Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 98

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.

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A New Theory of Self-Interest

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 268

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.

Rationality

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 185

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.

Virtues

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 483

One such virtue is rationality. Having identified the use of reason as fundamentally good, Rand asserts that being committed to act in accordance with...

(The entire section contains 2497 words.)

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