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Selfish word cloud

What’s Wrong with Our Notion of “Selfishness”

If you’ve ever been called “selfish,” you know it’s not a compliment — it’s a rebuke. But, for what exactly? Look up “selfish” in a dictionary, and you’ll find something like this:

“lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure”1

“caring only about what you want or need without any thought for the needs or wishes of other people”2

Such definitions suggest that to be “selfish” is to be anywhere on the spectrum between a thoughtless jerk and a criminal who tramples over others.

But why is our conception of self-interest bound up with thoughtlessness and immorality? What do we call someone who is dedicated to the pursuit of his own interests, who respects the lives and rights of others — and sees his interests as being advanced in doing so?

In the introduction to her book The Virtue of Selfishness, Ayn Rand addresses these questions directly. She argues, forcefully, that “[t]he 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.”

READ ALSO:  Can Selfishness Be a Moral Ideal?
To understand the profound moral issues at stake — and why Rand fights to redeem the concept of “selfishness” — pick up The Virtue of Selfishness and read the introduction. The perspective offered there, and developed in the other essays in the book, is nothing short of revolutionary.

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  1. https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/selfish
  2. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/selfish
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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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