Ayn Rand & Selfishness
Tibor R. Machan
For more than forty years I have been seriously interested in the ideas of Ayn Rand, ever since I read her novels and later her non-fiction works. This despite the fact that Miss Rand once declared me “persona non grata” for writing her a disagreeable letter. Oh well, but her ideas never ceased to intrigue me and after much study and reflection I still think her philosophy of Objectivism is largely right.
One element of Rand’s idea is the notion that selfishness is good, which clearly runs counter to received opinion both Left and Right. And she has received a great deal of rebuke for finding self-interest a proper pursuit for all human beings. I think, however, that this is due to a colossal misunderstanding of Rand’s position.
One of Rand’s non-fiction books is titled, quite deliberately, The Virtue of Selfishness, A New Concept of Egoism (New American Library, 1964). The title is still widely misunderstood, despite Rand’s attempt to warn readers, by way of the subtitle, that she is advocating something unusual.
The terms “selfishness” and “self-interest” are not simple ones because the meaning of the term “self” is very much in dispute. In fact it is one of the most controversial ideas in human history. Another and similarly controversial idea is “individual.” These are what some philosophers have called essentially contestable concepts. That means they are by their very nature always being argued about, like “liberty,” “justice,” “democracy,” or “morality.”
In ancient Greece the self was understood as the human soul and while it meant the soul of the individual, it was also taken as a social concept--the human self was supposed to be something intimately tied to the social group within which one lived. A good self, for example, was understood as one that’s gregarious, liberal, generous, and engaging. In the ethical writings of Aristotle, for example, the system of principles one should live by was called eudemonia, the set of guidelines for achieving a good self or soul, or, in other words, happiness. And that implied living rationally, governed by the rules of reason, the virtues, some of which had to do with self-perfection, some with considerateness.
This was all changed in the 17th century, mostly at the hands of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. For him the human self consisted of raw impulses or beastly drives to gain power in life. Thus the term “selfish” changed its meaning, too. Instead of implying eudemonia--a decent, benevolent self--it came to imply something closer to hedonism, pleasure seeking and power hunger at all cost. The self lost its connection to reason. Instead it became connected to mindless feeling or passion. So a selfish act would come to be one that is driven by someone’s feelings, passions, or emotions, not someone’s good judgment.
Ayn Rand tried to do the nearly impossible thing of returning the concept of the human self to what it used to mean for the ancient Greeks with but a few amendments added based on modern psychology. But the bulk of the world had by then accepted the Hobbesian idea and used “selfish” to mean “self-indulgent,” ruled by one’s feelings or emotions.
So, sadly, despite her efforts to make herself clear--not just by the subtitle of her book but, especially, by its content--Rand left the impression that she was advocating a Hobbesian idea of the human self or ego--a kind of wild, unruly, irrational element that drove one to do anything one damn well felt like doing.
Rand’s one time intellectual partner, Nathaniel Branden, tried to undue the damage by writing his book, Honoring the Self: Personal Integrity and the Heroic Potentials of Human Nature (Los Angeles : J.P. Tarcher, 1983). Unfortunately, the work didn’t manage to alter the way most people, especially the anti-individualist intellectuals in the culture, used the term “self.”
Still, it is perhaps useful now and then to try to set the record straight. Ayn Rand, a very popular novelist and thinker, was not advocating rapacious, nasty, brutal, inconsiderate “selfishness” as her detractors maintain. That’s because she had a noble view of the human self. Those who are interested in doing justice to Rand’s views, even if they disagree with her in the end, might well like to remember this.