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Can Selfishness Be a Moral Ideal?

To understand why Ayn Rand’s ethics of selfishness inspires millions of readers, we need to get beyond the popular conception of what selfishness involves.

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Ayn Rand is undoubtedly a cultural phenomenon, and one of the most provocative philosophical voices in modern times. Her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged continue to be deeply admired and vociferously denounced — and there is a reason why her works elicit such strong reactions. Rand’s stated literary goal was “the projection of an ideal man” — the projection of a moral ideal.1 This concern with ideals gives her novels their philosophical character, and her view of what is ideal makes them controversial.

In the decades after the publication of Atlas Shrugged, Rand elaborated on her philosophy in numerous essays, radio and television interviews, and university lectures — applying her unique perspective to a wide range of philosophical problems and cultural phenomena.2 And she struck a chord. Despite much vocal opposition to her ideas, her works have sold millions of copies and have been translated into more than twenty languages.

What many readers find striking is that Rand proudly champions a morality of selfishness while offering us heroes and heroines in her novels that do not fit the image of selfishness that most of us hold. Instead of callous climbers and exploiters, we find individuals of integrity, purpose, and intelligence — artists, philosophers, industrialists, inventors, and businessmen — men and women who guide their lives by reason, pursue productive careers and take pride in themselves, their work, and their capacity to live. Their central purpose is the achievement of their own happiness, but they are neither asocial nor antisocial. They deeply respect the rights of others, dealing with them by means of reason and trade, not force or fraud. They have an elevated view of human potential, admiring and finding inspiration in the achievements and virtues of others. They form deep friendships and romantic relationships, and their general outlook is one of benevolence and goodwill. And the virtues that Rand regards as essential to living a selfish life are surprising — rationality, honesty, integrity, independence, justice, productiveness, and pride.

What morality requires is not that we abandon self-interest or pepper our lives with acts of selflessness to give them moral flavor; it requires a rational conception of what genuinely is in our interests.
Clearly Rand is offering a new conception of selfishness — one that challenges us to reconsider conventional views of self-interest, its relation to morality, and its bearing on our relations with others. In particular, Rand argues that associating self-interest with callous exploitation and indifference toward others is not only false, it distorts the way we frame our moral alternatives, evaluate ourselves and others, and fashion our social institutions. For it conveys the idea that our alternatives in life are: sacrifice others for our own sake (which they call “selfishness”) or sacrifice ourselves for others’ sake (which they call “morality”).

What Rand is offering, and what she projects in her novels, is a third alternative: a non-sacrificial approach to life. What morality requires is not that we abandon self-interest or pepper our lives with acts of selflessness to give them moral flavor; it requires a rational conception of what genuinely is in our interests. What we need, she argued, is a morality of “rational selfishness.”

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By “rational selfishness” Rand means pursuing the values and practicing the virtues that objectively sustain and enrich one’s own life, not just in the immediate moment but over the course of one’s entire life. It means living by the judgment of one’s own mind and by one’s own productive effort — and enjoying the results, materially and spiritually.

The pursuit of self-interest, on Rand’s view, is a demanding task. It is not at all obvious which values we should pursue or which virtues we should practice in order to flourish. A life devoted to self-interest takes both serious reflection and dedication to moral principles, often in the face of pressure to compromise. So, when Rand counsels us to be selfish, she is not giving us her blessing to do as we please, indulge in any whim, or treat something as in our interests just because we desire it. The task of defining man’s proper values and interests is an intellectual-philosophical task, and in Rand’s view, it is the central task of moral philosophy.3

Rand’s orientation to morality differs starkly from the conventional one, which focuses primarily on our relations to others and treats self-interest as either immoral or amoral. Rand rejects this view of ethics. Clearly, a code of morality must define one’s proper relation to others. But Rand argues that morality is not essentially a matter of an individual’s relation to others; it is about his relation to reality — it is a matter of the conformity of his actions to the requirements of his own life and well-being — and this is what defines and sets the terms for his proper relations with others.

Accordingly, Rand held that every individual has the moral right to live for his own sake — “to choose what constitutes his own private, personal, individual happiness and to work for its achievement, so long as he respects the same right in others.”4 An individual, she held, is not a means to the ends or welfare of others; he is not material for society’s use. A moral individual respects the rights of others and expects his own rights to be respected. He neither sacrifices himself for others’ sake, nor sacrifices others for his own sake. He deals with others in the only way that respects their autonomy, respects the fact that their lives and resources are not his or society’s to dispose of or commandeer; he deals with them not by force or fraud, but through persuasion and trade — exchanging value for value, by mutual consent to mutual advantage. This, Rand held, is how civilized individuals properly interact with one another, and it is why she was an impassioned advocate of laissez-faire capitalism — the political system whose central principle and moral justification is the principle of individual rights.

Far from there being a conflict between rational selfishness and benevolent human relations, Rand held that rational selfishness is in fact the basis for such benevolence.
On this non-sacrificial view of human relations, one does not view others as collectors or objects of sacrifice, but as potential values. Other people can be a tremendous source of value, of personal selfish value to one’s own life and happiness — not only as trading partners, but as friends or loved ones or simply people whose character makes them rewarding or inspiring to be around. Far from there being a conflict between rational selfishness and benevolent human relations, Rand held that rational selfishness is in fact the basis for such benevolence.

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Unfortunately, this is not how Rand’s views are usually presented in the popular media. Many commentators state repeatedly, and disapprovingly, that Rand advocates “selfishness” — but they do not explain Rand’s original perspective on what it means to be “selfish” or why she holds (counterintuitively) that selfishness is a moral virtue. Likewise, they regularly point out, disapprovingly, that Rand regards altruism as evil — but they do not explain what she means by “altruism” or why she thinks (counterintuitively) that altruism is incompatible with kindness, goodwill and a respect for the rights of others.

Commentators who present Rand in this way leave readers with their conventional notions comfortably intact, untouched by any contact with Rand’s radical reassessment of self-interest and its relation to morality. As a result, they do nothing to explain why Rand’s works continue to provide moral inspiration for millions of readers around the world.

My contention here is that if you get beyond the popular caricatures and distortions, and start exploring Rand’s own writings, you will find an original and challenging thinker with a new and noble conception of a moral life — one that, at the very least, offers a valuable alternative to the conventional morality that serves as our culture’s unchallenged status quo.5

Author’s note: This article is an updated and expanded version of an essay I wrote at the invitation of the editors of De Filosoof (The Philosopher), the quarterly magazine of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. The essay, “Ayn Rand: A New Concept of Egoism,” which begins on page 16 of the magazine’s January 2016 issue, is available in its original form here.

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  1. The Goal of My Writing,” in The Romantic Manifesto (1969 and 1971).
  2. Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Dutton (1991), offers an invaluable presentation of Rand’s philosophy as a systematic whole. For Rand’s analysis of cultural issues a good place to start is Ayn Rand at the Ford Hall Forum, a collection of her recorded lectures at Boston’s Ford Hall Forum. Recent scholarly work on Rand includes: Foundations of a Free Society: Reflections on Ayn Rand’s Political Philosophy, Gregory Salmieri and Robert Mayhew (eds.), University of Pittsburgh Press (2019); A Companion to Ayn Rand, Allan Gotthelf and Gregory Salmieri (eds.), John Wiley & Sons, Ltd (2016); Concepts and Their Role in Knowledge: Reflections on Objectivist Epistemology, Allan Gothelf (ed.) and James G. Lennox (assoc. ed.), University of Pittsburgh Press (2013); Metaethics, Egoism, and Virtue: Studies in Ayn Rand’s Normative Theory, Allan Gothelf (ed.) and James G. Lennox (assoc. ed.), University of Pittsburgh Press (2011); Tara Smith’s Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist, Cambridge University Press (2006) and Viable Values: A Study of Life as the Root and Reward of Ethics, Rowman & Littlefield (2000); Robert Mayhew’s edited collections for Lexington Press: Essays on Ayn Rand’s “We the Living, 2nd ed. (2012); Essays on Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged, (2009); Essays on Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead (2007); and Essays on Ayn Rand’s “Anthem (2005).
  3. For Rand’s moral philosophy, see The Virtue of Selfishness (1964), especially the “Introduction,” “The Objectivist Ethics,” and “The ‘Conflicts’ of Men’s Interests.”
  4. “Textbook of Americanism,” in The Ayn Rand Column (1990 and 1991). For Rand’s conception of rights, see her essay “Man’s Rights” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1966 and 1967).
  5. The Ayn Rand Institute’s ARI Campus contains additional information about Rand’s life, novels, and philosophy, featuring video courses, audio lectures, and written essays.
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Aaron Smith

Aaron Smith, PhD in philosophy, is a fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute where he lectures and develops educational content for the Institute’s intellectual training and outreach programs. He is a member of the Ayn Rand University faculty.

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