The provocative title of Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness matches an equally provocative thesis about ethics. Traditional ethics has always been suspicious of self-interest, praising acts that are selfless in intent and calling amoral or immoral acts that are motivated by self-interest. A self-interested person, in the traditional view, will not consider the interests of others and thus will slight or harm those interests in the pursuit of his or her own. Rand’s view is that the exact opposite is true: Self-interest, properly understood, is the standard of morality, and selflessness is the deepest immorality.
The Virtue of Selfishness Analysis
According to Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, self-interest, rightly understood, is to see oneself as an end in oneself. That is to say that one’s own life and happiness are one’s highest values, and that one does not exist as a servant or slave to the interests of others. Nor do others exist as servants or slaves to one’s own interests. Each person’s own life and happiness are that person’s ultimate ends. Self-interest, rightly understood, also entails self-responsibility: One’s life is one’s own, as is the responsibility for sustaining and enhancing it. It is up to each person to determine what values his or her life requires, along with how best to achieve those values, and to act to achieve those values.
Rand’s ethic of self-interest is integral to her advocacy of classical liberalism. Classical liberalism, more often called libertarianism in the twentieth century, is the view that individuals should be free to pursue their own interests. This implies, politically, that governments should be limited to protecting each individual’s freedom to do so. In other words, the moral legitimacy of self-interest implies that individuals have rights to their lives, their liberties, their property, and the pursuit of their own happiness, and that the purpose of government is to protect those rights. Leaving individuals free to pursue their own interests implies in turn that only a capitalist or free market economic system is moral: Free individuals will use their time, money, and other property as they see fit, and they will interact and trade voluntarily with others to mutual advantage.
Fundamentally, the means by which people live their lives is by reason. The capacity for reason is what enables humans to survive and flourish. People are not born knowing what is good for them; that is learned. Nor are they born knowing how to achieve what is good for them; that too is learned. It is by reason that one learns what is food and what is poison, what animals are useful or dangerous, how to make tools, what forms of social organization are fruitful, and so on.
Thus, Rand advocates rational self-interest: One’s interests are not whatever one happens to feel like; rather, it is by reason that one identifies what serves one’s interests and what does not. By the use of reason, one takes into account all the factors one can identify, projects the consequences of potential courses of action, and adopts principled policies of action. The principled policies a person should adopt are called virtues. A virtue is an acquired character trait; it results from identifying a policy as good and committing to acting consistently in terms of that policy.
One such virtue is rationality. Having identified the use of reason as fundamentally good, Rand asserts that being committed to act in accordance with reason is the virtue of rationality. Another virtue is productiveness: Given that the values one needs to survive must be produced, being committed to producing those values embodies the virtue of productiveness. Another is honesty: Given that facts are facts and that one’s life depends on knowing and acting in accordance with facts, being committed to awareness of facts entails the virtue of honesty.
Independence and integrity are also core virtues for Rand’s account of self-interest. Given that one must think and act by one’s own efforts, being committed to the policy of independent action is a virtue. In addition, given that one must both identify what serves one’s interests and act to achieve those interests, a policy of being committed to acting on the basis of one’s beliefs is the virtue of integrity. The opposite policy of believing one thing and doing another is the vice of hypocrisy; hypocrisy is a policy of self-destruction, in Rand’s view.
Justice is another core self-interested virtue. In Rand’s account, justice means a policy of judging people, including oneself, according to their value and acting accordingly. The opposite policy of giving to people more or less than they deserve is injustice. The final virtue on Rand’s list of core virtues is pride, the policy of...
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The core difference between Rand’s self-interest view and the selfless view can be seen in the reason why most advocates of selflessness think self-interest is dangerous: conflicts of interest. According to traditional ethics, conflicts of interest are fundamental to the human condition, and basic ethical principles exist to advise in these conflicts and to state whose interests should be sacrificed to resolve these conflicts. If there is, for example, a fundamental conflict between what God wants and what humans naturally want, then religious ethics will make fundamental the principle that human wants should be sacrificed for God’s. If there is a fundamental conflict between what society needs and what individuals want, then some versions of secular ethics will make fundamental the principle that the individual’s wants should be sacrificed for society’s.
Taking conflicts of interest to be fundamental almost always stems from one of two premises: that human nature is fundamentally destructive or that economic resources are scarce. If human nature is fundamentally destructive, then humans are naturally in conflict with one another. Many ethical philosophies start from this premise, such as Plato’s myth of Gyges, Jewish and Christian accounts of original sin, and Sigmund Freud’s account of the id. If what individuals naturally want to do to one another is rape, steal, and kill, then these individual desires need to be sacrificed in a functioning...
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Rand rejects both the scarce resources and destructive human nature premises. Human beings are not born in sin or with destructive desires, nor do they necessarily acquire them in the course of growing to maturity. Instead, one is born tabula rasa (“blank slate”), and through one’s choices and actions, one acquires character traits and habits. As Rand phrases it, “Man is a being of self-made soul.” Chronic desires to steal, rape, or kill others are the result of mistaken development and the acquisition of bad habits, just as are chronic laziness and the habit of eating too much junk food. Just as one is not born lazy but can, by individual choices, develop into a person of vigor or sloth, one is not born antisocial but can—again by individual choices—develop into a person of cooperativeness or conflict.
Nor are resources scarce in any fundamental way, according to Rand. By the use of reason, humans can discover new resources and how to use existing resources more efficiently, including recycling where appropriate and making productive processes more efficient. Humans have, for example, continually discovered and developed new energy resources, including animal energy, wood, coal, oil, and nuclear and solar power. In this perspective, there is no end in sight to this process. At any given moment, the available resources are fixed in quantity, but over time, the stock of resources is constantly expanding.
Because humans are...
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Binswanger, Harry. The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts. Los Angeles: Ayn Rand Institute Press, 1990. Written by a philosopher, this is a scholarly work focused on the connection between biology and the concepts at the roots of ethics.
Branden, Nathaniel, and Barbara Branden. Who Is Ayn Rand? New York: Random House, 1962. This book contains three essays on Objectivism’s moral philosophy, its connection to psychological theory, and a literary study of Rand’s methods in her fiction. It contains an additional biographical essay, tracing Rand’s life from birth to her mid-fifties....
(The entire section is 498 words.)