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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,...

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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.

A New Theory of Self-Interest

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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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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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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 “moral ambitiousness,” in Rand’s words. This means a policy of being committed to making oneself be the best one can be, of shaping one’s character to the highest level possible. According to her, pride is a virtue rather than a sin.

The moral person, then, according to Rand, is someone who acts and is committed to acting in his or her self-interest. It is by living the morality of self-interest that one survives, flourishes, and achieves happiness. This account of self-interest is a minority position, though it has always attracted many followers. The contrasting view typically pits self-interest against morality, holding that one is moral only to the extent that one sacrifices one’s self-interest for the sake of others, or, more moderately, to the extent that one acts primarily with regard for the interests of others. For example, standard versions of selflessness hold that one is moral to the extent that one sets aside one’s own interests to serve God, or the weak and the poor, or society as a whole. In these accounts, the interests of God, the poor, or society as a whole are held to be of greater moral significance than one’s own interests; accordingly, one’s interests should be sacrificed when necessary. These ethics of selflessness thus believe that one should see oneself fundamentally as a servant, as existing to serve the interests of others, not one’s own interests.

Conflicts of Interest

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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 society. A basic principle of ethics then will urge individuals to suppress their natural desires so that society can exist. In other words, self-interest is the enemy.

Scarcity of economic resources, with not enough to satisfy everyone’s wants or needs, puts human beings in fundamental conflict with one another: For one individual’s want or need to be satisfied, another’s must be sacrificed. Many ethical philosophies begin with this premise. For example, English economist and philosopher Thomas Malthus’s theory that population growth will outstrip growth in the food supply falls into this category, and Karl Marx invigorated socialism with his theory that brutal competition for scarce resources leads to the exploitation of some by others. Philosopher Garret Hardin’s famous use of the lifeboat analogy asks people to imagine that society is like a lifeboat and that there are more people than its resources can support. To resolve the destructive competition caused by inadequate resources, a basic principle of ethics will urge individuals to sacrifice their interests in obtaining more (or even some) so that others may obtain more (or some) and society can exist peacefully. In other words, in a situation of scarcity, self-interest is the enemy and must be sacrificed to serve the interests of others.

Rejecting Premises

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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 rational, they can produce an ever-expanding number of goods, so human interests do not fundamentally conflict with one another. Rand holds that the exact opposite is true: Because humans can and should be productive, human interests are deeply in harmony. For example, one person’s choice to produce more corn is in harmony with another person’s choice to produce more peas, because by being productive and trading with each other they both become better off. It is in each person’s interest that the other be successful, because that will expand the total amount of resources—in this example, food—available.

Conflicts of interest do exist within a narrower scope of focus. In the immediate present, available resources are more fixed, and competition for those resources results. That competition produces winners and losers. Economic competition, however, is a broader form of cooperation, a way to allocate resources socially without resorting to physical force and violence. Through competition, resources are allocated efficiently and peacefully, and in the long run more resources are produced. Thus, a competitive economic system serves the self-interests of all its members.

Rand argues that her ethic of self-interest is the basis for personal happiness and free and prosperous societies. Her novels and books of nonfiction have sold tens of millions of copies, thus having a wide influence. Her work on ethics, particularly her advocacy of self-interest as morally good, is perhaps the most controversial part of her philosophy. That her views have an established place in the canon is indicated by the facts that excerpts from her works are regularly reprinted in college textbooks and that several academic and policy institutes have arisen to articulate and advance her philosophy of Objectivism.

Bibliography

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Additional Reading

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.

Hessen, Robert. In Defense of the Corporation. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1979. Hessen, an economic historian, argues and defends from an Objectivist perspective the moral and legal status of the corporate form of business organization.

Kelley, David. The Evidence of the Senses. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986. Written by a philosopher, this is a scholarly work in epistemology, focusing on the foundational role the senses play in human knowledge.

Mayhew, Robert. Ayn Rand’s Marginalia. New Milford, Conn.: Second Renaissance Books, 1995. This volume contains Rand’s critical comments on more than twenty thinkers, including Friedrich Hayek, C. S. Lewis, and Immanuel Kant. Edited by a philosopher, the volume contains facsimiles of the original texts, with Rand’s comments on facing pages.

Peikoff, Leonard. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York: Dutton, 1991. This is the first comprehensive overview of all aspects of Objectivist philosophy, written by the philosopher who was closest to Rand during her lifetime.

Peikoff, Leonard. The Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America. New York: Stein and Day, 1982. A scholarly work in the philosophy of history, arguing Objectivism’s theses about the role of philosophical ideas in history and applying them to explaining the rise of National Socialism (Nazism).

Pierpont, Claudia Roth. Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. Evocative, interpretive essays on the life paths and works of twelve women, including Rand, connecting the circumstances of their lives with the shapes, styles, subjects, and situations of their art.

Torres, Louis, and Michelle Marder Kamhi. What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand. Chicago Ill.: Open Court, 2000. An amusing but respectful application of Rand’s definition to the body of twentieth century art.

Reisman, George. Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics. Ottawa, Ill.: Jameson Books, 1996. A scholarly work by an economist, developing capitalist economic theory and connecting it to Objectivist philosophy.

Rasmussen, Douglas, and Douglas Den Uyl, eds. The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984. A collection of scholarly essays by philosophers, defending and criticizing various aspects of Objectivism’s metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and politics.

Sciabarra, Chris Matthew. Ayn Rand, the Russian Radical. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995. A work in history of philosophy, this book attempts to trace the influence on Rand’s thinking of dialectical approaches to philosophy prevalent in nineteenth century Europe and Russia. Also provides an introduction to and overview of the major branches of Objectivist philosophy.

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