Rand famously and counter intuitively argued for the virtue of selfishness over the virtue of ‘self sacrificial’ altruism:

“Rand understands, though, that the popular usage of the word, ‘selfish’ is different from the meaning she ascribes to it. […] For her, the truly selfish person is a self-respecting, self-supporting human being who neither sacrifices others to himself nor sacrifices himself to others.”

The Virtue of SelfishnessConsequently the conventional definition of altruism – giving up more value than one gets in return – remains in place while the conventional definition of selfishness – getting more in return than one gives up – is abandoned. The resulting concept of Objectivist selfishness emerges as the ideal of non exploitation of others nor letting oneself be exploited.

Here it begins to be problematic however since there is good reason to think that altruism and egoism are non useful concepts to begin with. Once we realize this and start redefining selfish in line with the discoveries of modern science/philosophy and the recognition that a particular behavior – previously thought to be altruistic in the traditional sense – is revealed as actually serving the existence of the ‘altruistic’ individual we are getting into semantic muddy waters. Are we really speaking wisely when calling the tendency to throw oneself on a grenade to save 10 buddies a ‘selfish’ act in the Randian sense? Or does it become clear that Rand either did not understand the far reaching intricacies the concept actually entailed at the time or at the very least made an extraordinarily bad decision in her choice of words?

However one slices it, concessions need to be made by the Randian camp in this regard: Having chosen the word ‘selfish’ as she did, the term needs to either be radically redefined – to the point of being equivalent to selflessness – to fit newly gained insights from a fuller understanding of evolutionary dynamics or abandoned for another term. I myself much prefer the terms ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ over the very problematic terms ‘altruistic’ and ‘selfish’.

Rand explains why she redefined selfishness in the introduction to “Virtue of Selfishness” as follows:

“In popular usage, the word ‘selfishness’ is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment. Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word ‘selfishness’ is: concern with one’s own interests.”

What Rand fails to realize, is that Kant’s categorical imperative effectively forces oneself to be concerned with the other as well as the self in order to be non self contradicting in ones moral actions. At the same time, Kant’s categorical imperative is perfectly in line with traditional spiritual values (i.e. compassion), a relationship that becomes obvious once all the implications are laid bare.

We can thus deduce, that she failed to make the connection and consequently deluded herself into trying to avoid having to find a solution of what she saw as irreconcilable contradictions. What looked like a self sacrificial altruism to hear – caused by what seemed like sloppy metaphysical thinking on the part of the religious believers – was merely the result of teleonomical evolutionary dynamics having worked on the level of shared believes in groups. As a result the thus evolved faith based spiritual wisdom emerged as a sufficiently accurate approximation of rational morality: what I do to others I literally do to myself and vice versa. Consequently the concern for the other is equivalent with the concern for the self!

The error lies in Rand failing to draw the connection and therefore not understanding that there is no difference between the self and the other. As a result the two statements of ‘the self is all‘ (reason for advocating selfishness) and ‘the other is all’ (reason for advocating altruism) are equivalent. The error does not however lie in the accuracy of the faith based evolved approximation that just happened to have approached it from the other perspective as herself – at least in the Abrahamic tradition – Buddhism on the other hand got it less wrong again and Adviata Vedanta got it less wrong again.

Understanding what we do now – it becomes clear that her advocating selfishness is at least as wrong as advocating altruism – albeit from the opposite perspective. The ideal remains advocating rationality, from which the non-dual perspective emerges as the ideal that is to be approximated.

Keeping this in mind for now, I would like to continue by examining how Rand defines a sacrifice:

“If you exchange a penny for a dollar, it is not a sacrifice; if you exchange a dollar for a penny, it is.”

There however always are two sides to every exchange and unless the exchange is perfectly balanced there will always be one who ends up sacrificing and one who ends up exploiting the other. A person on the exploitation side of the exchange would then effectively be forced to become a parasite or a sacrificial animal in Rand’s own terms, since he would eventually either have to consume his excess for which he did not produce an equivalent:

“The man who consumes without producing is a parasite, whether he is a welfare recipient or a rich playboy.”

or will have to give up a higher value for a lesser one in order to remove his excess gains:

“‘Sacrifice’ is the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a nonvalue.”

Objectivists will be quick to add that it is perfectly normal to think about exchanges in which both parties benefit roughly equally since the one with the eggs values the money about as much more as the one with the money values the eggs more than the money – everybody wins. The reality however looks very differently, particularly in the example of a laissez fair capitalism as advocated and described by Rand as following:

“When I say “capitalism,” I mean a full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire capitalism—with a separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.”

Rand advocates capitalism on the grounds that:

“The recognition of individual rights entails the banishment of physical force from human relationships: basically, rights can be violated only by means of force.”

This however ignores the fact that companies seeking the largest possible profit, have the full spectrum of advertisement, public relations, and lobbying at their disposal to carve out an advantage over the consumer. This combined with their status as legal person’s giving them the same rights as human beings yet places them at an extraordinary advantage by allowing them – while not exactly deploying the use of physical force – the use of a multitude of psychological manipulation strategies in ensuring their maximum advantage in their exchanges with the consumer afforded to them under the law.

Taking this perspective, it becomes clear, that Rand’s vision of capitalism as a series of free, uncoerced exchanges with mutual and roughly equal benefit for either party was an unrealistic romantization. It has since then become much more obvious, that a consciously perpetuated imbalance is created from the side of large corporations, which is putting the consumer at an engineered disadvantage. The individual thus becomes the target not of an easily detectable physical force, but of a subtle psychological force that nevertheless has the same effect: manipulation against the better interest of one party in an exchange over that of another.

Nowhere does this imbalance of power become more obvious among the actors as in the unholy trinity of the privatization of profits and the socializing of losses, the realization of war as a racket as well as the maintenance of necessary illusions were political power uses propaganda to distort and distract from major issues to maintain confusion and complicity, preventing real democracy from becoming effective.

The difference in proclaiming a ‘virtue of selfishness’ as opposed to the ‘virtue of rationality’ is a psychological one. A person thinking himself as good whenever he is selfish i.e. in the colloquial understanding of benefiting primarily himself – irrespective of how deeply  the implied aspect of rational self-interest with all its non-dual implications are being understood – would on average tend to display more parasitic behavior than someone who internalized the de facto ideal of rational behavior – with diversions from the ideal optimum differing only in how they are being rationalized as altruism as or as selfishness in the kind of their misguided nature in the mind of oneself or that of onlooking interpreters.

The reason being that the actions of a person seeking to act rationally in line with the realization of the illusion of separateness – namely that anything he does to another he literally does to himself – will on average cancel each other out for falling equally often and with a roughly equal magnitude on the parasitic as well as on the sacrificial side of the spectrum in related interaction with other individuals. The selfish person on the other hand will aways be biased towards the parasitic spectrum of behaviors and engage in potentially balancing sacrificial activities merely against his best effort and understanding, for he will always be able to rationalize the diversion from the optimal towards the parasitic spectrum in line with the objectivist ‘virtue of selfishness’ doctrine.

It could further be – and the final answer to this question lies beyond the scope of this post – that human beings are so removed from the ideal of a rationally optimal homo economicus, and at the same time prove to be so biased towards irrational parasitic behavior that the crutch of proclaiming the ‘virtue of altruism’ would actually be required to counterbalance this natural bias and thus bring them more in line – by tricking them if you will – with the actually rational optimum.

Rand diverted from the more accurate description of a rational morality and called it the ‘virtue of selfishness’ and analogously instead of calling her preferred system of governance ‘rational governance’ she ended up calling it in line with her understanding at the time ‘laissez fair capitalism’. In so doing she effectively closed the door for reinterpretation upon the arrival of new evidence or a more profound understanding, by having imposed the tyranny of words upon her followers ‘selfishness’ and ‘capitalism’ turned into unquestionable dogma instead of provisional approximations of an as yet unknown ideal. As Rand states herself however (her emphasis):

“I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows.”

As shown above – and as Rand would have to agree – the proclaimed virtue of selfishness in Rand’s interpretation, as well as her advocating laissez fair capitalism, would have to be rethought should new evidence suggest that these ideals are based on errors in reasoning. As I have demonstrated in my brief excursion into laissez fair capitalism, Rand’s reasoning breaks down when it becomes apparent, that not all coercion has to be physical and that self interest alone, is not sufficient to prevent individuals as well as institutions, blinded by short term gains and deluded by errors in reasoning, from hanging themselves and others when given enough rope and an opportunity to use it.

As I have shown further, the term ‘sefishness’ would have to be redefined to mean as much as ‘seflessness’ in order to fit our current, more elaborate understanding of the conditions of our existence in line with evolutionary dynamics. In conclusion I strongly belive that Rand did her philosophy a great disservice by naming the specifics of her system of ethics as well as that of governance beyond the requirement of being rational and deriving conclusions based on the continuously mounting evidence gathered from objective reality – specifics free to always be revised and improved upon with the arrival of new evidence or advances in our understanding.

9 comments on “The unfortunate etymology of ‘selfishness’ in objectivist ethics

  1. Oops! I think you misquoted Rand. Rand never said:

    –Start Quote–
    My reasons as to why I choose to be rationally selfish instead of merely rational is because the Immanuel Kant’s redefinition of altruism used by Christians destroyed the best years of my life.
    –End Quote–

    I said it. Rand does explain why she chose to redefine selfishness in the introduction to “Virtue of Selfishness”

  2. Fixed – thanks a bunch Edwin.

  3. Dr. Peikoff’s book The Ominous Parallels provides a good overview of Kant’s epistemology and ethics. Essentially, Kant said that reason is useless because the “real” reality is beyond our perception.

    As to which of the two to follow, Kant’s basic guideline on human behavior is that man should do whatever makes him suffer. Even the act of self-sacrifice is rendered amoral if it is done with any personal motivation whatsoever, even if that motivation is the desire to be moral.

    Duty, according to Kant, is the only proper motivation, and duty inherently means doing that which you strongly desire not to do. The stronger your desire not to do something, the more moral you are for doing it. Morality = Frustration.

    BTW, there is one thing that you have to understand when you say that Ayn Rand has said that Kant said X (that being whatever Kant said). When Ayn Rand says that Kant says something, she is giving it to you in clear-cut, essential terms. If you have read any Kant you’d quickly find that nothing Kant said was ever stated as clearly as Ayn Rand has made it.

    This is not to say that Ayn Rand was ever wrong about Kant, far from it, she was dead on. But Kant buried the actual progressions, reasonings, deductions and conclusions of his philosophy under such pounds of intestinal verbiage, you simply have to read it to get any sense of it.

    Yes, he did say what I claimed he said. But, you have to dig it up yourself if you really want to know what he actually said. It is more of a culmination of his philosophy, and it starts in his metaphysics, and ends in the horrific ethics.

  4. Edwin, I find that Rand is greatly misrepresenting other philosophers’ perspectives to the point that they become straw men caricatures.

    She has the same tendency in her prose. It is just not an accurate representation of reality.

    Kant – essentially – restated Platonism in enlightenment terms. In doing so he said that reason will only ever be able to approximate actual reality – that reason is useless, is put in his mouth by Rand/Peikoff’s who believe(d) in universal absolutes beyond first principles. It is never ever said by him in any way shape or form. It is Rand’s absolutism which invalidates her philosophy and turned it into a cult (http://www.2think.org/02_2_she.shtml).

    As she said herself:

    “I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows.”

    Her problem was that she thought herself unerring not only in her axioms, but in her conclusions which elevated her conclusions unjustly to eternally valid givens. The very idea of an error in reason, once an issue was thought out by her, was seen as an impossibility. Here she was clearly and tragically wrong.

  5. Michael Shermer who blamed Objectivists for being cultish above is currently an Objectivist (in his own words): http://www.objectivistcenter.org/ct-1852-M_Shermer.aspx Perhaps Reality brainwashed him into “believing” in it.. Just Kidding! I hope even you agree that reality is absolute and there is nothing wrong in being absolutist about it.

    I can show it to you that Kant is anti-reason and anti-science using his own words, without Rand’s help. But I believe my time is better spent on more productive matters.

    By all means read “Critique of Pure Reason”. I recommend the Cambridge combined first and second edition, edited and translated by Paul Guyer and Allen Wood. It has lots of background information and some commentary too. You will need all of that and more. Try A “Kant Dictionary” by Howard Caygill.

    And when reading them keep in mind that words are not ideas. Words are only labels for ideas. If Kant says he supports Vernunft (“reason”) and Ayn Rand says she supports reason, do not assume they mean the same thing. In this case, they definitely don’t. They have about as much relation to each other as a quadraplegic has to an Olympic runner.

  6. Well Edwin – I read the article and must report that while Shermer is sympathetic to some Objectivist ideas he rejects the idea of knowable absolutes in the interview just as he did in the link I provided.

    In the words of Ed Hudgins – the interviewer in the article you linked me to: “Shermer isn’t an Objectivist but considers himself friendly to the philosophy.” (http://www.objectivistliving.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=6605)

    That is fine and I would say the same about me. I hope you understand thaough, that judging from the fact that you made this wrong claim about the relatively easy case of Shermer, I would need very strong arguments now to convince me of your claims about Kant being correct. But since you do not feel it is a good investment of your time I will not press you for it.

  7. Yes I’ve thought for a long time that Ayn Rand made a dangerous choice of words for her book (Virtue of selfishness). It seemed to me that she despises those who claim to be acting for the sake of others but are really self-deluded and acting for their ego or whatever (e.g. Hank Reardon’s brother). I thought she should have called her book the virtue of self-honesty. The virtue that Rand seemed to be getting at is in recognizing that one is indeed selfish and acts out of self-interest. Rationality sounds more general and probably even better. I’m glad you posted this. Thx.

  8. Pingback: Rational Morality » Faulty assumptions, Nietzsche’s scythe and postmodernity

  9. Francisco on said:

    one of the best analysis on objectivism i’ve ever read

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