A DISCUSSION OF THE “VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS” BY AYN RAND — PART 1

So why would I want to discuss THE VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS: A New Concept of Egoism by Ayn Rand now? The purpose of this post is two-fold:

  • I would like to continue the discussion initiated at this post:  THE DEBATE OVER CHRISTIANITY, OBJECTIVISM, AND ALTRUISM CONTINUES.  In response to the growing decadence of our culture, many of the ideas that Rand promoted have become more popular. Although I see much of what Rand advocated as positive, I fear she would have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
  • Rand served as a strong advocate for the free market, and I don’t doubt she well understood what makes Nazism and Communism abominations. Therefore, I would like to use Rand’s words to respond to a comment from sean samis. What I observed is that the size of the government matters. sean samis took a contrary view.

    Size is not what matters, it’s the character of the government that matters. Take care of that and size will be manageable.

    Although what sean samis is literally true, we disagree as to what character government should have. If the character of government conformed to my desires (never will, of course), except perhaps in time of war it would always be small.

The Introduction and Chapter 1: The Objectivist Ethics

THE VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS is a collection of essays.  Therefore, I am an not even going to attempt to write a single post that comprehensively comments on it. Instead, I will write a series that comments on the parts I find interesting.

Defining Selfishness

As the title suggests, THE VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS promotes a form of selfishness. In previous posts (see THE DEBATE OVER CHRISTIANITY, OBJECTIVISM, AND ALTRUISM CONTINUES), we considered what Rand thought of altruism. What did she think of its counterpart, selfishness? Here is what Rand says in the Introduction.

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.

This concept does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us whether concern with one’s own interests is good or evil; nor does it tell us what constitutes man’s actual interests. It is the task of ethics to answer such questions.

The ethics of altruism has created the image of the brute, as its answer, in order to make men accept two inhuman tenets: (a) that any concern with one’s own interests is evil, regardless of what these interests might be, and (b) that the brute’s activities are in fact to one’s own interest (which altruism enjoins man to renounce for the sake of his neighbors).

Apparently, because she believed advocates of altruism had unfairly attacked selfishness, Rand felt no compunction against launching a fierce attack on altruism. Then she put the adjective “rational” in front of “selfishness” and proceeded to explain how selfishness could be rational. In the Introduction and Chapter 1, Rand uses some form of the word “rational” almost seventy times. Her point being that altruism is irrational and that selfishness, concern with one’s own interests, can be quite rational.

What Is Missing From The Objectivist Ethical System?

What is missing from the objectivist ethical system? Consider where Rand begins in Chapter 1.

The first question that has to be answered, as a precondition of any attempt to define, to judge or to accept any specific system of ethics, is: Why does man need a code of values?

Let me stress this. The first question is not: What particular code of values should man accept? The first question is: Does man need values at all—and why?

Actually, Rand’s question is not the first.  Ravi Zacharias (an expert in Christian apologetics) says there are Four Questions To Answer In Life.

  • Why am I here? — Before we can determine what is right–answer Rand’s question–we need a reference point.
  • What is right and wrong? — If we know why we are here, we can skip Rand’s question. The answer to the question why has already been provided.
  • What brings me meaning? — If there is no God, this question has no answer.
  • What happens to a human being when I die? — This life may be important, but it terminates. What about the rest of eternity?

In Chapter 1, Rand speaks as if the rules of morality are self-evident, and she constructs a set of rules based upon self-preservation. To justify her rules, she quotes John Galt, the main character of Altlas Shrugged.

I quote from Galt’s speech: “There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or nonexistence—and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms. The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional, the existence of life is not: it depends on a specific course of action. Matter is indestructible, it changes its forms, but it cannot cease to exist. It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. If an organism fails in that action, it dies; its chemical elements remain, but its life goes out of existence. It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil.”

Yet self-preservation does not make the difference between rational selfishness and irrational selfishness self-evident. If we can get away with thievery, murder, slavery and so forth profitably — and seemingly thrive — then what makes thievery, murder, slavery and so forth wrong? Why should selfish people who have successfully enslaved others suddenly think themselves irrational? Zacharias observes:

If there is no God, we lose the very standard by which we critique religions and religious people, so whose opinion matters most?  Whose voice will be heard?  Whose tastes or preferences will be honored?  In the long run, human tastes and opinions have no more weight than we give them, and who are we to give them meaning anyway?  Who is to say that lying, or cheating or adultery or child molestation are wrong –really wrong?  Where do those standards come from?  Sure, our societies might make these things “illegal” and impose penalties or consequences for things that are not socially acceptable, but human cultures have at various times legally or socially disapproved of everything from believing in God to believing the world revolves around the sun; from slavery, to interracial marriage, from polygamy to monogamy.  Human taste, opinion law and culture are hardly dependable arbiters of Truth. (from here)

Even if we tried, we could not substitute Ayn Rand’s rational egoism for God. Is it possible we might agree upon what is right and what is wrong? Perhaps. Even if we cannot explain it, within each of our hearts we have knowledge of right and wrong. Nonetheless, we can ignore our consciences. When we think we can get away with it, we will seek to make even the most evil deeds seem quite rational. That is why only the belief in a loving God has any hope of forestalling the evil actions of men.

Correctly Describing The Abuse Of Altruism

So what did Rand get right? She correctly observed the proper role of government.

The basic political principle of the Objectivist ethics is: no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. No man—or group or society or government—has the right to assume the role of a criminal and initiate the use of physical compulsion against any man. Men have the right to use physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use. The ethical principle involved is simple and clear-cut: it is the difference between murder and self-defense. A holdup man seeks to gain a value, wealth, by killing his victim; the victim does not grow richer by killing a holdup man. The principle is: no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force.

The only proper, moral purpose of a government is to protect man’s rights, which means: to protect him from physical violence—to protect his right to his own life, to his own liberty, to his own property and to the pursuit of his own happiness. Without property rights, no other rights are possible.

As our Declaration of Independence observes, we have God-given rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. When government grows beyond the point required to protect our rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, it does so at the expense of our rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

What is the product of government? Does government produce any thing of its own? No. We need taxes finance it. What government does is make people obey the Law. Therefore, when government grows, the Law become a bigger factor in our lives. Government, by definition, becomes more intrusive.

Consider these recent examples.

  • Life: Instead of merely protecting the “right” of women to abort their babies, government now forces taxpayers and employers to pay for what many regard as baby killing. With the inauguration of Obamacare we can only guess at the extent government bureaucrats will intrude into our healthcare. Undoubtedly, however, the politicians running the program will continue to explain they are pro-choice; euthanasia will become a “protected choice.”
  • Liberty: Government forces us to pay for and participate in our own political indoctrination. Government runs most of our schools. We have publicly financed anti-smoking programs. The publicly financed Corporation For Public Broadcasting pays for radio and TV networks. Labor unions use government power to force people to join unions and their members to contribute to political campaigns.
  • Pursuit of Happiness: Our government taxes and spends huge sums. With every cent government spends, our leaders deprive us of the opportunity to choose how we would spend what we have earned the right to spend. Why is that important? When we spend what we have earned, we “vote” on the direction we want our society to go. When we pay for our schools, churches, hospitals and buy our houses, cars, TVs, telephones, and so forth; we tell the people who invent and produce the services we use and the products we buy–that is, each other–what we want. When politicians spend our money for us, they steal our right to vote on the direction our society will go.

Given the opportunity, our leaders would create a world that satisfies their own vision of how things should be. Our leaders would steal our productivity and mold our character and the character of our children. Therefore, to live as free men and women, we must limit the size and scope of government.

We limit the size of government by limiting the mission of government to protecting our rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. That is, we limit the scope of what can be encompassed by that thing we call Law. What Rand observed is that altruism is not a appropriate use of Law. Although it may make for good propaganda, there is nothing altruistic in stealing your neighbor’s rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

The avowed mystics held the arbitrary, unaccountable “will of God” as the standard of the good and as the validation of their ethics. The neomystics replaced it with “the good of society,” thus collapsing into the circularity of a definition such as “the standard of the good is that which is good for society.” This meant, in logic—and, today, in worldwide practice—that “society” stands above any principles of ethics, since it is the source, standard and criterion of ethics, since “the good” is whatever it wills, whatever it happens to assert as its own welfare and pleasure. This meant that “society” may do anything it pleases, since “the good” is whatever it chooses to do because it chooses to do it. And—since there is no such entity as “society,” since society is only a number of individual men—this meant that some men (the majority or any gang that claims to be its spokesman) are ethically entitled to pursue any whims (or any atrocities) they desire to pursue, while other men are ethically obliged to spend their lives in the service of that gang’s desires.

Greedy and selfish people will always seek some “rational” excuse for getting what they want (The Wolf and the Lamb). Nonetheless, reason is not the God of evil men. What evil men desire is what they worship.

Latter Chapters

2 thoughts on “A DISCUSSION OF THE “VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS” BY AYN RAND — PART 1

  1. Tom,

    I did not notice until today that you invoked my name in a post on Randianism (also mislabeled “Objectivism”.) Please allow a few comments.

    Regarding Ravi Zacharias’ Four Questions, I have to ask what do we do if we cannot find any consensus on his First Question? And I believe the third question may have an answer irrespective of whether any gods exist.

    You quoted Zacharias at length, I have a few comments.

    If there is no God, we lose the very standard by which we critique religions and religious people, so whose opinion matters most?

    A better question: is there any reason that some opinions matter more than others? Why would we reject any person’s opinion without consideration? If we are talking about human opinions, what difference would the existence of gods make to that question?

    “Whose voice will be heard?”

    A better question: is there any reason that someone’s voice should not be heard?

    Whose tastes or preferences will be honored? In the long run, human tastes and opinions have no more weight than we give them, and who are we to give them meaning anyway?

    If there are no gods, then there is no other than us to give meaning to anything. It would be up to us to do.

    Who is to say that lying, or cheating or adultery or child molestation are wrong–really wrong?

    Again; if there are no gods, who but us would there be to say such things?

    Where do those standards come from?

    Finally! the question that really matters! Where would our standards come from in the absence of belief in gods? We have the standing to seek these standards, the only question is to decide how or from where we might find them.

    Sure, our societies might make these things ‘illegal’ and impose penalties or consequences for things that are not socially acceptable, but human cultures have at various times legally or socially disapproved of everything from believing in God to believing the world revolves around the sun; from slavery, to interracial marriage, from polygamy to monogamy. Human taste, opinion law and culture are hardly dependable arbiters of Truth.

    All true and all irrelevant. In the absence of any gods, we would still have to act. Our acts maybe fallible, but there would be no alternative; the idea we should do nothing is certainly wrong. Our acts may be changeable, but that is no matter; our knowledge and circumstances are changeable too.

    Ironically, all the various, changeable social rules Zacharias names occurred in societies that believed in gods; these historic failures of social rules undermine Zacharias’s argument. Even when we believe in gods, our rules are “hardly dependable arbiters of Truth.

    Tom, you wrote that “Even if we tried, we could not substitute Ayn Rand’s rational egoism for God. Is it possible we might agree upon what is right and what is wrong? Perhaps. Even if we cannot explain it, within each of our hearts we have knowledge of right and wrong.

    I am on record as rejecting Ayn Rand’s ideas as “noxious weeds”. That has not changed. Nevertheless, that a godless people might not “agree upon what is right and what is wrong” is irrelevant. It is an historic CERTAINTY that we have not and do not agree as to which gods to obey, or even what any one god commands us to do. Belief in gods has not granted us any agreement, only a dismal record of violent disagreement.

    Tom if it is true that “within each of [us] we have knowledge of right and wrong then we would be able to reach consensus on the most important rules of what should be permitted and what should not. I realize that you attribute our consciences to God, but I think they need not be. I think reason really can bridge most of the gap.

    With regards to Rand’s opinions regarding the purposes of government, they are nonsense. Many a man has been victimized by deception or sharp bargaining or lack of access to information or other “non-violent” crimes. Limiting government purpose to the prevention of overtly violent crime is ridiculous. To justify that idea on the words of someone whose opinions you otherwise reject is quite odd.

    Like

    1. sean samis – Thank you for your comment. I apologize for not making the link from the last post more obvious. I suppose I can wish everyone read all of my posts, but……

      Whose opinion matters most? Well, if there is a God. Then God is God, and He decides our standards of morality, and He has. It is settled. With respect to salvation, what matters is what each individual’s chooses to believe. That is the nature of free will.

      If there is no God, why does it matter? There is nothing to discuss. The logic of power will decide–as it almost always has. Because men want first and foremost to believe in themselves, men will use might to make right. The most powerful will demand to be heard; they will destroy those who do not listen and obey.

      And the third question, “What brings me meaning?” Among men who do not believe in a Christian God, the masters decide what their slaves find meaningful. When we “know” God does not exist or think He does not care, we “know” we can get away with whatever our fellow men cannot stop us from doing.

      Has our belief in Christianity failed us? I do not think so. Because I am an amateur student of history, I have studied history a bit more than most. Like Zacharias, I believe only the belief in a Christian God made our constitutional republic possible. Because they believed in God-given rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, our nation’s founders created a government designed to protect those rights. What they did predates Ayn Rand. Even though Rand admired the founders’ work, she did not understand why it worked.

      We have failed to remain a Christian nation, and I suspect this confused Rand. Don’t we live in an increasingly secular society? Yes. Yet even though the secular deny our Christian heritage, our increasingly secular society still largely accepts the moral values of its Christian heritage. Traditions continue to keep Christian values in effect, but tradition alone is not enough. Because few read the Bible, many do not understand the basis for our traditions. And while secularized souls may say they believe in Jesus, without some understanding they can have no faith in Him. Moreover, the secular can have only the faintest notion of what Jesus wants from us.

      What follows is a comment I left here. http://loopyloo305.com/2012/12/30/a-w-tozer-as-holy-as-you-want-to-be/

      We make it sound easy to be a Christian, but it is anything but easy. We say salvation is gift. We cannot earn salvation through works, and that is true. We say all that is required of us is to accept the gift of salvation. Nonetheless, to accept the gift of salvation we must love God and love our neighbors (Matthew 22:34-40).

      Does God know how hard it is to love anyone more than we love our self? 😀

      Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble…..

      Only the belief in God is sufficient to humble a man and thwart his pride. Without humility, we sin. We put our reason in the service of puffing up our pride. We reason then how best to force our fellow men into servitude.

      Because it is temptation enough, the task of protecting our rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness is more than enough power to give any ambituous man. Even though that limitation may seem ridiculous, the logic of that limitation quickly becomes evident when lawyers start twisting Constitutional Law into a pretzel

      Anyway, I will try to get to your other comment tomorrow evening.

      Like

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