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.”

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Debate on the Definition of Selfishness

Recently, I wrote a piece on my understanding of what Ayn Rand really meant by 'selfishness', and the difference between 'selfishness' and 'rational selfishness.' According to me a lot of Ayn Rand's readers mis-understand these concepts.

Interestingly, Vikram Bajaj, who is also on this network, disagrees completely with my understanding of these concepts, even while neither of us claim to diverge from the position that Rand took on this matter. I thought that posting my own view here, followed by the correspondence that Vikram and I have had on this matter (and may continue to), might be of interest to a lot of other people.

To begin with, here is a relevant excerpt from my article. Bear in mind that it is a bit longer than the regular blog post:

"In her introduction to ‘The Virtue of Selfishness’, Ayn Rand re-defined ‘selfishness’. In popular usage, and most dictionary definitions, the word ‘selfish’ denotes a person exclusively concerned with his/her own interests at the expense of others, or at best, with complete disregard for others. The image it brings to mind is of “a mindless brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own end”, or some other hedonistic monster. For most people, in order to condemn anyone, it is enough to say that they are ‘selfish.’ Ayn Rand freed ‘selfishness’ from this kind of a moral evaluation and from any judgment on how one treats others. She defined it, simply, as “concern with one’s own interests.”

However, the common misconception is that Ayn Rand replaced the negative moral evaluation contained in the conventional definition of selfishness (‘disregard for others’/ ‘at the expense of others’), with a positive one. Readers believe that the word ‘selfishness’, according to Ayn Rand, is a concept that denotes a rational, independent person concerned with his own properly defined, long term, rational self-interest. In other words, it conceptually subsumes every virtue of the Objectivist ethics. Just the word must evoke the image of someone like John Galt or Howard Roark. However, just like popular usage, this too is an error, albeit of the opposite kind.

Bear in mind that Ayn Rand did not define selfishness as a ‘heroic concern with one’s own interests’, or a ‘concern with one’s own rationally defined, long-term interests’. There is no evaluation of the kind of concern and action (whether rational or irrational, short-term or long-term) contained in her definition itself. It simply identifies the beneficiary of one’s own concern and actions: oneself. Altruism also identifies the beneficiary of one’s own concern and actions: others. The concept of selfishness is not meant to evoke the image of a mindless brute or a rational human being. Choosing one of these images means that one has incorporated a view of how someone acts, not just who benefits.

Some people accept that Ayn Rand’s definition of ‘selfishness’ does not subsume the Objectivist ethics, however, implicitly or explicitly, they think that it necessarily implies it. Accordingly, ‘selfishness’ must lead to a concern with one’s own ‘rational self-interest’, or ‘rational egoism’. Therefore, once again, it is enough to simply call John Galt selfish. This is not accurate either. The term ‘rational self-interest’ identifies a system of values based on a proper standard. Concern with it means that one discovers the objective standard and identifies the universal values that adhere to it, without contradiction or error. It requires consistent, disciplined thinking. Just because one’s intention is that one benefits from one’s own actions, it does not necessarily cause the recognition of this particular code of values. There is no such guarantee.

Confusing ‘selfishness’ with ‘rational selfihsness’ is confusing a subjective intent with an objective concept (‘rational selfishness’ requires the objective definition of man’s actual self-interest). In recognizing selfishness as a virtue, one simply accepts the fact that one’s own concern for one’s self-interest is morally valid and good. The fact that one accepts this, is a pre-condition to discovering what constitutes one’s proper, long-term self-interest. In that sense, ‘selfishness’ is a moral starting point for an individual. The end is ‘rational selfishness.’ This is why Objectivist scholars constantly refer to rational self-interest, or rational selfishness as Ayn Rand’s code of ethics.

Bear in mind that a person who drives recklessly on the road and jumps traffic lights for thrills (while endangering others in the process) also acts on what he perceives to be his self-interest. However, the selfishness he is practicing is vicious, irrational and range-of-the-moment. While it is not proper to simply say that he is being selfish, this is not to say that one can’t at all use the word ‘selfish’ for him. If one uses the word ‘selfish’, one has to qualify it (‘rational’ selfishness vs ‘irrational’ selfishness).

To sum up, I think that the word ‘selfish’ itself neither ought to depict brutish irrationality nor heroic rationality. The definition itself must remain morally neutral."

I have included the correspondence I've had with Vikram till now in the comments section below.


  1. Vikram asked me this question, before commenting any further:

    if a Catholic priest decides that his interests are served by the salvation that lies in pursuing the Christian path, would you call him selfish?

    And here was my rather detailed response! :

    Definition of selfishness: 'concern with one's own interests.' Well, whose concern? Your own. Who has to define it? You do. All that selfishness requires is that you have such a concern, which means that you act for what you realize and recognize to be your own benefit. All I've done here is re-stated 'concern' in terms of 'you act', and 'one's own interests' in terms of 'recognizing your own benefit.' There is nothing further to read into in the five words of this definition. It is plainly stated, and has to be plainly understood.

    Where, in this definition, do you see any judgement of the particular ethical values that 'selfishness' necessitates? The fact is that it does not necessitate any. It just recognizes an intent, in terms of a beneficiary (your own self).

    Now, let's get back to the Christian man in your example. According to this situation, why does he embrace Christianity? To seek his own salvation. Neither is he seeking his neighbor's salvation nor is he doing a favor to his god. Nor has the man in your example been pushed into religion by social pressures. He has chosen it himself. Putting it in other words, he has acted to achieve what he perceives as the best state of life for himself. That is his one and only motivation. Wouldn't you call that selfish? I have embraced Objectivism for exactly the same reason.

    Where I differ is that I don't seek 'salvation' as the best state of life, I define my values rationally, and I know that rational values are the only ones that are actually to any man's interests. This is why I would call my code of values 'rational selfishness.' Adding the word 'rational' sets an extra condition other than just identifying myself as the beneficiary of my own actions. We know what that condition is...
    (Contd. in the next comment...)

  2. (Contd. from the previous one...)

    If you have a different answer to this, begin by giving me a reason why Rand would use the term 'rational selfishness', if the concept of rationality is already implicit in the definition of selfishness?

    Let me use another example to make my point. Observe how, when we talk of 'reason', we don't say 'human reason.' This is because there is no 'animal reason' or 'alien reason' to differentiate it from. The word 'human' is a redundancy since there is no other possibility, and redundancies are not added to terms or definitions. If that were to happen, it would be an assault on concept formation. Now, in the case of 'rational selfishness', what conceptual differentiation does the word 'rational' help us make? Obviously, the differentiation from 'irrational selfishness.' If you think that 'irrational selfishness' is a contradiction, yet 'rational selfishness' is a valid term, I think your reasoning is not sound. What do you think?

    Also observe that I wouldn't call the Christian man in your example a 'selfish man.' A selfish man is one who consistently acts for his own self-interest. In your example, he has acted selfishly in embracing Christianity, but that is one instance and it does not make him a selfish man. In fact, his reason to embrace Christianity might just be the last selfish action in his life, because the first thing that Christianity is going to teach him is to renounce his own self, and be motivated by serving others and serving god (of course, for his eventual, other-worldly self-interest). That is just one of the absurd contradictions that religion presents, just like it's two world dichotomy (renounce reality in favor of true reality) and its soul-body dichotomy.

    In fact, come to think of it, a lot of people embrace religion for a very selfish reason, and have no qualms in admitting as much.

  3. Vikram's answer to this (I'm quoting directly):

    "Regarding your response, I'm more confused than I was before. Under your definition of selfishness, does the Catholic priest qualify as selfish or not? I was hoping for a direct 'yes' or 'no', but you seem to be saying that he was selfish at the instance when he chooses his path, but from then on he stops being a selfish man. Have I got you right?

    But, what if every night he reflects that, yes, "I perceive this as the best state of life for myself. That is my one and only motivation." To repeat the rhetorical question you ask "Wouldn't you call that selfish?" Why not?

    I think there is a contradiction in your position.

    I therefore believe that you are putting out an incorrect understanding of both 'selfishness' and Rand's view of it. She certainly meant 'selfishness' to carry a positive ethical import and not be "morally neutral" as you put it in the article's last line. Why else would she name her first work on Ethics "The Virtue of Selfishness"!?

    Note, she did not name it "The Virtue of Rational Selfishness". In any case, I believe you are reading too much into the phrase "rational selfishness". Often words are used for emphasis, for instance - "These are the real facts of the case!", or to distinguish a concept from its corruption, as in actual interests vs. perceived interests (see your mail below). I think Ayn Rand uses 'rational selfishness' often in this latter context; to distinguish it from the common mis-perception of applying the term to tyrants, looters and moochers. But, in essence there is no difference in her usage of 'selfishness' and 'rational selfishness' and they both refer to the same concept. Irrational selfishness is a contradiction in terms!

    However, if there is a distinction to be drawn, it is between an *intent* to be selfish and 'selfishness'. A looter, a drug-addict, even a priest, may start out with an intention to do good to themselves, but that is not enough to qualify as selfish. They may be selfish 'in spirit' but are not so in fact."

  4. Amar, thanks for posting this exchange on the blog; I'm sure it will generate more comments from others.

    In the initial stages, I had also asked you the following:
    "Are you just extrapolating from the definition you quoted, or is there greater elucidation on this point in the abundant Objectivist literature that is available? If the latter, I would appreciate more references in the article.
    If the former, how would you deal with other quotes of Ayn Rand were they to contradict the position you are taking?"

    In response, Barun, who has also been privy to this exchange, posted links to some webpages with quotes from Ayn Rand's works. I'm reproducing these below for the benefit of the readers on the blog:



  5. I came across this pertinent essay titled "Virtue of Selfishness" that speaks directly on the topic at hand:


    I'm sure those following this discussion will find it extremely illuminating. To quote a few paragraphs:

    "For her [Ayn Rand], the truly selfish person is a self-respecting, self-supporting human being who neither sacrifices others to himself nor sacrifices himself to others. This value-orientation is brilliantly dramatized in the character of Howard Roark in The Fountainhead. The further elements of selfishness - the character traits that, when translated into action, implement a concern for one's own real interests - are discussed and illustrated in that work, in Atlas Shrugged, and throughout Rand's non-fiction.

    Finally, one might ask why Rand chose to use the term, "selfish," to designate the virtuous trait of character described above rather than to coin some new term for this purpose. This is an interesting question. Probably, Rand wished to challenge us to think through the substantial moral assumptions that have infected our ethical vocabulary. Her language also suggests that she believes that any other understanding of selfishness would amount to an invalid concept, i.e., one that is not appropriate to the facts and/or to man's mode of cognition (see VOS vii-xii, and Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, esp. Ch. 7). In addition, one might interpret Rand as asserting that her definition captures the historical and etymological meaning of the word. But certainly, her praise of selfishness communicates instantaneously and provocatively the practical, this-worldly, egoistic, and profoundly Greek orientation of her ethical thought."

    (Note: this is not an endorsement of The Objectivist Center or of The Atlas Society)

  6. I pretty much agree with the author here. Christians and Objectivists tend to ignore how much they really have in common. Read the article: "Jesus Christ and Ayn Rand: Brother and Sister"

  7. In the Introduction to 'The Virtue of Selfishness', Ayn Rand writes that the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word 'selfishness' is: 'concern with one's own interests.'

    Then in the chapter 'The "Conflicts" of Men's Interests', she writes the following:

    'The term "interests" is a wide abstraction that covers the entire field of ethics. It includes the issues of: man's values, his desires, his goals, and their actual achievement in reality.[...]'

    'Desires (or feelings or emotions or wishes or whims) are not tools of cognition, they are not a valid standard of value nor a valid criterion of man's interests. The mere fact that a man desires something does not constitute a proof that the object of his desire is good, nor that its achievement is actually to his interest.'

    Then in the chapter 'Isn't Everyone Selfish?', Nathaniel Branden writes the following:

    'To be selfish is to be motivated by concern for one's self-interest. This requires that one consider what constitutes one's self-interest and how to achieve it -- what values and goals to pursue, what principles and policies to adopt. If a man were not concerned with this question, he could not be said objectively to be concerned with or to desire his self-interest; one cannot be concerned with or desire that of which one has no knowledge.'

    In the first quote, note that Miss Rand does not say only the term 'rational interests' includes the issue of the actual achievement of one's goals in reality. She says the term 'interests' includes such an issue.

    So if one desires something that is (metaphysically) impossible to achieve (what would the actual achievement of the goal of "spiritual salvation" consist of?), it can hardly be considered as part of one's interests.

    In the second quote, note that Mr. Branden does not say only a 'rational concern' for one's self-interest requires actual knowledge of what's in one's self-interest and how to achieve it. He says 'concern for one's self-interest' requires such knowledge.

    So if it is (epistemologically) impossible to know how to achieve one's desire (what would actual knowledge of how to achieve 'spiritual salvation' consist of?) it can hardly be considered as part of one's concern for one's self-interest.

  8. Selfishness defined: to concern with one’s own interests. Interests are values that one holds to further his life (proper to man qua man)
    Selfishness presupposes the following principles:
    • Value (to one) as such is not an irreducible primary; it depends on the metaphysics and epistemology one holds, knowingly or unknowingly, whether one is conscious of these abstractions or not.
    • Objectivist ethics is based on law of Identity (as metaphysics) and reason as a cognitive tool (as epistemology). A value must be based on law of identity and validated by a process of reason.
    • The value is the moral content of an act that must be gained or kept for survival of man qua man.
    • There is hierarchy of values (set by one’s self interests) one has.
    • Never sacrifice a greater value to a lesser one or to a non-value.
    • Man’s life is the standard of value to a man and his own life is the ethical purpose of every individual.
    • One’s own life is the ultimate value (i.e., source of all other values) for every man. It (one’s own life) includes not only the physical survival but all activities on which his life qua man is based on. For example, a man jumps into a raging ,leaping and engulfing river or fire to save the life of his wife or his friend he loves, risking his own life.

    Now it is evident that the notion of selfishness depends on what one chooses to value and on what standard and how it is validated. If an activity is based on the benevolent universe, non-sacrifice and validated by a rational code of living, then the act is called selfish.
    Selfishness is based on the concept of individual right, whose source is the law of identity.

    The term “irrational selfishness” indicates the fallacy of a stolen concept. Identified by Ayn Rand, the fallacy of the Stolen Concept consists of an act of using a concept while ignoring, contradicting, or denying the validity of the concepts on which it logically and genetically depends Because selfishness presupposes the rationality, the qualification of ‘irrational’ negates and contradicts the very concept of rationality. Observe some examples, for instance in popular usage are, moral duty (moral presupposes a choice amidst alternatives by a code, whereas duty is the imposition, the given, where there is no choice. the denial of choice) selfless love (love is the loyalty to values, hence love is selfish, selfless is the denial of self, of love) social right, social capital, invalid reason, religious harmony, faith in reason etc.

  9. An interesting post by Amit Varma:

    He tells us why Ayn Rand's decision to give up revenues was Capitalistic:

    "Genuine capitalists would look to serving their self interest as much as possible. But they need not view this in purely monetary terms. Rand might have placed a higher value on spreading her ideas in the world than on merely making money. It would then be entirely rational for her to accept a notional monetary loss for the sake of keeping a speech that many of her supporters today regard very highly. This is entirely consistent with being a capitalist.

    The deal between Rand and Cerf was one between two private parties that involved no coercion. Both of them got what they wanted. It might even have ended in a double ‘thank you’ moment. How on earth could it non-capitalistic? "


  10. To add to Amit Varma's note--which I think is actually deficient in capturing Ayn Rand's true motives on the topic--Rand crafted the character of Howard Roark as a truly selfish man, who as a a mark of supreme selfishness, rejects projects that he would be paid handsomely for but does not want to do.

    Now, typically, Rand has been criticized for being contradictory with her projected motives through the character of Roark: were he a true capitalist, he would respond to market demand and create the values that are wanted. He would build structures that would be acceptable to a voluntary trader willing to exchange value for value.

    But these critics are merely shortchanging the deep insight that Rand had. Rand knew very early on--and coded this insight into Roark--that markets are NOT made by consumers but *producers*! Roark is a producer--and he is among those at the top of the intellectual pyramid that lift up the society's evaluations and tastes to that which is closer to his level.

    Rand states: "observe that a free market does not level men down to some common denominator... In fact, it is the members of this exceptional minority who lift the whole of a free society to the level of their own achievements, while rising further and even further... The stagnant, the irrational, the subjectivist have no power to stop their better."

    It is in this fundamental sense that Roark is both truly a capitalist and properly selfish. Rand was too.