Friday, October 2, 2009

Did Ayn Rand regard selfishness as a virtue?

People who are familiar with Ayn Rand’s writings may consider the answer to this question to be obvious. Rand made no secret of the fact that she regarded selfishness as a virtue. So, why ask the question?

Having recently read “Atlas Shrugged” properly for the first time (rather than skimming through it) the heroes, including John Galt, Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart, did not seem to me to be selfish. By the end of the book they had chosen not to live their lives for the sake of others and not to ask others to live for their sake. But this did not make them selfish in the sense of being deficient in consideration for others. Hank Rearden left his mother without means of support when he went off to start a new life, but it would be difficult for anyone who was aware of the way she repaid the kindness he showed her to argue that he had acted selfishly towards her.

Rand’s view that selfishness is a virtue follows from a narrow definition of selfishness as “concern with one’s own interests” and of individual happiness as the moral purpose of life. In the words of John Galt: “Happiness is the state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values” (p 1014).

Galt explains: “Happiness is not to be achieved at the command of emotional whims. Happiness is not the satisfaction of whatever irrational wishes you might blindly attempt to indulge. Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy – a joy without penalty or guilt, a joy that does not clash with any of your values and does not work for your own destruction, not the joy of escaping from your mind, but of using your minds fullest power, not the joy of faking reality, but of achieving values that are real, not the joy of a drunkard, but of a producer” (p 1022).

Rand’s narrow definition of selfishness enabled John Galt to say: “This much is true: the most selfish of all things is the independent mind that recognizes no authority higher than its own and no value higher than its judgement of truth” (p 1030).

Why did Ayn Rand adopt a narrow definition of selfishness? She could have avoided a lot of confusion by using another term, e.g. “ethical egoism”, to describe the virtuous concern for one’s own interests and accepting the popular usage of selfishness to describe unethical behaviour that involves pursuing one’s own interests at the expense of others. I suspect that Rand adopted a narrow definition of selfishness in order to argue that selfishness is a virtue. And she wanted to argue that selfishness is a virtue in order to draw attention to her opposition to the view that self sacrifice is a virtue.

The view that self sacrifice is a virtue was clearly one of Rand’s main targets. In John Galt’s words: “If you wish to save the last of your dignity, do not call your best actions a ‘sacrifice’: that term brands you as immoral. If a mother buys food for her hungry child rather than a hat for herself, it is not a sacrifice: she values the child higher than the hat; but it is a sacrifice to the kind of mother whose higher value is the hat, who would prefer her child to starve and feeds him only from a sense of duty” (p 1029).

Readers might also be interested in a later post on this topic based on a Cato seminar.


Anonymous said...

I read Atlas Shrugged as a high school student in the 1960's. Perhaps more than any other passage in the book, the one about the mother and the hat burned itself into my brain to be recalled again and again. Just recently I relayed that passage to our children.
My recollection is that Rand also made the point that some try to confuse people about this concept and meanings of the words - and thereby induce them to act from feelings of guilt - rather than acting because they valued outcomes. Orwell would probably have agreed.

Winton Bates said...

Over the last couple of weeks I have been quite a lot of ethics regarding egoism and self-sacrifice. The only conclusion I have reached is that people who take extreme positions in favour of either egoism or self-sacrifice seem to be giving the words different meanings.

However, I still like the idea that we tend to devalue our best actions when we think of them as involving a sacrifice.

Anonymous said...

Rand's precise point in using the term "selfishness" in her collection of essays, The Virtue of Selfishness, was to confront the immoral and irrational notion that benevolence was synonymous with "self-sacrifice."

By representing altruism as a virtue, mystics and looters gain an intellectual tool with which to enslave the mind to "higher authority."

Rand was not interested in merely posing an academic argument. She wished to engage people on the most fundamental level, and what better way, rhetorically, than to take a term of moral reproach and vindicate it as the highest virtue?

Tom Anderson
Defend Rights Now