Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness: An Introductory Critique March 25, 2014Posted by Shaun McGonigal in Culture and Society.
Tags: altruism, Ayn Rand, ethics, Objectivism, selfishness, The Virtue of Selfishness
50 years ago Ayn Rand, a novelist and philosopher, wrote a book entitled The Virtue of Selfishness. I read this book many years ago, in addition to The Romantic Manifesto, Atlas Shrugged, and Anthem. I actually enjoyed some aspects of her writing, especially when it came to her novels. But I never was able to seriously accept her philosophical worldview, and her epistemologucal and ‘ethical’ thinking rubbed me the wrong way.
Ayn Rand called herself an Objectivist. Here, and in the following series posts, I will not be addressing all of her Objectivist views, but will rather be focusing on the essays from this one work, The Virtue of Selfishness, and the related issues pertaining to ethical philosophy. In essence, I will be addressing her ‘ethical egoism.’
From the start, I will be clear that while I find some of what she says to be interesting and thought-provoking, I ultimately disagree with her. Vigorously. In re-reading this work I will be launching a criticism, but I hope it to be fair insofar as I represent her views accurately. That is, in arguing against selfishness as a moral foundation or value, I want to be aware that she uses the term in a different way, intentionally, in an attempt to deconstruct how selfishness has been demonized by our culture and the philosophical history which helped establish that culture. And while this deconstruction does unearth some assumptions about morality, in much the same way that Nietzsche’s views on ethics did, it is my opinion that her views on ethics are derived from an oversimplified caricature of the subject. Her dichotomy between altruism and selfishness (egoism) is sophomoric philosophy, and misses too much to be as influential as her thinking continues to be.
As a disclaimer, I view ethics as not based upon altruism (selflessness) or egoism (selfishness), and view the dichotomy, which Rand employs, between altruism and egoism as misguided as a means of thinking about ethics at a basic level. For me, ethics is based in the value of fairness, derived from freedom and its logical consequences. Further, while an analysis of ethical philosophy can start from consideration of selfish interests, so long as it remains there is never becomes a discussion about ethics at all (I know some people disagree with my on this point, and I’m willing to defend this view).
I, like Rand (as we shall see below), don’t want an ethic which sacrifices either the self or the other for their own sake. However, her solution is largely myopic and ignorant of many alternative solutions. Ignorance is not itself bad, but when millions of people follow a view which demonstrates such blatant ignorance, as I philosopher I become worried; especially when I see the same myopia reflected in people who are not ostensibly Rand followers.
Whether the person making the mistake of defending a similar form of ethical egoism is a fan of Ayn Rand or has antipathies towards her is irrelevant if they are making similar philosophical mistakes.
With that said, here’s some selections from the introduction, with commentary by myself, to start out the series.
The Virtue of Selfishness, by Ayn Rand (1964).
The title of this book may evoke the kind of question that I hear once in a while: “Why do you use the word ‘selfishness’ to denote virtuous qualities of character, when that word antagonizes so many people to whom it does not mean the things you mean?”
To those who ask it, my answer is: “For the reason that makes you afraid of it.”
Ayn Rand was not shy nor afraid to be blunt, as we can see from the start. However, there are more motivations than fear which would prompt such a question. In some ways, her reasons for choosing that term may be similar to my reasons for maintaining the label ‘atheist’ when another might be more palatable to people. If I were being snarky, I might respond with a similar answer that Rand gave here when asked why I maintain the ‘atheist’ label, so I won’t chastised her for her tone. Let’s continue to gain more context.
But there are others, who would not ask that question, sensing the moral cowardice it implies, yet who are unable to formulate my actual reason or to identify the profound moral issue involved. It is to them that I will give a more explicit answer. It is not a mere semantic issue nor a matter of arbitrary choice. The meaning ascribed in popular usage to the word “selfishness” is not merely wrong: it represents a devastating intellectual“package-deal,” which is responsible, more than any other single factor, for the arrested moral development of mankind.
That is quite a charge!
OK, so what’s clear here is that Ayn Rand thought that there was something wrong with how American/Western culture and its moral thinking was using the term “selfish,” and maybe the term needed some re-evaluation. Fair enough. Let’s see why she felt that way.
In popular usage, the word “selfishness” is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment. Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word “selfishness” is: concern with one’s own interests. This concept does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us whether concern with one’s own interests is good or evil; nor does it tell us what constitutes man’s actual interests. It is the task of ethics to answer such questions.
OK, agreed…partially. This image of a brutish person would be included in the set of selfish people, but certainly it would not be an exhaustive list. There are other expressions of selfishness, Rand’s idealized one included, which may or may not be objectionable. My concern here is the hyperbolic nature of the example. This is a tactic that one sees when reading Ayn Rand; she sets up foils which create a caricature of the idea she is criticizing, and sets up her own perspective as an idealized picture. Surely, we all do this to some degree (I’m probably doing so in this very post), but one rarely sees it to the stark level as with Ayn Rand.
In her novels, a common theme is one where the immoral government schemes, through their love of altruism, attempts to prevent capable individuals from succeeding through enforcing taxation and other means of taking from producers and giving to those who don’t produce. Those arguing for the altruistic model, in her caricatures, are set up as sniveling and weak collectivists who de-value personal achievement and virtuous selfish interest. Her foils are never fleshed out as people with complex motivations, whether because Ayn Rand was incapable of comprehending their potential reasons or because she didn’t care to. In the end, it amounts to the same.
In short, Ayn Rand is quite good as setting up strong dichotomies which include the evil, morally regressive altruists and collectivists (who hate individual freedom and strength) against her heroes who strive for personal glory and achievement by bucking the system. Sort of like the ‘lamestream’ media versus ‘mavericks.’
Sound familiar? *cough*tea party*cough*. Also, Fox News.
Is there any surprise that many conservatives love Ayn Rand?
Anyway, when Rand eventually leaves behind the stark dichotomies and straw-men above, she addresses what selfishness is. The demonized ‘selfishness’ she is reacting against is not this monster she just created for the purpose of comparison, it’s something else; something virtuous and moral. Get used to this tactic when reading Ayn Rand. Her method is to contrast a caricatured monster of selfishness with her virtuous one, which ignores the reality that every day self-centered behavior has detrimental effects on all of us, including her own virtuous kind of selfishness (we;ll get to that).
But the contrast to the monstrous selfishness is an equally monstrous altruism, and with this her continuum and her ethical boundaries are painted.
The ethics of altruism has created the image of the brute, as its answer, in order to make men accept two inhuman tenets: (a) that any concern with one’s own interests is evil, regardless of what these interests might be, and (b) that the brute’s activities are in fact to one’s own interest (which altruism enjoins man to renounce for the sake of his neighbors).
This is a really excellent example of the straw man fallacy in action. There may, in fact, be people who argue for altruism in this sense, and certainly many ethical systems throughout history have emphasized the importance of forms of altruism which include some sacrifice of the self for the sake of others, but pure renunciation or asceticism is usually only regarded as virtuous within specific religious traditions, including many Catholic saints. That is, if Rand has issues with the altruism within those traditions, then she needs to stop arguing that this altruism is universal, rather than confined to certain small sections of culture and history. Rand’s altruistic monster is not a dominant ethical value, and so it makes me wonder who she’s arguing with, and why she is unable to wrestle with more nuanced ethical questions about fairness, rather than a caricature of such things.
Ayn Rand’s depiction of altruism is nowhere near the dominant value of ethical thinking, and there are many alternatives to the altruism/egoism dichotomy which she portrays. From reading Ayn Rand, one could get the impression that altruism and egoism are the primary values in conflict in ethical philosophy. That view would be very wrong, as there are many ways to address ethics which do not deal with this question of altruism or selfishness directly.
However, perhaps we need to see what she has to say about altruism, and its flaws, to understand how she’s thinking about this.
There are two moral questions which altruism lumps together into one “package-deal”: (1) What are values? (2) Who should be the beneficiary of values? Altruism substitutes the second for the first; it evades the task of defining a code of moral values, thus leaving man, in fact, without moral guidance.
So, in other words, others should be the beneficiary of our values, or actions. This, thinks Rand, is the altruistic value. This is either a terrible misunderstanding of how most people actually think about ethics (including many who talk about altruism specifically) or an intentional skewing of those whom she is arguing against. She continues.
Altruism declares that any action taken for the benefit of others is good, and any action taken for one’s own benefit is evil. Thus the beneficiary of an action is the only criterion of moral value—and so long as that beneficiary is anybody other than oneself, anything goes.
Hence the appalling immorality, the chronic injustice, the grotesque double standards the insoluble conflicts and contradictions that have characterized human relationships and human societies throughout history, under all the variants of the altruist ethics.
So, for those of you who are philosophically inclined, she’s claiming that altruism has an ethical principle of helping others, and from that point of view any selfish action is immoral. Now, some altruists might agree with the first part, but the second does not necessarily follow. In real life, not many people take such an absolutist approach to thinking about selfishness v. selflessness.
So, after reading those two paragraphs, I’m left with the resounding thought that this is–and there is no other way to put it worthy of the content–bullshit. That is, if this is an indictment of popular morality, in favor of a rationalistic ethics, it is a biased and parochial interpretation in order to make her own views look good in comparison to a straw-man version of altruism. It is making the other side look as bad as possible to make the ensuing ‘rational’ view seem reasonable by comparison. it’s a shameless and possibly dishonest method.
It is statements like those above which make many people cringe when calling Ayn Rand’s thinking “philosophy,” as it seems to be more about rationalizing her whims (which is exactly what she claims to be avoiding in being rational) than thinking carefully and with understanding about ethics. The fact that so many people take her views seriously is, well, baffling to me.
Real ethical philosophy is more nuanced than this. Even if altruism were a philosophy that concluded that so long as an act is done for other people it is permitted (it doesn’t make such conclusions, that I’m aware of), the simple fact is that this type of altruism is not the machine against which Rand rages. This, quite simply, is a massively shoddy straw-man which has few (if any) actual representatives, and therefore this introduction is impotent as a critique of popular morality. Also altruists, or at least those who value altruism as part of their ethical thinking, do not view anything done selfishly as evil. This drastic oversimplification is borderline absolutist and reactionary, not careful or insightful.
But it gets better.
Observe the indecency of what passes for moral judgments today. An industrialist who produces a fortune, and a gangster who robs a bank are regarded as equally immoral, since they both sought wealth for their own “selfish” benefit. A young man who gives up his career in order to support his parents and never rises beyond the rank of grocery clerk is regarded as morally superior to the young man who endures an excruciating struggle and achieves his personal ambition. A dictator is regarded as moral, since the unspeakable atrocities he committed were intended to benefit “the people,” not himself.
Right. No, I mean wrong. Sorry, her brain worm is eating my brain. Too much more of this I might start campaigning for Rand Paul.
Observe what this beneficiary-criterion of morality does to a man’s life. The first thing he learns is that morality is his enemy; he has nothing to gain from it, he can only lose; self-inflicted loss, self-inflicted pain and the gray, debilitating pall of an incomprehensible duty is all that he can expect. He may hope that others might occasionally sacrifice themselves for his benefit, as he grudgingly sacrifices himself for theirs, but he knows that the relationship will bring mutual resentment, not pleasure—and that, morally, their pursuit of values will be like an exchange of unwanted, unchosen Christmas presents, which neither is morally permitted to buy for himself. Apart from such times as he manages to perform some act of self-sacrifice, he possesses no moral significance: morality takes no cognizance of him and has nothing to say to him for guidance in the crucial issues of his life; it is only his own personal, private, “selfish” life and, as such, it is regarded either as evil or, at best, amoral.
That’s right folks. Look out for yourself because there is no guarantee that anyone else will. Don’t trust, or build interdependent communities where you have to be vulnerable to each other, or submit to any policies which seek to make you support the community as a whole. Make yourself self-sufficient and anyone else who can’t (or won’t) do so, well they’re entitled and immoral leeches upon you, and not worth your time.
I recognize this instinct. In my more selfish moments, I have thoughts that verge along this path. I feel its pull, and I can walk down this road in my mind. I resist this path. I don’t resist it because I feel guilty or because I’m supposed to resist it; I resist it because the behavior it induces are harmful to those around me, and I’m not as happy or fulfilled insofar as I walk that path. And if I were mostly focused on my own interests, I would miss many of the effects of my actions in this way, and I might agree with Rand in that case because I’d be oblivious, or perhaps callous, to those effects.
When I think in these terms, I’m more likely to be angry, reactionary, and less likely to be empathetic. I don’t like the person who walks that path, whether it is another or I who walks it. I have trouble understanding how someone can walk that path without understanding its pitfalls, but I know they exist. I suppose someone prone to selfishness and self-interest would be less likely to notice them, and that’s probably why so many people are drawn to this philosophy.
This screed by Rand, and all her pronouncements similar to it, are the lament of a person who is incapable, apparently, of comprehending or caring about the interests of others (except where they intersect with our own), especially how our actions affect those interests. In a room full of people with their individual interests, they must all equally matter or a contradiction is spawned; whatever argument any of them uses for why their interests are more important is automatically valid for anyone else, which implies that they are all equal from the start (the “original position”). Their individual interests are equal in comparison to each other. It is when they all realize that their interests aren’t superior to the interests of others that each individual is able to start thinking about what will be right to do. If they are all thinking about their own interests, the conversation about ethics can’t even get off the ground.
In light of all this, it seems that Ayn Rand would not have been a fan of John Rawls, whose 1971 book A Theory of Justice described what was called the “veil of ignorance,” which effectively shows the fundamental problem that many ethical systems have missed in trying to establish fairness, or care about fairness at all. Rawls’ view is, in some ways, antithetical to Rand’s. Where Rand seeks to emphasize individual interests, Rawls seems to minimize them, but Rawls was no altruist (which is not to say he was against selfless acts, just that his foundational principle was not that selfless acts were necessarily good, or that selfish ones were necessarily bad).
One of the implications of Rawls’ analysis, as well as that of the idea of power dynamics in general, is that our individual interests, whether rational or irrational, exist within a miasma of blindness, privilege, and lack of understanding of what it’s like to be other people. Rand wants us, as we will see, to consider our rational self interest in thinking about how to behave and what actions to take. She does not want us to merely follow our whims (our irrational self interests), but the problem is that this distinction between rational self interest and irrational self interest (her terms) may be impossible for us to make ourselves, because we may be blind to the processes thagt distinguish them.
In order to comprehend the differences between rational and irrational interests (whether self or other), we need to apply empathy, perspective, consider the interest of others (but not merely sacrifice ourselves to them), and put ourselves behind Rawls’ veil of ignorance. Otherwise, we may end up emulating some of that brutishness even when we think we’re being rational because we think our interests are rational when they are, in fact, irrational.
Rand seems to be unaware that we humans are largely incapable of determining whether our interests are rational or irrational, especially when we are acting primarily with deference to self-interest. Cognitive dissonance, bias, and the fact that we are generally blind to our own flaws are reasons enough to not utilize our self interest as the standard by which we start thinking about ethical behavior. We simply don’t know ourselves well enough to trust that our self interest is actually in our interest, let alone anyone else’s.
Ayn Rand then continues to address means of survival, since altruism is evil and will probably kill us.
Since nature does not provide man with an automatic form of survival, since he has to support his life by his own effort, the doctrine that concern with one’s own interests is evil means that man’s desire to live is evil—that man’s life, as such, is evil. No doctrine could be more evil than that.
Our own effort, but definitely not by our collective effort, is the means to moral behavior (says Rand). This continuation of a caricature of a self-hating, insecure, and completely anti-life demon should be getting on your nerves by now. I don’t know anyone who believes that our own interests are evil per se (well, maybe some Christians, but again Rand is not overtly criticizing religious morality, but supposedly altruism-based morality in general), even if they could be harmful or problematic sometimes. Similarly, acting on behalf of others is not good in itself, but it could be. The major flaw here is arguing that the base value of ethics has anything to do with either selfishness or altruism. Neither of those factors are sufficient to construct an ethical system.
The more one applies weight to the value of selfish motivations (whether reasonable or not), the farther away from ethical considerations one gets. One must have some consideration of the interests of others to be doing ethical thinking. This is not because selfishness is immoral per se (or because altruism is good per se), but because without the presence of others, or their interests we are not even talking about ethics. Selfishness is not immoral because it makes us brutes (although it might do that as well), selfishness is amoral by definition. Our rational self interest is not ethics. It is one of the building blocks of ethics (potentially), but by itself it is nothing more than establishing what an individual wants, which is not an ethical question at all.
Individual interests are great to know for the sake of personal growth, therapy, and knowing how to spend time alone, but until the interests of others come into play a conversation about ethics is logically impossible. That is, until some level of giving of ourselves for the sake of others is admitted into consideration as ethically relevant, we are not talking about ethics at all. So when Rand argues that we should not be concerned with the interests of others at the expense of our own, she might be arguing that ethics are not worth our effort.
If it is true that what I mean by “selfishness” is not what is meant conventionally, then this is one of the worst indictments of altruism: it means that altruism permits no concept of a self-respecting, self-supporting man—a man who supports his life by his own effort and neither sacrifices himself nor others. It means that altruism permits no view of men except as sacrificial animals and profiteers-on-sacrifice, as victims and parasites—that it permits no concept of a benevolent co-existence among men—that it permits no concept of justice.
Altruism, even when portrayed this way, allows for the existence of such people, it just might look down upon them. But being that I am not coming from an altruistic point of view, this is not relevant to me or to most ethical thinkers.
But we do have other concepts of justice–John Rawls’ work was already alluded to, and there are others. Rand here is so blind to anything except her own interests that she can’t see that she is not being rational in her criticism of a moral system which is not only a straw-man, but ignores many other possible views. This myopia is common in Rand’s work, and seems to belie a general lack of understanding of ethical philosophy, especially that of her philosophical opponents.
If you wonder about the reasons behind the ugly mixture of cynicism and guilt in which most men spend their lives, these are the reasons: cynicism, because they neither practice nor accept the altruist morality—guilt, because they dare not reject it.
To rebel against so devastating an evil, one has to rebel against its basic premise. To redeem both man and morality, it is the concept of “selfishness” that one has to redeem.
So, there are some people who resent being repressed to act the way that they want, because what they want to do is considered immoral. The problem with this is that this could be true of all sorts of behaviors, whether actually immoral or not. Wherein popular morality has not caught up with what is rational, this is a battle cry for those who fight against the conservatism of our society. For atheists, polyamorous people, etc such ideas are important if we want to progress our culture morally, legally, and behaviorally.
But for others this could be used as an excuse to not consider the social and interpersonal effects of their behavior. There are times when we need to, morally, restrain our interests (even if we think those interests to be rational), when the effects of those interests harm others unnecessarily. And in more cases than not, this side of this battle cry seeks to preserve certain types of power structures and privileges which the individual, who considers their proclivities to be rational, is blind to (due to the nature of privilege and power).
It is no surprise that fans of Ayn Rand tend to side with business interests, free market capitalism, etc and view any form of socialism, communism, or any type of centrist criticism of Wall Street et al as problematic at best and down right un-American at worst. Anyone who has a problem with those things hates freedom, and seeks to take something from you which you earned rightfully. Any tax or sacrifice of any kind, which you earned, is immoral because it gives to someone who didn’t earn something.
The first step is to assert man’s right to a moral existence—that is: to recognize his need of a moral code to guide the course and the fulfillment of his own life.
For a brief outline of the nature and the validation of a rational morality,see my lecture on “The Objectivist Ethics” which follows. The reasons why man needs a moral code will tell you that the purpose of morality is to define man’s proper values and interests, that concern with his own interests is the essence of a moral existence, and that man must be the beneficiary of his own moral actions.
Since all values have to be gained and/or kept by men’s actions, any breach between actor and beneficiary necessitates an injustice: the sacrifice of some men to others, of the actors to the nonactors, of the moral to the immoral. Nothing could ever justify such a breach, and no one ever has.
Yes, many have. Ayn Rand and her followers may not think it moral to get between you and your interest, but insofar as your interest is hurting other people, we have many tools to evaluate the worthiness of such a breach. While I would not advocate a strong altruism, this view of Rand’s, which calls itself rational, misses so many levels of reasonable consideration that it is almost laughably simplistic in its perspective.
One thing we have learned, since Rand’s time, is that our moral motivations are fundamentally emotional and instinctual, and then secondarily rational. Ethical philosophy, insofar as it attempts to be rational or divorced from our mere whims, is largely an illusion. By making a strong distinction between rationalism and emotional/instinctual concerns, Rand and anyone else who argues for a similar worldview of maintaining a purely reasonable or rational approach to ethics, is failing to understand a fundamental problem of human nature and behavior; most of our thinking is rationalized whims.
Ayn Rand does not seem to agree, which is fine because we discovered this after she formed her ideas.
The Objectivist ethics holds that the actor must always be the beneficiary of his action and that man must act for his own rational self-interest. But his right to do so is derived from his nature as man and from the function of moral values in human life—and, therefore, is applicable only in the context of a rational, objectively demonstrated and validated code of moral principles which define and determine his actual self-interest.
It is fair to emphasize that Rand’s views are not a license to just do whatever we want:
It is not a license “to do as he pleases” and it is not applicable to the altruists’ image of a “selfish” brute nor to any man motivated by irrational emotions, feelings, urges, wishes or whims.
This is said as a warning against the kind of “Nietzschean egoists” who, in fact, are a product of the altruist morality and represent the other side of the altruist coin: the men who believe that any action, regardless of its nature, is good if it is intended for one’s own benefit. Just as the satisfaction of the irrational desires of others is not a criterion of moral value, neither is the satisfaction of one’s own irrational desires. Morality is not a contest of whims.
No, morality should not be a contest of whims, but that is what most ethical philosophy ends up being; a contest of rationalized whims. Rand’s dichotomy between the altruist and the egoist is interesting as an analytical tool for deconstructing the nature of those two sets of values and behaviors, but as a means of discussing what seems to be meta-ethics, this is a flop. Altruism and egoism are not fundamental values, they are two conclusions. And if this is an attempt to analyze them as conclusions, all we have is a couple of straw-men and what is presented as a rational middle ground. I’m not convinced it is rational or reasonable.
Rand does not like the straw-man she creates for altruism, nor does she like the (also straw-man) Nietzschean egoist, but her rational solution is not any better. She believes that she is being rational and not following her mere whims, but I am skeptical of this belief. Here’s more:
Just as man cannot survive by any random means, but must discover and practice the principles which his survival requires, so man’s self-interest cannot be determined by blind desires or random whims, but must be discovered and achieved by the guidance of rational principles.
What moral principles? Well, we will have to wait for later to get the flesh, but the foundation is rational self interest:
This is why the Objectivist ethics is a morality of rational self-interest—or of rational selfishness. Since selfishness is “concern with one’s own interests,” the Objectivist ethics uses that concept in its exact and purest sense. It is not a concept that one can surrender to man’s enemies, nor to the unthinking misconceptions, distortions, prejudices and fears of the ignorant and the irrational. The attack on “selfishness” is an attack on man’s self-esteem; to surrender one, is to surrender the other.
No, to attack selfishness is not to attack self-esteem. One can be secure in themselves without being selfish, and one can be secure in oneself and be altruistic. This contradiction Rand thinks she sees is an illusion; a warped reflection in a dirty mirror. We may never be able to see others completely, or know their interests, but that does not mean we should merely concern ourselves with our own interests. That seems to me to be a rationalization of a lack of consideration or empathy.
Ethics does not ask us to surrender to the other, but sometimes it asks us to see the other as a mirror of ourselves. We have our interests, and so does the other. What do we do when confronted with this fact? By waving off the other and their interests, whether due to lack of interest, lack of understanding, or any other reason is to wave off any attempt as not only ethics but also community, intimacy, and the possibility of understanding through shared vulnerability. We don’t surrender to the other, we identify with them insofar as we can in order to not put our interests over theirs, because doing so is a contradiction of the commonality of our interests.
If we view the interests of the other as competing with our own, or we view them as incomprehensible because they are ultimately unknowable to us, or if we just think their interests will rob us of our own interests, we are missing out on a large part of humanity. To focus on our own interest so much seems too parochial and limiting. If I really want to be a great individual, I should give up some of myself just for the sake of self-improvement. By not wanting to give up any of ourselves or to understand the interests of others, we are much more likely to start idolizing the self and not change, which is bad for everyone around us. Especially ourselves.
Understanding of others is a key to self-improvement.
Ayn Rand gets into more meat in the essays themselves, and I we will dig into that when that time comes, but this short introduction (and this long analysis) will set the stage for how we think about her ideas.