Philosophy 111 – Introduction to Philosophy (Fall 2002)
Ethics. Ayn Rand. “The Virtue of Selfishness”
[Students and professors, please read.]
Ayn Rand’s stance against altruism appears to be a battle of semantics. She starts out with saying that the popular usage (not just altruistic) of “selfishness” implies an evil brute. She then gives selfishness a limited (and unreferenced) definition of “concern with one’s own interests” and claims that altruism sees that, not just brutish behavior, as “evil”. However, Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines selfishness as “1 : concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself : seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others 2 : arising from concern with one’s own welfare or advantage in disregard of others” (italics mine). Those definitions do not just involve one’s own interests, they include ignoring everyone else–we do not live in a vacuum. Rand agrees with this when she speaks of a moral code (how we live in relation to others) and when she warns the “Nietzschean egoists”, who she feels base their morality on “the satisfaction of one’s own irrational disires.” In other words, Rand acknwoledges that there is a type of selfishness that is immoral–she just won’t admit that this is the type of selfishness with which altruism disagrees (not her limited definition).
Whereas Rand seems to think altruism is all about letting people walk all over you, Merriam-Webster’s defines it: “1 : unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others 2 : behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species.” The first definition does not mention that altruism puts others first in a manner that is in itself harmful to the altruistic, and the second definition reflects what is found in nature. Rand thinks selflessness doesn’t actually exist because everything we do somehow is in our own self-interest. Altruism doesn’t have to be self-sacrificial or against one’s self-interests–it is just not “in disregard of others” or “concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself,” (Merriam-Webster)–in other words it is just not her understanding of Nietzschean-egoist selfishness.
Rand agrees with a code of moral principles (against the brute), but she seems to think there is a difference between doing something out of moral duty, and doing something as an act of generosity out of good will (thus maintaining integrity to your values). But aren’t generosity and good will and maintaining integrity (by relating correctly with certain “others” whom you value) all part of moral duty? I think maybe one possible reason she makes a distinction between moral duty and generosity, good will, and integrity, even though she agrees on there being a moral code, is because she may have had people in her life who emotionally scarred her by calling her selfish when she was just trying to cope through life.
Rand does make a few good points that I can appreciate, about whether her understanding of altruism (selfless, disinterested, self-sacrificing) is a reality. When she says “Only a rationally selfish man is capable of love,” I am reminded of the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” (italics and underline mine). She makes a point that it is in one’s own interests (selfishness) and an “act of integrity” towards what one values (not sacrifice), to help those one loves. She points out that we value others because we see our virtue-potential in them, whereas (for example) we do not place the same value on inanimate objects because they do not have the same potential.
Merriam-Webster Online. Selfishness; altruism. August 26, 2002.
“The Virtue of Selfishness.” The Philosophical Quest: A Cross-Cultural Reader, Second Edition. Ed. Presbey, Gail M., et. al. McGraw-Hill,
Inc, 2000. 448-452.