The Virtue of Selfishness

ISBN: 0451153324
ISBN 13: 9780451153326
By: Ayn Rand

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Reader's Thoughts

Kevin J. Rogers

Ayn Rand was one of the most controversial thinkers--and successful fiction writers--of the 20th Century. Her detractors would claim that there is little to distinguish her fiction from her philosophy: that both are the result of a fantasist's distorted perspective on the world, tainted by an extreme egoism and fueled by some rather profound delusions. Her supporters would claim that it is the world as we know it that is distorted, mostly through the insidious influence of the philosophy of altruism, and that Miss Rand's philosophy is the only antidote to a world gone mad and hurtling toward an orgy of self-destruction. (This kind of extreme, polemical speech is fairly common in Randian discourse, no matter which side you are on.) The truth, as in most cases, lies somewhere in the middle. Miss Rand (as she is always referred to by her followers) was the founder of the philosophy of Objectivism. She presented that philosophy in a series of novels, the culminating magnum opus of which was Atlas Shrugged, a sprawling neo-scifi quasi-futurist melodrama that has become a perennial bestseller since its publication in 1957. (The Fountainhead, which I think is a far superior book from a strictly literary perspective, came out in 1943, and was intended, in her words, to be "a portrayal of the ideal man".) Critics savaged Atlas Shrugged almost immediately, but the public took a kinder view of it, and Miss Rand, after a period of depression caused by the lack of serious consideration of her work in academic circles, founded an organization (now known as The Ayn Rand Institute) to promote her philosophy. That organization published a monthly newsletter throughout the 1960's to explain the philosophy in greater detail; Ayn Rand's contributions (and those of her chosen heir, Nathaniel Branden) were then collected into a series of short books further explaining Objectivism in greater detail. The Virtue of Selfishness is one of those books. And there is much to admire here. Objectivism is based on the belief that reality is real--"A is A"--and that alone is a welcome change from the gibberish that one often encounters in the more esoteric philosophical discussions. The problem is that Miss Rand believes that in life, regardless of the circumstances, A is always A, and it is her "A" which is the correct one. (There is a famous exchange she had during a Q & A on an episode of the Phil Donahue Show, where a guest asked her if she thought she was perfect. "In terms of adhering to my philosophy at all times," she said, "yes, I am." The crowd exploded in hoots of derision. She just laughed at them. And this was in the Felt Forum in Madison Square Garden, with an attendance in the thousands. Say what you will, the woman had guts.) And that's a crucial flaw in the philosophy: to use logic to always come up with the right answer, as though life were a math problem, one must always have all the facts--all the inputs--and in life that is rarely the case. Most of the time we spend in doubt, trying to guess what "A" really is, or going forward on the basis of our experience and intuition. Miss Rand would call this mysticism; most other people would call it "life". There is a distinct lack of humor and compassion here, as well. Neither of those values have a place in Objectivism, because the standard in Objectivism is always the same: rational self-interest. Everything in Objectivism is self-referential; how one feels about--or what one does for--another individual is based solely on that individual's place in one's own hierarchy of values. It is anathema to the Objectivist to suggest that there is a moral obligation to help someone in, say, a foreign country, even if the means are available to do so. And it is certainly immoral to suggest that society as a whole (meaning, of course, government) has a moral obligation to provide a social safety net for those who have been born ill-equipped to face the challenges of living in a modern society, or into familial or social circumstances which render it nearly impossible to develop into fully contributory citizens. Perhaps worst of all, though, is the idea that any sense of humor about oneself--any form of self-deprecating wit, or sign of humility--is somehow a betrayal of one's very soul. (There is that extremism again.) It sometimes seems, in reading Rand, that she has modeled the perfect human on Dr. Spock of Star Trek fame, which is unfortunate, given that the good Doctor was an alien. But there is, as always when dealing with Miss Rand, another side to the story. As much as professional philosophers ridicule her as being a crackpot--and there are, admittedly, some howlers in there--for most people (who, frankly, themselves would consider most professional philosophers to be crackpots) there is a great deal of practical appeal in Objectivism, and for good reason: as Miss Rand so succinctly puts it, Objectivism is a philosophy "for living life here on Earth". There is very little angels-on-pinheads speculation here, very little that is off the point. Her focus is always concentrated on the here and now, the reality of living as experienced by individuals every day, and as such there is a great deal of utility in reading her work. To adopt her philosophy wholly is, ironically enough, to abdicate one's individuality, since she always insisted that her philosophy was "perfect" and had to be accepted in its entirety, exactly as she promulgated it. (If you're wondering whether or not there is a high degree of cult-like devotion in the Randian world, the answer is yes.) But if one is willing to think for oneself there is value in reading her work, and The Virtue of Selfishness is a good place to start.

Mike

As many readers have pointed out, the title to this book is slightly misleading as most people have been indoctrinated to believe that selfishness is akin to evil, antisocial behavior. Rand points out that being selfish has caught a bad rap as everyone is actually selfish at heart, and to be otherwise would be to commit suicide for the sake of your fellow man. Selfishness, according to Rand, is the act of putting one's survival as their top priority, but without causing direct harm to any other individual. In other words no man has the right to murder someone to steal their food, just the same as no man has the right to expect his fellow man to provide food for him. Simply put, man's highest goal is to sustain his own life, and he should expect to have to do so by his own means; and whether you hate or love Ayn Rand and her philosophy, this is a hard point to argue with. While there are some saintly people out there who give everything they can spare to those less fortunate than them, there is nobody that dies of starvation in order to hand their last morsel of food to a hungry stranger. Rand argues that this type of all-out altruism would be destructive for the individual, for a rational, free-thinking society, and for progress at large. With all this being said, I admit that by no means do I agree with everything that she puts forth in her Objectivist Ethics; however, I do find her philosophy very intriguing and provocative, and a very interesting counterpoint to so much of the Eastern philosophy that I read.

Manny

Just noticed this in Johan Hari's column from today's Independent:Trump probably won't become the Republican nominee, but not because most Republicans reject his premisses. No: it will be because he states these arguments too crudely for mass public consumption. He takes the whispered dogmas of the Reagan, Bush and Tea Party years and shrieks them through a megaphone. The nominee will share similar ideas, but express them more subtly. In case you think these ideas are marginal to the party, remember - it has united behind the budget plan of Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan. It's simple: it halves taxes on the richest 1 percent and ends all taxes on corporate income, dividends, and inheritance. It pays for it by slashing spending on food stamps, healthcare for the poor and the elderly, and basic services. It aims to return the US to the spending levels of the 1920s – and while Ryan frames it as a response to the deficit, it would actually increase it according to the independent Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Ryan says "the reason I got involved in public service" was because he read the writings of Ayn Rand, which describe the poor as "parasites" who must "perish", and are best summarized by the title of one of her books: 'The Virtue of Selfishness.'By the way, non-British readers may be interested to learn that this typical pinko liberal paper is owned by Russian multi-billionaire and former KGB officer, Alexander Lebedev. Isn't life confusing sometimes?________________________________________Now that Ryan has been picked as Romney's running mate, MoveOn have started plugging this story too. From the ten-point list in the mail I just received: 10. He thinks an "I got mine, who cares if you're okay" philosophy is admirable. For many years, Paul Ryan devoted himself to Ayn Rand's philosophy of selfishness as a virtue. It has shaped his entire ethic about whom he serves in public office. He even went as far as making his interns read her work.

Anshupriya Goswamy

Recently Right to Education was enacted and intellectuals hailed it as a major success of Indian democracy. As the Indian Govt paves the way for Right to Food Act, I see that there is an increasing need for more people to read this book and realise what they are witnessing is not the victory of Indian democracy over poverty and hunger, a victory of the principles of modern day altruism, the success of government over economic ills.What we are seeing is the constant abdication of private rights to the ruling minority. What we are witnessing is constant flouting of the only two rights that any citizen must have - Right to private property, and right to free trade.India is trudging downhill with increasing economic regulation and moral depravity. And yet our unfocused collective eyes see only perceived success.A must read for those who are young and conscientious.

Kelly Murray

A guilt-free guide on why catering to one's own rational self-interest is imperative to one's happiness. The title alone was enough to keep me from reading it for a while (why? You guessed it, guilt). Once again, Rand flips the coin and shows you why being selfish is actually a GOOD thing and how letting guilt and altruism be your driving motives is BAD.

jessica

This book once meant a lot to me. When I was 15. If anything written by Ayn Rand means a lot to you and you're not going through adolescence, you should be ashamed of yourself. Yeah, I know I sound like a self-righteous douchebag, but seriously. Give me a break.

Michael Connolly

The concept of selfishness as it is used in day-to-day conversation is not the kind of selfishness that Ayn Rand is promoting. The common meaning of selfishness is a person who cares only about himself and not at all about others. Ayn Rand has never praised such a person. What Ayn Rand is promoting is the idea that the morally virtuous person cares primarily about himself, and secondarily about others. She also believes that one should care about only a limited number of others, only people one knows and respects. She believes that all the individual owes to strangers is not to do them harm, except in self defense. Her morality is not a license to kill, steal and lie, just a license to ignore the suffering of strangers if one is not a cause of their suffering. To feel a more general obligation to help, is, she believes, to accept an unearned responsibility, and unearned guilt. But she does believe in a kind of charity, although she would not call it that. It is where one gives to another, receiving nothing in return, except the knowledge that one has helped a person one values and admires. She believes in compassion, but compassion only for the innocent. If by pity, we mean feeling sorry for evil people, then we can say that Ayn Rand does not believe in pity. When Ayn Rand discusses altruism, she does not define altruism as helping others. If so, then when she says that altruism is evil, she would mean that helping others is evil. Instead, Ayn Rand defines altruism to mean the moral philosophy that holds that an act is evil if it helps oneself and good if it helps others. Ayn Rand does not believe that all acts to help oneself are automatically evil, and she does not believe that all acts to help others are automatically good. Ayn Rand objects to the assertion that the essence of virtue is to favor others over oneself. Ayn Rand believes that the essence of virtue is to attempt to see the world the way it really is, instead of lying to oneself, because it is only by being reality-oriented that one can improve ones life.

Stephen

This book is a collection of essays, which implement Ayn Rand's philosophy: objectivism. Not only does the book provide a great exercise in inductive and deductive logic, but it furnishes the reader with necessary tools to observe the fallacies in many societal norms. At the heart of her argument is a plead for individualism--without individualism (and individuals) every facet of our life will slowly decay to some conformist rubbish

Kathleen

I abhor her overzealous approach to capitalism; however I find it fascinating to see that when she focuses this same mentality away from money and towards interpersonal interactions, it becomes palatable. The virtue of selfishness says that no-one is more selfish than the so called selfless person, because evertything that they do, they do seeking approval for others. Conversely, that there is nothing more selfless that pure selfishness because by being true to yourself you contruibute the most to society. Read the book, she explains it better than me. She should....it is her philosophy.

Mark

Ayn Rand's philosophy, Objectivism, is often misinterpreted and misused, without ever being studied or even read. Often, the argument is that 'capitalism' has failed, and therefore Rand's philosophy is a failure as well. This is a strawman argument at best. The Virtue of Selfishness, as provocative a title as the book may have, is a philosophical synopsis of the application of Rand's philosophy, objectivism; it is not Rand's philosophy in itself.Those that have read Rand know that her writing style is straight-forward, holding no bars against those that she disagrees with while at the same time providing valid arguments in a clear and concise manner. The virtue of selfishness, to clarify, is the proposition that altruistic behaviors promote individual slavery to the masses, and that such slavery undercuts any social, intellectual or individual progress. For this reason, Rand is sometimes deemed a 'conservative', which is far from the truth. I would recommend this book, but with the suggestion that one read "Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology" first.

Anna

Dla Ayn Rand najlepiej było by się wyzbyć lub ograniczyć uczucia poza tymi związanymi z egoizmem, a altruizm zostawić tylko na sytuacje krytyczne np. katastrofy samolotów, pociągów czy statków, gdzie ważne jest ratowanie życia drugiego człowieka. Cnota egoizmu pozuje egoizm i kierowanie się rozumem jako najbardziej słuszny pogląd na rzeczywistość. Ayn Rand stworzyła filozofię obiektywistyczną sprzeciwiającą się takim pojęciom, poglądom czy ideologiom jak kolektywizm, nacjonalizm, rasizm i socjalizm. Według filozofki tylko i wyłącznie rozum i logika są potrzebne do poznania. Jednak skrytykowałabym nieuleganie żadnym kompromisom moralnym i uznawaniu ich za zgodę na zło, ponieważ świat nie jest czarno - biały.

Tim Weakley

My first introduction into Objectivism. I have to say that a lot of the ideas in these essays appeal to me. Going to read the rest that I have on hand and see if they still appeal as much. As it stands it was very readable. I like the pieces by Rand herself much better than the ones by Brandon. Her writing is a little more clear. It's also more personal. A lot of her thoughts on individualism really speak to me. My only complaint is that it was such a quick read!

Marshall

This book summarizes Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism. I really like many of the values Objectivism champions: reason, ethics, self-love, self-esteem, self-reliance, individualism, joy, and pleasure. But emphasizing these in absolute terms, as polar opposites to other qualities, creates a lot of problems.Like most Western philosophers, Rand is a dualistic thinker, which I find simplistic. To her, value and morality are objective, inherent in human nature. There is Self and Other, Moral and Immoral, Good and Evil, Right and Wrong, and one should never hesitate to cast judgment on those who are Wrong, or compromise in the slightest bit on these fundamental values. Nations that are Right may invade nations that are Wrong, and impose their morality on that nation, because Wrong nations are outlaws. Of course, Ayn Rand is the authority on Right and Wrong, although this is neatly couched in the claim that her advocated morality is objective.She seems to be reacting against a world that I'm unfamiliar with--a world divided between creative people who just want to do their thing, and parasites who just want to steal all their hard work. Fleeing as she did from Soviet Russia, I get this. So maybe I'm just a spoiled American, but I've never seen the world divided in this way. Ironically, most of the parasitism I'm aware of are by corporations, for which Rand advocates nearly zero regulation. Much of the property they steal or pollute is inherently communal, impossible to divide and protect in the way Rand advocates. Rand believes the only rights are individual rights, that there is no such thing as a collective.Objectivism also distinguishes between selfishness and a hive mentality that she calls altruism. Maybe I'm being thrown off by the word "selfishness," which she admits she uses for shock value. She does believe in ethics, and says that selfishness would make the world a better place, though she never explains why in this book. But even with a strong code of ethics, focusing on self-interest misses out on the full possibilities of love and compassion, which can be learned and practiced, and encompasses and requires self-love. That is what altruism is for me. There are few places besides Rand's writing that I've seen altruism equated with self-sacrifice. How can someone be of service unless they have their own needs met and they find joy in it? Maybe that's all Rand is trying to say, but if so, then I admit I've misunderstood her, which is apparently common among her readers.

Robert

The title of the book is slightly misleading as most people have no true philosophical understanding of what is "selfishness", immediately thinking of the irrational blanket understanding of individuals acting in grotesque mockery of true self interest, often harming themselves in the process. Her contention is that such people are not selfish enough, for if they were truly selfish, they would have their true self-interest at heart and are therefor acting irrationally and not selfish at all. Think instead for the title of this book: "The virtue of rational self-interest" and you will understand it better. This means The ability to choose voluntary cooperation from a rational appraisal of value, along with its opposite or the freedom to not associate with people we do not value. This is the freedom of contract, and the Non-aggression principle coupled with a theory of value based judgment with your own life as the basis for that value. If you start with an end goal of a successful and rationally fulfilled life as the standard of your values, you will not seek anything which is not value, and therefor you will not seek those things which are irrational or conducive to your end goal. Rand explains the self defeating impossible contradiction inherent within all systems of ethics which start with Altruism, and how such philosophies contributed and continue to create the worst atrocities the world has ever witnessed, and that because the basis of their values is the irrational, they create impossible contradictions and seek to gain fulfillment by destruction. She explains that all men who seek to practice any form of altruism are walking time-bombs of emotional psychologically scarred and repressed schisms and how this ultimately irrational goal destroys the people who attempt it, dragging society along with them.

Nicole

I rated this book with two stars, meaning 'it was ok', because, very simply, I understand Rand's philosophy and why she flung herself wholeheartedly into it. I understand ethical egoism and individualism and moral objectivism. I understand the desire for all men and women to act morally and to think rationally. I understand her distaste for collectivism. I understand her predictions regarding capitalism. I can fully conceptualize the virtue of selfishness.But I cannot internalize it.Rand makes the same mistake that she so adamantly condemns. She assumes that all individuals can and will act in rational and predictable ways if given the opportunity. For Rand, the opportunity can be provided by capitalism. For her despised collectivists, the opportunity can be provided by socialism, this within the framework of her own philosophy, of course. For her second major mistake was in assuming that socialism is the whole that can be defined by any number of various collective institutions that exist, in reality or theory, in the world today.Rand begins by defining a number of concepts in terms of her philosophy of objectivism. In order to continue reading, the reader must accept her definitions of value, ethics, and morality, amongst other things. The reader must also agree with a couple of her original premises: That the only way to be perfectly moral is to pursue ones own self interests and personal goals to the exclusion of all else and that biological and cultural predisposition is fundamentally unfounded. If one accepts these assertions, all else follows with some discussion.That is, if one is willing to accept the same sort of idealism that Rand criticizes. The reader, or philosopher, must be willing to accept a number of contradictions inherent in Rand's arguments. The contradictions are not readily apparent because Rand obscures them by building assertions on flawed premises. Rand asserts, for example, that altruism is detrimental to the beneficiary of the deed, evidenced by the likely altruistic intent of fascist dictators like Stalin and Mao Zedong whose deeds resulted in millions of lost lives. From this original premise, it follows that Rand's selfishness is the only universally moral truth. However, the premise itself is flawed and therefore that which follows is also flawed. Altruism certainly has the potential to be disasterous but self interest is certainly disasterous. One must, like Rand, dismiss the importance of culture and biology in order to reject the idea that self interest damages the individual. What the philosopher then overlooks is his/her identity as the natural member of a group. Rand rejects that natural groups exist. Humans are social animals. This is inarguable. But in order to accept Rand's premises, one must argue it.Humans are social animals. Our lives depend on the presence of others. At birth we depend on our mothers, throughout our lives we depend on other humans. We cannot function without external cultural input. Our lives are our own, yes, but cultural investment, what Rand refers to as altruism, is an unavoidable element of our existence.

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