Quote of the week...please share your favourite line from Ayn Rand's writings

“Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one's values.”

Friday, August 7, 2009

About Selfishness In A Team Sport

An article published in our ‘Ayn Rand in India’ website a couple of days ago examines the role of selfishness, as defined by Ayn Rand, in team sports. According to the author, there is essentially no conflict between an individual surrendering a bid to short-term personal glory for the interests of his team, and the virtue of selfishness.

This is understood in the light of Ayn Rand’s unique perspective that selfishness is the pursuit of ‘rational self-interest,’ not personal glory at any cost. When a rational person, in this case an athlete, chooses a sport such as football to dedicate his life to, he needs to begin by identifying the proper behavior or set of actions that are required to attain the highest level of excellence and success possible to him on the football field, and then develop his skills accordingly. And success and excellence in a team sport can only be achieved, if every individual coordinates his efforts with those of his other teammates towards a common purpose – victory for the team. Any action detrimental to a team victory, even if it suits someone’s momentary individual ambition, contradicts the very principle on which any team sport is based. It neither profits the athlete’s career, nor does it achieve happiness for him. In fact, it achieves quite the opposite, including very fairly earned hatred and anger from other, more ‘rational’ teammates. It is certainly not an example of selfishness, in the objectivist sense... Click here to read the complete article.


  1. I agree with that..'team' or 'team-work' cannot, or rather should not, be in conflict with an individual's goals and achievements.

    If we were look at the dictionary meaning of this word, it’s just simply limited to mean ‘the combined effective action of a group’. However, the popular belief over a period of time has been to construe this “combined action” as something larger than and different from individual actions. So although the word, per se, emphasizes on a 'common goal', more often than not this is inferred as a 'common good' a.k.a. whatever is better suited to the majority (either by number or power). Therefore, while individual goals play a significant role in and have to be directly related to a team’s common goal, common good on the other hand is a complete antithesis of individual objectives. And from here emanates the more acceptable norm of dedicated team members being selfless creatures devoting their energy in achieving a collective good. But what creators of this belief forget is that team work is about synergizing individual efforts in a manner that every team member’s objective is completely in sync with an overall pre-defined goal. The team’s goal, once created, continues to exist irrespective of any individual's whims or any majority rules.

    But unfortunately that is how team work is interpreted today - as a selfless act of working towards arbid rules. As long as one is getting paid for doing one’s role in a team, one doesn’t have to bother about who really defines one’s role. I have experienced a lot of that in my professional tenure of about 8 years...

  2. Just to add to that, I have heard management gurus quote "Kill the 'I' in you to ensure the success of your team"...If only I could sue such preachers...

  3. Shivani’s comments are very interesting, in the sense that they touch upon several issues in the context of team work. I’m using this opportunity to examine these better. This is long, so I’ve broken it up into different posts with different titles. Please refer to whatever is of interest to you…

    About ‘collective/common good’…

    A productive action by any rational, selfish person involves acting on a course of his/her own choice, utilizing his/her full capabilities as a rational being. However, actions that are defined in and made possible by a team are invariably partial actions, i.e., smaller than the sum total of a team’s efforts, and meaningless without it. After all, I can’t play a game of cricket or run an organization all by myself. Individual actions fit in a limited sphere and have no meaning if they are not coordinated with that of others. In fact, they have to be dedicated to and directed by the goal of the team to which they pertain, completely, without exception. In this context, ‘collective good’ or ‘common good’ has meaning – it means that which is good for the success of the team, and therefore every individual involved in the team. There shouldn’t be any concept of majority or minority, in this sense. If something that is good for the success of any individual is different from and conflicts with that which is good for the rest of the team, that individual can’t and shouldn’t any longer be associated with that team. There can be no exceptions.

    Using an example, if I’m a cyclist in Lance Armstrong’s team but have no interest in dedicating my complete efforts over the course of a race to his success, then I must leave the team. In this sense, no team can do anything to synergize individual efforts unless the personal objectives of every member already fit within its pre-defined goals. That’s a pre-condition.

    Lance Armstrong says ‘during the years I was the team leader and winning (the Tour de France race), if any teammate rode primarily for himself and not for my overall success, I would have sent him back home the next day.’ At one level, this seems to conflict with the message of objectivism, but it doesn’t, and he is absolutely right.

  4. About the leader…

    A leader or coordinator has to decide (he may consult other team members in this, or in some cases, not) how best can every person’s talents be utilized to achieve success. If, however, that decision essentially conflicts with some team members personal objectives, he/she should then resign from that team and the leader must accept that decision. If, on the other hand, the leader insists on being autocratic and abusing the rational capabilities of his teammates by simply dictating to everyone, offering little explanation, and leaving little room for comment, judgment and understanding from his teammates, he is expecting people to selflessly dedicate themselves to his dictates. That, to whatever extent it is practiced, is completely irrational. I’m in agreement with Shivani's point that it is wrong to expect people to follow arbitrary rules.

  5. About the role of 'majority'…

    Some decisions, I think, have to be based on majority. For instance, if different workers want different types of improvements in facilities in an office, but the company can’t afford everything, how do they decide? The management may rule out certain suggestions, but isn’t a majority vote required for what’s left? What if I form a football team and we have to decide the color and look of our jersey? Perhaps you’ll be able to think of several such examples…

  6. About combined action being larger than individual actions…

    Your response seems to suggest that combined action is simply a sum of individual actions. In one sense that is true but I’m not sure how exactly you meant it. If you mean that the output and performance of a team is simply an aggregate of individual capabilities, I’m afraid I don’t agree, since it doesn’t work that way, at least on the sports field. In teamwork, I think apart from the distinct set of every person’s own capabilities, there is a certain ‘x-factor’, not a mystic ‘x factor’, but an ‘x factor’ nevertheless. And that x-factor is defined by the way the teammates coordinate with each other and motivate each other. There are tons of examples in sports. For instance, as I said in my article, often football and cricket teams have been made by bringing together the best talent from all over the globe. Results should be brilliant, right? At times, they are shockingly poor. Individuals don’t fully understand each other’s personalities and styles of play, they struggle to coordinate and gel and they often fail to inspire each other. At one level they don’t really care for each other, and it’s no surprise that the end result is that they are not able to lift themselves to their best.

    Great teams, however, where all these factors come together favorably, even lift people beyond what they believed was their best. The results are often staggering, and I don’t think it would be fair to simply attribute this success to an aggregate of individual capabilities.

  7. About killing the “I”!!

    All said, it is an unfortunate truth that business leaders, management gurus, sportspeople and commentators misunderstand and misapply the concepts of ‘selfishness’ and ‘selflessness.’ They are neither philosophers, nor educated in Ayn Rand, and simply follow the language the predominant culture of today has taught them to speak. They ignorantly use this erroneous understanding of these abstract concepts to justify specific applications and professional understanding that may often be absolutely correct. I can easily imagine a lot of experts, when talking about teamwork, quoting this person who talks about ‘killing the I’, to justify some very valid observations and sound advice. What do you think?

  8. When I referred to majority w.r.t. team-work, what I meant were those aspects of a team’s decision that get biased based on popular belief. I agree with the fact that certain decisions, ultimately, have to rely on the majority, provided this majority takes into cognizance the ultimate objective to be achieved by the team, where ‘team’ is the sole unit of measurement. Therefore, this would imply that a team which works (only) towards its objective, will not, or rather, should not have any contradictions in terms of arriving at a particular decision. There may be numerous suggestions given by individual members, however, the one that is chosen has to be the one required for the achievement of that one goal. Now, how does one decide which of these alternatives would be the one to be actually applied? Does one have to follow a voting system, thereby reject the minority’s point of view? Does one have to accept the majority’s point of view, based purely on the assumption that the most popular belief will be the right belief? Color of the uniform, perhaps, is not a decision that would have an impact on the team’s performance, but how does one decide on the strategy to be followed for winning the game? How does one ensure that the (majority) decision is devoid of any contradictions? And is that necessary at all, to follow a strategy which irrespective of being the majority’s choice does not hamper the minority? Is there a restriction that needs to put on this majority?

    Killing the ‘I’ – Actually what is more prevalent is the customary approach which mandates that a person who places his ego above the team’s goals,cannot be a team player a.k.a. you can either have an ego or you can aim to be a team player!

  9. By the time we are done with this conversation, we should be ready to have a seminar on this! [:-)]

    Anyway, I'm certainly not advocating the blind and absolute rule of majority. In fact, to begin with, let me make a distinction between the standard of decision making, and the mechanism by which it is arrived.

    Any decision taken by the team has to be justified by a single standard of value - is it the best possible decision to further one or more of the team's objectives. This has nothing to do with the majority, or minority or any one individual. It is solely based on the declared objectives of the team, for which every individual involved in it is working.

    However, the fact that you have a standard does not imply that it will necessarily be applied correctly. This is where you need a 'mechanism' to apply that standard, a mechanism to choose the best course of action. This is where the issue of majorities, minorities and team leaders comes in. Now, the mechanism a team chooses to make a decision is circumstantial. It can take many complex forms and probably depends a lot on the kind of leader involved. Bear in mind, he/she may be rational or irrational. Anyway, in minor cases a simple majority vote might be sufficient. However, for major decisions, a meeting might be required, which will include considerable thought, discussion and debate. Here, a simple vote is not enough - people have to convince their colleagues. The content of ideas, in this case, is more important than the number of people advocating them. This is why the leader or a small ‘wise’ group might reserve the right to reject the majority. There may be other permutations and combinations too. In some cases, the onus of a decision might be left to a single individual in a team...what mechanism is exercised finally ought to depend on the composition of the team, the magnitude of the decision involved and the type of decision.

    An example might suffice - consider the case of a jury. 12 individuals are called to decide 'innocent' or 'guilty'. They are expected to base their decision on the weight of evidence, driven by a solitary consideration: justice. Provided they are all rational individuals, there is no conflict in anyone's goals. And they don't generally just vote - too much depends on their judgment. They argue, discuss and debate, and then reach a decision. How? Simple majority – except, when the guilty person is being condemned to death. In that scenario, considering the magnitude of the judgment, EVERYONE in the jury must vote 'guilty' for the person to be convicted, or else he/she can't be sentenced to death. Observe how the mechanism changes, because a life hangs in the balance. In this case, the thought and judgment of every individual matters crucially. The facts and the cause for any one of two possible judgments must be established beyond ANY ambiguity or reasonable doubt. This is where the concept of a majority breaks down, and rightly so.

    However, there is nothing forcing a corporate team or a sports team towards such a rigorous application of rationality. It is their choice, and they will sink or swim by it. My purpose was to simply establish that the mechanism by which a given team arrives at a decision must vary according to the kind of decision involved.

  10. Amar writes that:

    Players who put their team ahead of themselves are considered ‘selfless’ and ‘heroic.’ However, those who pursue their own interests at the expense of their teams are branded ‘mean’ and ‘selfish.’ So, must we conclude that in certain circumstances in the sporting arena selfishness is not a virtue? The truth is that situations in the sporting arena where the success of the team depends on someone surrendering their personal glory, don’t at all conflict with the virtue of selfishness, as identified by Ayn Rand.

    Please read the following articles by Ayn Rand before concluding that surrendering of a player’s personal glory don’t at all conflict with the virtue of selfishness, as identified by Ayn Rand(?)
    • The Objectivist Ethics
    • The ethics of emergency
    • Isn’t every one selfish
    • Man’s Right
    • The Nature of Government

    From ‘The ethics of emergency’: ‘“Sacrifice” is the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser or of a non value. Thus, altruism gauges a man’s virtue by the degree to which he surrenders, renounces or betrays his values. The rational principle of conduct is the exact opposite: always act in accordance with the hierarchy of your values, and never sacrifice a greater value to a lesser one.’

    The questions are - How should a man conduct himself in a team? Does he need to surrender his value of personal (?) success to the success of the team? In what way can a man render non-sacrificial help/contribution to the success of a team?

    Since the questions involve the conduct of a man in an association or team in which he gives his consent to participate, his role vis a vis the association must be examined. Here we can apply the concept of rights of a man vis a vis society.

    From ‘Man’s Right’: “A right is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context:...the right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated action---- which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and enjoyment of his own life”
    And from The Nature of Government,”…..This means that the government as such has no right except the rights delegated to it by the citizens for a specific purpose.”

    When a man joins an association or team to fulfill an ambition or accomplish a purpose which furthers his career or adds value to his life, he delegates his rights (of certain actions) for a specific purpose (to win, to achieve a goal). The team as such has no right except the rights delegated to it by the members and participants for a specific purpose. The team has a set of rules, and the conduct, roles and responsibilities of each member are defined in order to achieve the purpose behind the delegation of rights by its members.

    What a player does for the team is not the surrender of a value of personal glory, but the delegation of rights to the team to gain a higher value in his hierarchy of values. It is an example of non-sacrificial role of a member in a team. (He is not sacrificing a greater value to a lesser one or to a non-value.)

    It also demonstrates the virtue of integrity shown by a player who plays according to values of professional excellence and thereby expresses, upholds and translates this value into practical reality –gains another value.

    Further what is the source of this personal glory? Is it appreciation by others? Spectators’ cheers or critics’ adulation? Does it get validated by a rational standard? If it is based on what others think, then it is not a value at all on rational benchmarks. If the source of this glory is the commitment to a rational value of the specific purpose of joining the team, the integrity of his conviction to join the team, then the personal glory is an earned value. Remember, values are not an irreducible primary; they are a construct on metaphysics and epistemology.