facebook pixel
New Ideal - Reason | Individualism | Capitalism

The Morality of Success

Success and happiness require deep thinking about one’s life and values.

Share this article:

The editors of New Ideal are delighted to republish, with permission, chapter 6 from Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand’s Ideas Can End Big Government, by Yaron Brook and Don Watkins.

The Morality of Success

Most people take it for granted that morality means self-sacrifice. They believe you can be self-interested or you can be moral, but not both. This hasn’t always been the case, though.

In ancient Greece, where the science of ethics got its start, morality was not about self-sacrifice. The purpose of ethics, said the Greeks, is to rationally investigate what is good—to investigate the basic choices and character traits that distinguish a successful life from an unsuccessful life. A leading advocate of this pro-self orientation was Aristotle. Aristotle argued that the individual’s proper aim is what he called eudaimonia, which translates roughly into “happiness” or “flourishing.” The ethical man is not someone who surrenders his values, according to Aristotle. He is, rather, the “great-souled man,” the man who is “a perfectly good or excellent man” and as a result “deserves the greatest things.” And while most popular moralities emphasize the virtue of humility, Aristotle concluded that the great-souled man is justly proud—that indeed pride is the “crowning grace . . . of the virtues.”1

It was Christianity that banished the Aristotelian conception of ethics from the philosophic scene. Instead of praising the great-souled man, Christianity enshrined the poor and the meek. Instead of lionizing pride, it warned that pride goeth before a fall. It elevated service to God above the individual’s pursuit of his own welfare and commended obedience to the deity, even if it meant giving up earthly values—even if it meant murdering your own child.2

This anti-self approach to morality was later secularized by thinkers like Comte and Kant. Comte said your moral duty was to sacrifice your interests not to God but to Humanity. Kant said your moral duty was to sacrifice your interests to no one—sacrifice as an end in itself.3

In the twentieth century, Ayn Rand revived the Aristotelian tradition, making it more rigorous, more consistent, and more scientific. Indeed, Rand did more than that: In our view, she was the first philosopher to provide an objective foundation for ethics.

This is not a book about ethics. For readers interested in learning about Rand’s moral theory—including her arguments for why her theory is true—we refer you to her works, above all Atlas Shrugged (1957), The Virtue of Selfishness (1964), and Philosophy: Who Needs It (1982).4 Our goal in this chapter is only to describe her unique view of selfishness. Whether you come to agree with Rand’s morality or not, what we aim to show in the rest of the book is that it is rationally self-interested action that proliferates when markets are left free and that markets will not be left free until rationally self-interested action is prized.

It’s Hard to Be Selfish

Here’s an idea for our next book: Don and Yaron’s Hedonist Guide to Health. The basic idea is this: The key to health is doing whatever you feel like doing. Sit on the couch. Smoke a pack a day. Eat pizza and doughnuts. Wash them down with a Heineken. Just do what you feel like and the result will be health. What do you think?

Most people recognize that what makes a person healthy is not a matter of opinion but a question of fact. Some things are objectively healthy for you and some things aren’t. Figuring out which is which requires scientific exploration: careful observation, ongoing experimentation, inductive reasoning, and fierce debate.

Well, just as you can’t make yourself healthy eating whatever you feel like, you can’t make yourself happy doing whatever you feel like. What promotes your life as a whole is a factual, scientific question: There are objective requirements of a happy and successful life. (The science that investigates those requirements is ethics.) The rationally selfish person is one who does his best to learn what these requirements are and then consistently puts that knowledge into practice.

“The purpose of morality,” Rand writes, “is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live.”5 We need morality to help us make choices that will foster success and happiness.

Nowadays, the word “happiness” conjures a subjective, fleeting state of pleasure or satisfaction. The modern image of a happy person is the free-spirited bohemian or the motivational speaker with the perma-grin. That is not what Rand means by happiness. To be happy, in her view, is to experience a deep, enduring, undiluted joy in living. Like every effect, happiness has a definite cause: the achievement of life-advancing values. Not just food and shelter, but an entire constellation of values that includes work, friendship, love, art, purpose, and self-esteem.

To convey what we mean by “happiness,” we can do no better than to borrow Rand’s own description of one of her heroes. (The “she” in this passage refers to the heroine of Atlas Shrugged, Dagny Taggart.)

She was looking up at the face of a man who knelt by her side, and she knew that in all the years behind her, this was what she would have given her life to see: a face that bore no mark of pain or fear or guilt. The shape of his mouth was pride, and more: it was as if he took pride in being proud. The angular planes of his cheeks made her think of arrogance, of tension, of scorn—yet the face had none of these qualities, it had their final sum: a look of serene determination and of certainty, and the look of a ruthless innocence which would not seek forgiveness or grant it. It was a face that had nothing to hide or to escape, a face with no fear of being seen or of seeing, so that the first thing she grasped about him was the intense perceptiveness of his eyes—he looked as if his faculty of sight were his best-loved tool and its exercise were a limitless, joyous adventure, as if his eyes imparted a superlative value to himself and to the world—to himself for his ability to see, to the world for being a place so eagerly worth seeing.6

This is Ayn Rand’s vision of the great-souled man. That kind of attitude toward oneself and life, in her view, is morality’s reward—and the true meaning of selfishness. How, then, to achieve it?

Principle 1: Rationality

If you want to boil down to a single word Rand’s answer to “What do success and happiness require?” the word would be: thinking.

In the movie Cast Away, Tom Hanks becomes stranded on an uninhabited island. If he’s going to stay alive, he needs to act. But the island is relatively barren. What makes the film riveting is the fact that Hanks, like all of us, has no survival instinct: He does not know automatically how to satisfy his needs. He knows he needs to eat, and drink, and find shelter, but he needs to discover how to achieve these ends. He must figure out how to open coconuts, how to catch fish, how to build fires, how to remove an infected tooth,or he will die. At every step, what enables Hanks to overcome these obstacles and survive is his continual choice to think. Even his need for companionship requires creative thought to fulfill: Hanks memorably draws a face on a volleyball and dubs it “Wilson,” after the manufacturer.

The same is true of all of us. Whether we’re trying to eke out a living on a desert island or make the most of life in modern America, no human value can be conceived or achieved without thought. Human beings are not physically strong creatures. We don’t have claws. We don’t have fangs. We’re not particularly fast. We rose to the top of the food chain by virtue not of our muscles but of our minds. Every human value—everything that keeps us alive and makes us prosperous—is the product of human reason.

Consider your job. Whether you’re an administrative assistant, a car mechanic, a mid-level manager, or an investment banker, what enables you to excel? What determines how productive you are and how much money you earn? It’s not your muscles—even athletes know that brute strength is only a small part of what makes them successful. The core of what enables you to achieve your career goals is your knowledge, skills, and judgment. That’s true no less of janitors than jet pilots: The difference between a good janitor and a bad one is in large part determined by the former’s superior knowledge of how to clean well, quickly, and efficiently. In any field, it’s your mind that makes you indispensable. As Napoleon Hill put it: “Think and Grow Rich.”

It’s no exaggeration to say that the history of man is the history of thought fostering survival. Human beings discovered agriculture about ten thousand years ago. Before the agricultural revolution, men lived in roaming tribes, in a hand-to-mouth existence that consisted almost purely of foraging for food. With the development of agriculture, men took control of their own existence. They were able to settle land and to form civilization. No subsequent advance would have been possible without agriculture. But what made agriculture possible?

For one, it required long-range planning: Men had to take actions that wouldn’t pay off for months. It required grasping cause and effect: They had to understand what causes food to grow, which in turn required understanding the properties and potentialities of seeds, soil, fertilizer, water, the sun, and more. They had to make tools and weapons, which involved observing what was given in nature and then figuring out ways to alter and rearrange it to serve human purposes.

The Agricultural Revolution and all the benefits that flowed from it were made possible by reason. Reason is the human faculty that identifies and integrates sense experience. Men used their minds to identify and connect facts, grasp cause and effect, plan a long-range course of action, and rearrange nature to meet their needs.

The Industrial Revolution required a similar feat, only this time what men discovered was not isolated spheres of practical knowledge—they discovered that knowledge as such, from the most concrete to the most abstract, could transform human life for the better. It was during the Industrial Revolution that men took the great discoveries of science and math, translated them into dazzling inventions, and found innovative ways to organize men and technology in order to create unprecedented wealth. We are still reaping the rewards.

The idea that today’s economy is a “knowledge economy” disguises the fact that every economy is at root a knowledge economy; all human values depend on rationally acquired knowledge. Reason, in other words, is our basic survival tool, and so rationality is our basic virtue. The motto of a selfish man is “I am, therefore I think.”7

At the most fundamental level, rationality means facing facts. It means using your mind to understand how the world works and to chart your course through it. The rational person places no consideration above the facts of reality—even if those facts are unpleasant. He is the person who will stand by his own judgment—even when the crowd is going the other way. He is the person who stands by his principles—no matter the short-term cost or discomfort. He recognizes and obeys the law of cause and effect—never trying to get effects without causes or enacting causes without accepting full responsibility for their effects. The rational person recognizes that he can close his eyes to reality but that doing so won’t change reality. And he recognizes that if he wants to live in reality, refusing to acknowledge reality is a recipe for disaster.

But rationality doesn’t simply mean facing whatever facts happen to come to your attention. It means a commitment to constantly expanding your knowledge and putting it to use in action. Being rational means thinking about how to gain food, shelter, money, information, inspiration. It means thinking about the kinds of people you want to have as employees, colleagues, friends, and lovers (as well as where to find them and how to treat them). It means thinking about what political system your life requires. It means being a thinker, through and through. Thinking, writes Rand,

does not consist merely of grasping a few simple abstractions, such as “chair,” “table,” “hot,” “cold,” and of learning to speak. It consists of a method of using one’s consciousness, best designated by the term “conceptualizing.” It is not a passive state of registering random impressions. It is an actively sustained process of identifying one’s impressions in conceptual terms, of integrating every event and every observation into a conceptual context, of grasping relationships, differences, similarities in one’s perceptual material and of abstracting them into new concepts, of drawing inferences, of making deductions, of reaching conclusions, of asking new questions and discovering new answers and expanding one’s knowledge into an ever-growing sum. The faculty that directs this process, the faculty that works by means of concepts, is: reason.8

Rationality doesn’t involve becoming a robot, scorning or suppressing emotions. It means recognizing that emotions are not a source of knowledge: Enjoy your emotions, feel them deeply, but use your mind to understand them. Don’t act on them blindly.9

When we talk about rationality, we don’t mean the sort most economists discuss. Economists have historically assumed that everyone is automatically “rational”—that, in the words of economist David Friedman, “individuals have objectives and tend to choose the correct way to achieve them.” According to Friedman, “Babies are rational. So are cats.”10 This has nothing to do with what we mean by the term “rational.” What we mean by rationality is: the volitional choice to use reason rather than emotion to guide your life. To follow reason all the time, on every issue, unconditionally, no matter what. That is not something everyone does—and it is something babies and cats aren’t even capable of.

It should now be clear why Rand calls her moral code rational selfishness. Rationality is what philosopher Tara Smith calls Rand’s “master virtue,” the central thread running through every aspect of Rand’s ethics.11

Principle 2: Productiveness

“Production,” writes Rand, “is the application of reason to the problem of survival.”12 Tom Hanks breaks off a tree branch and sharpens it into a spear. Thomas Edison turns a pile of glass, metal, and carbonized copper into a light bulb. A factory worker moves a hunk of metal one step closer to becoming a car. That is production.

If rationality is the basic virtue we have to exercise in order to achieve our well-being, production is the main existential activity rationality consists of. It is the virtue of applying reason to the creation of the goods and services that keep us alive.

The principle of productiveness says: Use your mind to create wealth. “Wealth” in this context refers to the creation of any material value—from a meal, to a truck, to a medical operation, to a stock analysis, to a symphony. Productiveness doesn’t assume any particular level of ability. It says only: Do the best your mind is capable of.13

The material benefits of production are obvious. In contrast to other animals, the values we need to flourish don’t come ready-made in nature. We use our mind to discover the nature of nature and adapt it to our ends. In their book The Virtues of Capitalism, Austin Hill and Scott Rae note that “the word capital itself comes from the Latin word caput, which means head. This refers to the human and intellectual elements of creating capital out of the earth’s resources (for example, using sand to make silicon).”14

It is the spiritual role of production in human life, however, that requires special emphasis. The deepest source of joy for a producer is not the financial rewards of his work but the process of creation itself. Steve Jobs explained his own attitude toward his career in an address to the Stanford graduating class of 2005:

I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.15

A rationally selected career brings purpose to a person’s life. It is the central activity that enables him to make his days not a succession of pointless repetitions but a meaningful sum. And since it is a person’s main form of creativity, growth, and personal achievement, it is an indispensable source of self-esteem and happiness.

For Rand, production is not a dreary duty but the essence of a moral existence—and so she regards the productive individual as deserving of moral reverence.

In this regard, Rand’s view is fundamentally different from the so-called Protestant work ethic, which says hard work is good because it pleases God by teaching men self-denial and self-restraint. Rand’s view is that productive work is ennobling because it makes the individual richer—both materially and spiritually.

Productive work plays a central role in the life of a rationally selfish individual. What, then, is the role of money in the rationally selfish man’s life? After all, the conventional image of the selfish person is of a person who cares about nothing but money. More money, for him, is intrinsically good—regardless of how he gets it, why he wants it, or how he uses it. Rand rejects that view. Money, she recognizes, is a tool—a tool of exchange. The value of a dollar doesn’t inhere in the dollar. It comes from the fact that it has been earned through production and can be used to obtain goods and services created by other productive individuals. It is a value only of, by, and for producers. But, as we noted, money is not a producer’s primary concern. For him it’s a means to an end.  

Creative work is the essence of a happy and successful life. The producer’s chief goal, as Jobs suggested in his commencement address, is the act of creation. While he enjoys the luxury that money can buy, money’s true value to him is that it permits him to continually expand his productive capacity. What enables Intel to keep multiplying the power of microprocessors is the financial rewards from its previous successes—every dollar of profit that is plowed back into the company enables it to do more research and development, to build more manufacturing plants, to sell more microprocessors, and then to create new and better chips, ad infinitum. Ayn Rand’s own attitude toward money is instructive as well. She was extremely poor for most of her early life. The best thing about financial success, she later said, was that it gave her the freedom to write. It took her more than a decade of full-time work to write her greatest novel, Atlas Shrugged—something she could not have done without the income from her past works. For producers, whether they are designing microchips or writing novels, their primary goal is to create. Their chief reward is the joy of creating the world’s greatest microprocessor, just as Rand’s was the joy of having written Atlas Shrugged.

All of this implies that money is a value only under certain circumstances. The same reasons that lead a profit seeker to love earned money lead him to spurn unearned money, money won in defiance of the need to produce. Whether the money is looted from unsuspecting investors or mooched from overly generous relatives, the money does not represent a productive achievement and does not go to fuel further productive achievements.16 

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates declares “the more men value money-making, the less they value virtue.”17 Rand’s view is exactly the opposite. The value of virtue is its role in promoting your own welfare—including your economic welfare: The more men value money-making, the more they value virtue.

Principle 3: Trade

Business, according to Wall Street‘s Gordon Gekko, is “a zero sum game. Somebody wins, somebody loses.” This represents a widely held view: People’s interests inevitably conflict, and if one person gains it’s because another person loses.

Well, think about the last car you bought. Who lost, you or the dealer? Contrary to Gekko, nobody lost. Both of you benefited. You got a car, which you presumably valued more than what you paid for it. The dealer got a check, which he valued more than the car. No one was made worse off by the deal. It was a classic trade—win/win—and the model of all proper human relationships.

A trader [writes Rand] is a man who earns what he gets and does not give or take the undeserved. He does not treat men as masters or slaves, but as independent equals. He deals with men by means of a free, voluntary, unforced, uncoerced exchange—an exchange which benefits both parties by their own independent judgment.18

Human beings aren’t by nature scavengers, and life is not a zero-sum game. We create the values we need through reason and productive action. As a result, human relationships don’t require sacrifice. Instead of fighting over a fixed pie, the way other animals do, each of us can create a potentially unlimited amount of wealth and then trade it for the things others have produced—an exchange that leaves both sides better off.

Don’t be confused by the fact that we sometimes pay more for a product than we would like or get paid less than we had hoped. The fact that a gain from trade isn’t as large as we would have preferred doesn’t change the fact that it is a gain.

The trader principle governs all of a rationally selfish man’s relationships. He’s always thinking win/win, profit/profit, because he knows that making or accepting losses is not to his interests. This is certainly true of business.

In his best-selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey suggests why thinking in win/win terms is so important and why trying to gain at others’ expense is a sure way to lose:

Win/Lose is not viable because, although I appear to win in a confrontation with you, your feelings, your attitudes toward me and our relationship have been affected. If I am a supplier to your company, for example, and I win on my terms in a particular negotiation, I may get what I want now. But will you come to me again? My short-term Win will really be a long-term Lose if I don’t get your repeat business. So an interdependent Win/Lose is really Lose/Lose in the long run.19

Although we have had it drilled into our heads since birth that selfishness means exploiting people, it is the trader who time and time again reaps the benefits of dealing with others. This was a lesson Ray Kroc put to good use while developing his McDonald’s chain in the early 1960s. In those days, most franchisers saw their franchisees as milk cows and often took cuts of what the franchisees paid to their suppliers. Kroc decided that trying to take advantage of his franchisees was a losing strategy. Instead, he used his buying power to get discounted supplies and passed the savings on to McDonald’s operators. As former McDonald’s chairman Fred Turner noted, “Our method of collecting revenue was almost totally dependent on the sales volume of the franchised store. And so our economic interests were not in conflict with the franchisee’s interest, but compatible with them.” Kroc put the point more colorfully. “Our operators know which side their bread is buttered on. And the result is that they are cooperative. When you find a good selfish reason for people to cooperate with you, you are pretty sure of their cooperation.”20

People sometimes find it hard to accept that trying to exploit others is unselfish. But think about your own life. Would you really be better off if you stole from your coworkers? If you lied to your friends? If you cheated your customers? If you cheated on your spouse?21

The rationally selfish person doesn’t view other people as playthings to be exploited for his purposes any more than he views himself as a plaything for others to exploit. His attitude is best summed up by a line from Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged: “I swear—by my life and my love of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”22

A New Concept of Selfishness

Here, then, is Ayn Rand’s new concept of selfishness. Selfishness, for her, refers to the person who places nothing above the pursuit of his own happiness and who actively thinks about and acts to achieve all the values required to promote his long-range self-interest. In order to achieve his well-being, he demonstrates fidelity to the principles of self-interest: rationality, productiveness, and trade chief among them. As a result, he achieves his values, his happiness, and an unbreached self-esteem that comes from showing unbreached fidelity to a code of rational moral principles.

Under this new concept of selfishness, there is no package deal of the moneymaker with the liar, the thief, and the cheat. Bernie Madoff does not qualify as selfish.

If Madoff qualified as selfish, it’s pretty obvious what your interests consist of: Just do what you feel like; lie, cheat, steal your way to wealth, power, and fame. If you get away with it for the moment, then you’ve achieved your interests. Rational selfishness says that defining and achieving your self-interest requires careful, deliberate, scientific thought—about the long term as well as the short—and principled action.

If Madoff qualified as selfish, you have two alternatives in life: You can either act for your own interests at the expense of others or become a dupe who acts for their interests at the expense of your own. Rational selfishness says that the interests of men don’t conflict—not so long as they’re rational. The essence of a moral existence is pursuing your interests without sacrificing yourself or other people.

For Ayn Rand, selfishness is not about giving in to the “lower” part of your nature but about living up to your highest potential. It is not about mere prudence but about the demanding pursuit of joy—a pursuit that involves the grandest values and the noblest virtues.

It should be all too clear that Rand rejects the idea, commonly heard in economics classrooms, that everyone is selfish. Not everyone is interested in his own interests. The mere fact that a person chooses to do something, or wants to do something, does not make it selfish. The question is: Why does he want to do it?

We are not deterministic puppets, forced to pursue our own well-being whether we want to or not. Embracing selfishness as a moral ideal is a choice. To be selfish, you have to decide to pursue your long-term best interests, to think about them, to make the effort to abide by them even when you feel tugged in a different direction. That’s not something everyone does.

The Evil of Self-Sacrifice

If rational selfishness demands a principled pursuit of genuine, life-affirming values, then it categorically condemns self-sacrifice. Yet self-sacrifice is generally considered the essence of virtue. How could anyone say that it’s wrong, let alone evil?

Self-sacrifice does not mean giving up something to get something else—it’s not synonymous with “cost.” A sacrifice means giving up something you care about for something you care about less—or for something you don’t care about at all. When you give up a dollar in order to buy a newspaper you value more than a dollar, it is not a sacrifice. When you give up a dollar to some bum out of a sense of duty, it is. When you help a friend pay his rent because he lost his job through no fault of his own and it’s a sum you can easily afford, it is not a sacrifice. When paying his rent leaves you unable to pay yours, it is. When an entrepreneur forgoes much-needed sleep to make breakfast for his kids, whom he loves, it is not a sacrifice. When he forgoes working on his business to feed strangers at a soup kitchen, because he feels guilty for his wealth, it is.23

Self-sacrifice requires sacrifice. To sacrifice is to make yourself worse off, to make your life less enjoyable, to see a net reduction in the resources you can use to foster your well-being. The key to virtue, according to this view of morality, is not helping others but harming yourself.  Sacrificing for your neighbor, that’s okay according to altruism—but sacrificing for a drunk who lost his job, his family, and his friends and now has nothing? That’s the stuff moral saints are made of.

This is the reason most people consider Mother Teresa a moral saint but give companies like Pfizer no moral credit. As Francis Sejersted, chairman of the committee that gave Mother Teresa her Noble Peace Prize, put it, “Mother Teresa stands out, in a very positive way, as an example of true self-sacrifice in humanitarian work. She became a symbol to the world.”24 Mother Teresa may or may not have benefited people, but she certainly made herself worse off for their sake: What she symbolized was self-sacrifice.25 Pfizer, however, clearly has improved and saved the lives of millions—but (gasp) its executives, stockholders, and employees all made themselves well off in the process.

It’s revealing that even partly altruistic companies don’t achieve the holy grail of virtue according to the proponents of self-sacrifice—not so long as they profit in the process. Compartamos is a leading for-profit microloan institution, providing small loans to support entrepreneurship by poor South Americans, who might otherwise have to resort to pawn shops and loan sharks. You might think that humanitarians would herald Compartamos for its work. But you’d be wrong. “Microcredit should be seen as an opportunity to help people get out of poverty in a business way, but not as an opportunity to make money out of poor people,” said Muhammad Yunus, an economist who won the Nobel Prize for his work on these loans.26 Yunus is particularly critical of Compartamos. “When you discuss microcredit, don’t bring Compartamos into it,” he insists. “Microcredit was created to fight the money lender, not to become the money lender.”27 In other words, instead of treating the poor as charity cases, Compartamos treats them as traders, capable of engaging in win-win transactions. For this, it is a moral blackguard.

From the perspective of rational selfishness, sacrifice is bad for the same reason that sickness is bad, that poverty is bad, that starvation is bad, that suicide is bad: It harms your life.28

Self-sacrifice is anti-life—so naturally, it is fundamentally in conflict with the virtues self-interest requires. Take them in reverse order.

The trader principle counsels voluntary trade to mutual advantage; to sacrifice is to cultivate losses. A trader seeks out people he can respect; to sacrifice you have to look for people you can pity and serve. A trader doesn’t seek or give the unearned; to sacrifice is to give away the things you earn to those who haven’t earned them.

The principle of productiveness counsels relentlessly seeking to reshape the earth in order to raise your standard of living; sacrifice requires that you lower your standard of living. Productiveness says to seek out work you love; to sacrifice you have to direct your labor wherever it is most needed by others. Productiveness is rooted on the premise that wealth is to be celebrated and enjoyed; to sacrifice requires that you not “wear two tunics” but “sell your possessions and give to the poor.”29

And rationality? Rationality says to place nothing above the judgment of your own mind. The morality of sacrifice says to place nothing above the needs of others—including your own values, standards, and convictions. During the late nineteenth century, for instance, private charity in America was abundant, but it was selective. In most cases, anyone who was able to work had to work in order to receive care, and those who received care were expected to learn new ideas and habits that would enable them, insofar as possible, to get off the dole. But during the twentieth century, more consistent altruists condemned such practices as selfish. Why should people in need be denied care simply because they didn’t want to work? Why should those offering care have a right to impose their views on people just because those people need help? The needy, said the leaders of the new “welfare rights” movement, are entitled to care—and the “more fortunate” have a duty to provide that care, no questions asked.30 “Those who start by saying: ‘It is selfish to pursue your own wishes, you must sacrifice them to the wishes of others,'” writes Rand, “end up by saying: ‘It is selfish to uphold your convictions, you must sacrifice them to the convictions of others.'”31

Self-sacrifice means subordinating yourself to others—to surrender the things that make you happy in order to serve others. The question no one ever asks is: Why is that supposed to be good?

Why is it moral [writes Rand] to serve the happiness of others, but not your own? If enjoyment is a value, why is it moral when experienced by others, but immoral when experienced by you? If the sensation of eating a cake is a value, why is it an immoral indulgence in your stomach, but a moral goal for you to achieve in the stomach of others? Why is it immoral to produce a value and keep it, but moral to give it away? And if it is not moral for you to keep a value, why is it moral for others to accept it? If you are selfless and virtuous when you give it, are they not selfish and vicious when they take it? Does virtue consist of serving vice? Is the moral purpose of those who are good, self-immolation for the sake of those who are evil?32

These questions, Rand argues, have never received a rational, nonmystical answer.

Why, then, is self-sacrifice held in such esteem by most Americans? In significant part because they don’t have a clear concept of “sacrifice” or of “selfish.” They treat any noble or benevolent gesture as a sacrifice, and they equate selfishness with violating people’s rights or never helping anyone for any reason. In other words, the reason we laud self-sacrifice and revile selfishness is not because we’ve heard some great argument in favor of those views but because sacrifice has been whitewashed and selfishness has been turned into a straw man. Once those concepts are clearly defined, any pretense that altruistic self-sacrifice is noble vanishes.

Perhaps the greatest distortion concerning selfishness is the idea that the selfish person never helps others. But helping others per se is not sacrificial. What rational selfishness says is: Help others when you have a value to gain; don’t help others at your own expense—don’t do it when it’s a net loss. Don’t give away 10 percent of your income to charity when you’re having trouble making ends meet. Don’t allow your no-good sister to stay in your house because you think it’s your duty. Don’t help your enemy pummel you by turning the other cheek. If you see a stranger drowning and you can save him without significant risk to your own life, do it—but don’t then go around the world looking for drowning people to rescue.

If you want a clear picture of what altruistic sacrifice really means in practice—the kind of “help” it demands and the kind of “love” it upholds—allow us to introduce you to David Platt. He’s the youngest mega-church pastor in the country, and in his best-selling book Radical,he tells the story of a missionary and his wife who went to Indonesia trying to convert the Batak tribe to Christianity. The couple was murdered and cannibalized by the Batak. Sometime later, however, another missionary went to convert the tribe, and—luckily for him—succeeded. According to Platt:

When I first heard this story, the immediate questions that came to my mind were Would I be willing for my wife and me to be that first missionary couple? Would I be willing to be killed and cannibalized so that those who came after me would see people come to Christ?33

Platt never says whether he would—but he is clear about one thing: He should. And if self-sacrifice is a moral duty, he is right. What could be a greater sacrifice than feeding yourself and your wife to a tribe of cannibals for the sake of the cannibals?

It should go without saying that this is obscene. A man of self-esteem does not regard the lives (or souls) of others as more important than his own, and he does not hand over his highest personal value to be slaughtered by savages. But that is an egoistic conclusion—a consistent altruist can have no truck with self-esteem and must be prepared to renounce any personal value.

Finally, let us note that self-sacrifice has been and has to be the justification (and rationalization) for every dictatorship in history. The dictatorial mentality that seeks power over others does not preach selfishness but self-sacrifice. Rational selfishness says that each individual is an end in himself. Self-sacrifice demands that men turn themselves into fodder for the sake of others—the dictator is there to organize the feast. “It stands to reason,” says a character in Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, “that where there’s sacrifice, there’s someone collecting sacrificial offerings.”34

Conclusion: The Only Way To Be Selfish

The genuinely selfish individual—the person who pursues his actual long-term interests—is not the brute who sacrifices others and blindly tramples over them. He is the rational, productive individual who deals with others by means of trade.

People often ask, “Isn’t the solution to be selfish sometimes and to sacrifice other times?” Economist Deirdre McCloskey, for instance, declares that we mustn’t be unbridled egoists. But, she continues, it would be equally disastrous to be consistently self-sacrificial. “It’s the Jewish-mother version of goodness: ‘Oh, don’t bother to replace the bulb. I’ll just sit here in the dark.’ But the mother, after all, is God’s creature, too, and benevolence therefore should include a just benevolence toward herself.”35

But once you grasp fully that selfishness means pursuing your own interests rationally and without sacrifice, and that self-sacrifice consists of nothing but harming yourself, then there is no longer a temptation to dilute selfishness with a little sacrifice—any more than there is a temptation to dilute a glass of water with a little cyanide.

Rational selfishness, then, is a redundancy—there is no other way to be selfish. From now on, when we speak of selfishness we will do so only in Ayn Rand’s sense. We will call Madoff and those like him what they are: evil, self-destructive human beings.

The question now is: What kind of behavior characterizes and pervades a free market? Is it the destructive irrationality of a Madoff or the rational pursuit of a person’s genuine interests? To answer that, we need to look at the central activity that takes place on a market: the pursuit of profit by businessmen. That will be the subject of the next two chapters.

Image credit: rangizz/Shutterstock.com


If you value the ideas presented here, please become an ARI Member today.

Do you have a comment or question?


  1. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. F. H. Peters (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004), bk. 4, p. 75.
  2. Gen. 22 (New International Version).
  3. See Leonard Peikoff, The Ominous Parallels (New York: Penguin, 1993), pp. 84–85.
  4. In addition to Rand’s own works, her moral views have been elucidated in a number of later works. The most important of these is Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Penguin, 1991), a presentation of Rand’s full philosophic system, written by her longtime student Leonard Peikoff. Other valuable works include Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist by Tara Smith (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), and her earlier work on the foundations of ethics, Viable Values (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000). The professional philosophers among you should also see Darryl Wright, “Reasoning about Ends: Life as a Value in Ayn Rand’s Ethics,” in Allan Gotthelf (ed.) and James G. Lennox (assoc. ed.), Metaethics, Egoism, and Virtue: Studies in Ayn Rand’s Normative Theory (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011). One of Rand’s most important essays on her moral theory, “The Objectivist Ethics,” is available for free online at: https://courses.aynrand.org/works/the-objectivist-ethics/.
  5. Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (New York: Penguin, 1999), p. 1014.
  6. Ibid., p. 701.
  7. Ibid., p. 1058. For a systematic treatment of the virtue of rationality, see Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, pp. 220–229, and Smith, Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics, chapter 3.
  8. Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964).
  9. For Ayn Rand’s view of the source of emotions and an indication of what it means to understand them, see Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, pp. 153–158.
  10. David Friedman, Hidden Order (New York: Harper, 1997), pp. 3–4.
  11. Smith, Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics, p. 48. Ayn Rand defined rationality as “man’s basic virtue, the source of all his other virtues” in Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964), p. 27.
  12. Ayn Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: Signet, 1967), p. 8.
  13. For a systematic presentation of the virtue of productiveness, see Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 292–303, and Smith, Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics, chapter 8.
  14. Austin Hill and Scott Rae, The Virtues of Capitalism: A Moral Case for Free Markets (Chicago: Northfield Publishing, 2010), p. 49.
  15. Steve Jobs, Commencement Address, Stanford University, Stanford, California, June 12, 2005, http://news.stanford.edu/news/2005/june15/jobs-061505.html (accessed June 8, 2011).
  16. For more on Rand’s view of money, see Rand, Atlas Shrugged, p. 410–15, and Tara Smith, “Money Can Buy Happiness,” Reason Papers 26, http://www.reasonpapers.com/pdf/26/rp_26_1.pdf  (accessed June 8, 2011).
  17. Plato, Republic, c. 360 BC, 4, Stephanus 550E. Quoted in Jerry Z. Muller, The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Modern European Thought (New York: Anchor Books, 2002), p. 4.
  18. Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” pp. 34–35.
  19. Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), p. 211.
  20. Quoted in John F. Love, McDonald’s: Behind the Arches (New York: Bantam Books, 1986), p. 64.
  21. For an in-depth treatment of this point, see Tara Smith, Viable Values (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), pp. 162-182.
  22. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, p. 1069.
  23. Ibid., p. 1028.
  24. “The World Mourns the Death of Mother Teresa,” Mother Teresa of Calcutta Center, September 5, 1997, http://www.motherteresa.org/10th.html (accessed June 7, 2011).
  25. On the question of whether Mother Teresa actually benefited others, see Christopher Hitchens, The Missionary Position (London: Verso, 1995).
  26. Neil MacFarquhar, “Banks Making Big Profits from Tiny Loans,” New York Times, April 13, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/14/world/14microfinance.html?pagewanted=print (accessed June 7, 2011).
  27. “Yunus Blasts Compartamos,” Bloomberg Businessweek, December 13, 2007, http://www.businessweek.com/print/magazine/content/07_52/b4064045920958.htm (accessed June 7, 2011).
  28. Suicide can sometimes be justified on the basis of rational selfishness, as in cases where a person has a painful, debilitating disease. See Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, pp. 247–248.
  29. Mark 6:8–9; Matt. 19:20.
  30. Marvin Olasky, The Tragedy of American Compassion (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1992), chapters 10 and 11. We discuss this history in more detail in chapter 12 of this book.
  31. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, p. 1030.
  32. Ibid., p. 1031.
  33. David Platt, Radical (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah, 2010), p. 165. Thanks to Adam Edmonsond for this example.
  34. Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead (New York: Signet, 1971), p. 637.
  35. Deirdre N. McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006),pp. 257–258.
Share this article:

Yaron Brook

Yaron Brook is chairman of the board of the Ayn Rand Institute and host of The Yaron Brook Show.

Updates from New Ideal

Book Image  

Listen to New Ideal Live!

New Ideal Live is the podcast that explores pressing cultural issues from the perspective of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism, which upholds the ideals of reason, individualism, and capitalism.

Subscribe here.

Ayn Rand University App

Explore unique philosophical content that challenges conventional views — in courses you can take on the go.

Available on Google Play and
the App Store.

Welcome to New Ideal!

If you like what you’re reading, be sure to subscribe to our weekly newsletter! You’ll also receive a FREE copy of our book, Illuminating Ayn Rand.