The Virtue of Selfishness
© 1964 Ayn Rand
How many books and movies have moved audiences by portraying a character who, struggling with persistent unhappiness, is pushed by their despair through to the realization that they’ve been living their life for another’s dream? That they married the man their parents wanted them to marry, even if they didn’t love him — that they became lawyers or doctors because their mom wanted them to, instead of pursuing their own dreams? The essential lesson there, the importance of honoring our inner being — our Self — is one we remind ourselves of frequently. It is in that vein that The Virtue of Selfishness puts forth a case for living in the honest pursuit of rational self-interest.
Like many readers, my initial reaction to Rand’s philosophy of ‘selfishness’ was one of surprise and contempt; based on the connotation the word carries in most cultures. My interest in Man vs State stories led me to her fiction, however, and somewhere amid the argument between Roark and Keating I found myself admitting that I’d misjudged her. Her ideas were far more substantial than expected; so too this title, which serves as a general introduction to Objectivism as a whole. She begins by establishing the importance of philosophy — particularly, epistemology and ethics, or how we come to find out what is true, and how we use it to guide our actions. Ethics, she argues, is not an artifact of human civilization, a code of behavior to keep unruly bipeds in crowded conditions from destroying one another, but the very genesis of progress. Reason is the great tool given to man by nature, our answer to the whale’s size and the tiger’s claws; without its consistent use to suss out the Truth and then act according to its dictates (ethics), we would amount to nothing but less hairy and more angsty apes.
An individual can think, conclude, and act. ‘Society’, being an abstract concept, a name for a collection of individuals, cannot. Rand therefore bases her worldview on the smallest concrete subject possible: the Individual. The Virtue of Selfishness is not a rationalizing defense for bad behavior, but rather defends the integrity of the self and reason against impulse, collectivism, and the ‘altruistic mentality ‘ — the latter being the habit of regarding one’s own existence as meaningless except when engaged in self-suppression on behalf of the tribe or even strangers. Other people do not justify your existence, Rand writes; there is no lasting meaning in identification with tribes, no reliability in following their whims. Joy is achieved through an individual’s dogged pursuit of excellence, through their successes in triumphing over challenges and their own impulses through clear thinking and hard work.
From here, Rand surveys the health of the Individual in the mid-20th century and finds it in very poor health indeed, nearly as oppressed by traditionalism, authority, and irrationality then as it was in previous dark ages. As belief in the old gods faded, the new god of the State and its collective lifeblood, The Nation, took the stage — and the new gods were far more potent than the old, coopting the tools of progress to serve instead the cause of decay. The Universities, too, having once been beacons of light allowing for the conquest of darkness, had fallen prey to postmodern confusion — and turned against the individual, especially the free exchange of economic energy between people that allowed the west to eclipse its own productivity decade after decade.
There is a savage and hard beauty in Rand’s writing, like the lines of a battleship. Far from catering to the worst of the human spirit, self-indulgence, Rand calls the Self forth to battle, summoning the best in us. Her Virtue demands the best from us — sharp thinking, hard work, constant self-evaluation. Her worldview is admirably integrated; the more I read her nonfiction, the more I realize it’s all of a piece. Even as I argued with her in my head (attempting to reconcile individualism and evolutionary psychology, as well as debating the role of the ego in well-being), I can’t help but admire her strength and consistency. She is shocking, but throws a cold and clear light on the world and I find that perspective illuminating despite its shadows.
Current plan: to continue reading Rand’s nonfiction, and then offer a response to her worldview including my reservations. Philosophy: Who Needs It will be next, followed by The Romantic Manifesto.
I think that there is a fundamental fault with Rand’s philosophy – it doesn’t reflect reality. Human’s are not, nor have they ever been, atomised individuals. We are designed (through millions of years of Primate evolution) to be quintessential group creatures. There’s a compelling argument that our brain development – the very thing that allows us to reason and attain full self-consciousness – developed primarily because of the urgent requirement to accommodate and manage multiple social interactions.
We are not born as individuals, we are born into families with parents, siblings, ancestors, far flung relatives that are themselves embedded within clans, tribes and yes, societies. Not only are these things very real (I’ll give you the odd cultural tweak along the way) but humans cannot live without them – at least not without risking the slide into insanity. When you remove someone from the very natural social structure that they inhabit and, through cultural means, atomise them they cease to function properly and, over time, become physically and mentally ill. This goes a fair way to explaining why modernity in all its isolationist aspects is so often disfunctional. I’m certainly not proposing a return to anything approaching a Feudal society but the atomisation of individual humans is essentially a self-defeating dead-end.
I’m in agreement insofar as man being a tribal creature goes — our nature is essentially social, and in order to survive and compete, it’s no surprise that people found it more expedient to conform and get along — at that level, collectivism may simple be more competitive than the alternatives. That doesn’t justify the collective claiming ownership and dominion over its members, though — and I don’t think Individualism and atomisation are coequal things, because people can easily engage in social interaction and collaboration with others without giving those others control one’s life. At any rate, much of the rationale for tribalism has been rendered moot: we still have the tribal instinct, the looking-for a group to attach ourselves to, but today cultures and people live together, cheek by jowl, exchanging food and changing each other’s language: tribal distinctions are much, much fuzzier, much harder to defend on a rational basis. Frankly, if it weren’t for the fact that identity politics and clannishness serves the self-interest of politicians and businesses, I think it would have faded even more quickly.
Despite being a Socialist (shocker I know!) I fully agree that the fetishisation of the group and the belief that either individuals are interchangeable cogs or automatons is just as dangerous – in multiple ways – as the fetishisation of the Individual. Humans not only need social interaction we also need relationships deeper than the merely transactional. We are hardwired – literally – to be a member of a group (or groups) of around 150 people we physically interact with on a regular basis. I most certainly have no issue at all with individuality – I’m all for owning your own sense of individualism – what I think is both dangerous and just wrong-headed is the idea that complete individualism is the pinnacle of human endeavour. Obviously I don’t agree that Tribalism/Clannishness would have melted away but for the interests of politicians and businesses. It is stamped on our very DNA. Capitalism is invested in pushing the uber-individualist narrative (“because you’re worth it”) because it best serves their interest and weakens any opposition to their ongoing exploitation of the world and the general population.
In other news: I’ve just started ‘The Wolf Within’ by Bryan Sykes about the evolution of dogs. Review in about 5-6 weeks but I can recommend it already…. [grin]
Tribalism is far less potent than it used to be, even considering the constant ginning-up of racial unrest in the US by parties who profit from creating disorder. Of course, some of that is merely creating more abstract (and less meaningful) tribes from smaller members, so perhaps it’s less the abating of tribalism and more its transference.
I think it’ss….overkill to say that Capitalism is investing in individualism. Individualism creates capitalism, not the other way around, and capitalist interests are not monolithic. The same company may promote individual identity-through-consumption and group identity at the same exact time, by selling two different t-shirts — one a Nike swoosh, the other a “Patriots” jersey. (The same way the same bank or insurance company funds two ‘competing’ politicians; no matter who loses, they win!)
Thank you for your beautiful review/commentary on Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness. I think that your phrase, “Rand calls the Self forth to battle, summoning the best in us”, is at least in part the essence of what she was trying to achieve in the essays in this collection. I was already an individualist at sixteen when I first read The Fountainhead and was drawn to her other writings, both fiction and non-fiction, immediately following. She clearly defines a philosophy of individualism that promotes a respect for others while not relinquishing control over one’s own life. I firmly believe that the virtuous life depends on one’s reliance on his or her own values and choices. This is the foundation that makes cooperation with and respect for others possible.
Thank you for getting me started on her properly — I believe you suggested I read The Fountainhead, rather than Atlas, and Roark won me over in a way that Galt couldn’t have.
Thank you for the reference. I usually recommend starting with The Fountainhead if for no other reason than that was where I started, but also because it is a sort of touchstone for her later work.
Yeah… this philosophy kind of disgusts me, to be honest. Maybe that’s because I worked almost my whole career in the non-profit world, and saw just how damaging and destructive that this kind of selfishness can be to society and the planet.
What kind of nonprofit was that? I ask because it’s rather unusual to encounter Randian-style (purposeful) self-interest. Many people exhibit the kind of selfishness she condemns in her novels, characterized through the likes of Toohey (who lies and manipulates others purely for his own gain at their expense) and most are very much like Peter Keating who does dishonorable things and who chiefly lives so he can glory in the opinions others have him. Randian self-interest requires detachment and inner drive, both of which are rare qualities in the 21st century.
I worked for several non-profits. Mostly in the fields of social and economic justice, environmental justice, as well as helping Holocaust survivors live in dignity.