to give up everything for his glory, promising to more than make up for what we lose. But God never asks us to give up things for nothing, though we may have to wait for our reward. Sometimes we have to wait until the next life for justice and reward. But often he repays us in this life in a myriad of ways.

9:19 AM  
Blogger Robert said...

This is an interesting discussion you had here, Stephen…I’m sorry I missed it in real-time. I say that specifically because I am a ’Christian’ who also finds many redeeming qualities in Objectivism and ‘selfishness’ in particular.

Gary seems to be evaluating Rand’s decidedly atheistic philosophy by a theistic standard of morals and ethics. The two are incompatible in some ways and certainly in the context of Gary’s argument. Actually, I think that Rand’s disdain for all things mystical was rooted in an imperfect conceptualization of theism. Likewise, perhaps Gary fails to recognize that his beliefs are foreign to others.

In the final analysis, as rational beings, we must make rational choices that often incorporate healthy selfishness. But another aspect of morals and ethics is the principle of mutual respect for the rights of others. Such reciprocal respect ideally precludes the possibility of shooting another person for their shoes. To be sure, violence is an all too common occurrence, but such is unethical and immoral, not simply selfish behavior. That said, I would caution Christians not to use ‘faith’ as a universal standard of measure, because it is somewhat esoteric.

8:05 PM  
Blogger BCM said...

On "Money being the root of all evil"

That's one of those ideas that sounds like a truism, but doesn't hold up under scrutiny.

For example, where does money come into a rape? Where is money involved as the motive?

Was there no such thing as evil before money was invented? If evil existed then, how could money be the root of all evil?

Just a thought.

8:45 AM  
Anonymous MJB said...

I have been researching the ideas and philosophies of Ayn Rand, and have discovered, under intense scrutiny, a large contradiction.

The contradiction is between Ayn Rand's ideas of Reason and Selfishness. According to Ayn Rand, reason is man's only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, and HIS ONLY GUIDE TO ACTION. If you are chained to the grip of reason, how then can you be selfish?

I will use an example given by a former comment. If you are a selfish person, then you would, as a business owner, cheat your customers. This follows along with thinking only of yourself. In the light of reason, however, would the cheating of customers be reasonable? The result would be the loss of the customer, as well as the customers reputation. Since these two ideas contradict each other, how then can someone be both selfish, as well be a student of reason?

In summary, most selfish acts are not reasonable. If everyone was selfish in this world, the end result would be catastrophic; the population would be in a constant battle with its neigbors, trying to get its own way. There is no excuse for this behavior in the light of reason.

I do disagree with Ayn Rand's perception of reason, however. It is not man's only means of perceiving reality. I believe that the ultimate source of truth and direction is the Bible. It is the most historically accurate manuscript in print today, and one cannot argue the impact it has had in the world, past and present.

On another note, if reason was the only means of perceiving reality, then why are people selfish? If reason was man's only means of perceiving reality, then people would question their actions before they do them, acting not on what is best for them, but what is best overall. Since many people obviously do not act like this, it is safe to conclude that man is either reasonable, selfish, but never both. They are contradictions.

Just a few thoughts.

6:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My main problem with this article is that the writer attempts to conflate communism and socialism using the former Soviet Union as an example of the "flaws" of both. The Soviet Union did not collapse in a vacuum. the US and other capitalist countries had been doing all that they could to undermine and destroy communism in general and the USSSR in particular. there are successful examples of socialism, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, etc.
Additionally, objectivists never seem to see the ultimate results of a purely "randian" society.
I have asked many objectivists and not one of them could point to anything in rands' philosophy that would prevent a slow slide into a feudal class system.
the danger in my opinion is being caught up in "isms". all political systems have something to offer. if we dismiss an idea out of hand because it sounds too "socialist" we do so at our peril.

6:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you ask me what I think I would tell you that this whole notion of doing things purely out of selfishness is an unfair accusation for society at large. I do believe that there is something great at work within ourselves and within this world that drives us to be at our greatest creative potential.

In my experience this is something that is achieved through our risk and loss of self within the world at large. This might sound cryptic and romantic but I feel that it is true for me.

9:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


If we're going to end up living in a just world, we need to be exemplary people .. we need to trust ourselves and live in a righteous manner. I don't know if we really have that it in us but I hope we do.

To anyone who would argue that love does not exist, I would ask you to just at least consider the kind of sacrifices the people on this world have to make in order for you to simply survive. There was a time where you could hardly eat, walk or talk, and they taught you everything.

Now you've got a mind so advanced that you can argue about the rationality behind all of this bullshit, but what does it add up to? This objectivism just seems too hollow. If this is your experience of life it doesn't sound interesting to me. Sorry.

9:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i must say i've been more informed since and after i reveiwed this article its just that by my own contest we all have something inward that drives us to take the action we take.
if i got to understand that by taking a acertain action we beneit me and benefit others as well i'll do it we all would do it
but if something would whether in the long run or short not benefit us we would not do it
most people worship god for what they would gain
how many people worship god or does what he says out of love
almost none
many people for the fear of hell
others for vengence protection
but jesus said if u luv me u'll do what i say
but we are mostly selfish in our reasoning
well i just say god knew dat and like what gary said everyone has an atom of selfish tendecies but how its is directed shoould be what we are looking at

5:09 PM  
Blogger sam said...

i think the term 'selfishness' is conditioned in us negatively since childhood which makes me want to equate want to just call what you're saying as 'self-interest' rather than the negative sounding 'selfishness' though they basically stand for the same thing.

mostly i agree with your blog but i also kinda see why affirmative action is necessary though it goes against objectivistic thinking and most of what you've said. in a perfect world where prejudice is absent and people aren't judged by their background, color, race, or even personal defects, if everyone really is equal not just in rights but also in physical or mental capacities, we probably wouldn;t need affirmative action. i think it evens out a bit as the world is hardly a level playing field.

though i also agree, we need to teach self importance and treat a little selfishness as healthy rather than the evil it usually is perceived as.

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1:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Powerful and engaging discussion! I have just one comment to BCM for his misinterpretation of "Money is the root ..."

The correct phrasing is "the love of money is the root of all evil". Now, this can be viewed from a philosophical view of selfish desires that precede any sense of morality and ethical reasoning, and can in turn invade the very reasoning of all things - to eventually include "rape". What is rape anyway? It is the greed to provide for one's own selfish desire without respect of another and even at the cost of another. The principle is the same, and so perhaps the phrase is in many senses a parallel of consequences for placing values upon yourself and your needs while sacrificing not yourself, but others against their will. The love of money is a symptom of a bigger problem - don't you think? And that problem would be the equivelance of all things "evil" (twisted, wicked, perverted, etc.)

11:26 AM  
Blogger PL said...

First time on this blog and I read your article. A fantastic welcome, thank you.

I have a couple of points that I would like to share on the perspectives of objectivism raised here - unfortunately, I have only read summaries on Ayn Rand's as yet so I can only comment on the views posted here.

Indeed if it is true as MJB said that Rand states that reason is the only tool by which man perceives reality, this seems to be a limited view of the idea of mental perception. Reason would only come to being when a person uses trained responses to perceived events, and relates the two through reason.

Example: 1. a person sees the colour green (trained)
2. a person sees a leaf (trained)
3. the person notices the leaf is green and surmises that "the leaf is green" (reason)

Now pretend that the person had been trained to interpret the colour green as red. His reason would lead him to a false perception of reality.

This is based primarily on the work of Wittgenstein, and it suggests that not only is reason important in a person's perception but also the initial training a person can go through has a great influence on their perception of reality.

Let us now connect this to the notion of self interest. The amount of combination of training and reason that can contribute to a persons notion of self interest are endless. Suicidal people believe it is in their self interest to die. Some people believe it is necessary to cheat their way to the top, others may feel their self interest lies in producing children. There are so many different opportunities that it is impossible to categorise them for any political purpose.
This is were Rand's political system intersects with this argument - the notion that capitalism, though it has many faults, is the system best suited to allow people to pursue their various self interests. Communism makes the assumption that everyone's self interest is served by equality and security, which cannot be true. Granted Rand's philosophy was slightly reactionary due to her past in the Soviet Union, but her philosophy of self interest has its strong points, this being one of them - society is naturally pluralistic with regards to self interest, and this can be acheived best through free market capitalism.
What free market capitalism does not acheive is touched on here, with a few trying to distinguish between self interest and selfishness. It is a semantic argument, it would probably be best distinguished as self interest and self interest at the expense of others. Most western societies have regulations in place that restrict the second type in the marketplace (anti-competition, bankruptcy, insider trading - theft in general) as well as other criminal laws. Having not read Rand's argument I'm not to qualified to answer what her view of this was but I imagine she would have been in favour of these regulations.

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