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Ayn Rand on Selfishness

June 14, 2013

Ayn Rand

I have recently been reading the virtue of selfishness by Ayn Rand. Famously the author of the novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. A chapter from this book struck me as illustrating many of the weaknesses of the dominant approach to morality. Oftentimes unlikely scenarios are dreamed up by this approach, to test a moral theory in an extreme circumstance. Such as being in an emergency situation, faced with a drowning person, should you risk your own life to save the person. Rand questions the whole orientation of this approach to morality, which is geared to testing the limits of our altruism. For Rand altruism is an impossible moral ideal that leaves us only feeling guilty and crippled in our moral decisions and actions. It also leads to a focus on the negative side of morality and to an obsession with extreme circumstances most of us are unlikely to ever encounter in our lives.

If a man accepts the ethics of altruism, he suffers the following consequences (in proportion to the degree of his acceptance):
1. Lack of self-esteem—since his first concern in the realm of values is not how to live his life, but how to sacrifice it.
2. Lack of respect for others—since he regards mankind as a herd of doomed beggars crying for someone’s help.
3. A nightmare view of existence—since he believes that men are
trapped in a “malevolent universe” where disasters are the constant and primary concern of their lives.
4. And, in fact, a lethargic indifference to ethics, a hopelessly cynical amorality—since his questions involve situations which he is not likely ever to encounter, which bear no relation to the actual problems of his own life and thus leave him to live without any moral principles whatever.

Rand prefers a positive approach to morality, concentrating on how our innate selfishness, our innate psychological motivation can be rationally directed for us to develop integrity and self-esteem in the actions we perform regularly and consistently during our lives.

A rational man does not forget that life is the source of all values and, as such, a common bond among living beings (as against inanimate matter), that other men are potentially able to achieve the same virtues as his own and thus be of enormous value to him. This does not mean that he regards human lives as interchangeable with his own. He recognizes the fact that his
own life is the source, not only of all his values, but of his capacity to value. Therefore, the value he grants to others is only a consequence, an extension, a secondary projection of the primary value which is himself.

There is an almost hypnotic appeal to the way Ayn Rand presents her arguments. But, when you look into it there is at times a ruthless unconcern with other people. Rand argues only friends are worthy of regular moral attention from ourselves. And that only in emergency situations are we required to extend our moral concern beyond this small circle, and only insofar as we can help in a rational way that does not put ourselves at serious risk. Furthermore, Rand does not class situations such as poverty as an emergency, and in this area her views entail an approach to the poor of individual acts of charity and benevolence, rather than a systematic provision for poverty-stricken people. Rand is anti-humanitarian to the extreme as she does not believe a feeling for humans in general is possible. There could be something to this, we do need a personal connection with someone to have feeling for them. But what she seems to overlook is the notion that bridges selfishness and the abstract ideal of treating all humans equally and altruistically. That allows us to extend out our moral feeling to some extent beyond our personal circle. And this is the notion of compassion.

I cannot deny that the arguments she makes are compelling, and it is liberating to some extent to not be weighed down by some of the high-minded altruistic concerns of selflessness, which only make us feel bad about ourselves by setting us impossible moral goals of action and conduct. Rand sums up her views on this subject as follows:

The moral purpose of a man’s life is the achievement of his own
happiness. This does not mean that he is indifferent to all men, that human life is of no value to him and that he has no reason to help others in an emergency. But it does mean that he does not subordinate his life to the welfare of others, that he does not sacrifice himself to their needs, that the relief of their suffering is not his primary concern, that any help he gives is an exception, not a rule, an act of generosity, not of moral duty, that it is marginal and incidental—as disasters are marginal and incidental in the course of human existence—and that values, not disasters, are the goal, the first concern and the motive power of his life.

She could well be right here, not in all the details certainly, but in offering us this alternative orientation to our moral thinking and reasoning. Maybe the obsession with emergency and disaster scenarios of traditional morality is something inherited from religions such as Christianity with its constant talk of a coming apocalypse and a final judgment. But then maybe life on earth is a constant emergency? The recent global warming emphasis seems to be the latest secular way to try and get us to think we are constantly in a situation of moral emergency. Along, of course, with the constant pointing out of poverty in this or that part of the world. I think Rand gives us good reason to be slightly suspicious of the intent driving such a focus. Yes, well and good for rich and powerful figures to talk about this, they have the spare physical and mental resources to devote to it. But for everyday people, we are surely focused on developing our own moral sense of worth, integrity and self-esteem. This certainly for me is the priority right now. It does me, and no one else, any good if I sacrifice my values to others on a fundamental level. For without a basic sense of self-love and esteem my own moral integrity would disintegrate, and I would be able to offer nothing of value to others to sacrifice anyway.

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