What does it mean to be “selfish”?

Being “selfish” is the easiest thing in the world, many people believe, since it means being thoughtless, emotion-driven, predatory. The terms “selfish” or “egoistic” bring to mind the image of an unscrupulous, deformed character. Think of the jerks, crooks, and villains of novels, movies, and TV — and in real life all around us.

But this is a cartoonish misconception.

The conventional view of “selfishness,” or “egoism,” argues Ayn Rand, is fundamentally wrong and enormously destructive. To be selfish, on Rand’s moral theory, means following reason in every area of life. Doing that is neither automatic nor obvious. It entails a commitment to live by rational moral principles.

What are those moral principles? What do these virtues entail in practice? Why are they necessary for success in life? For answers to these questions, the prime nonfiction source is Rand’s book The Virtue of Selfishness, particularly the seminal essay “The Objectivist Ethics.” Leonard Peikoff’s landmark book, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, offers a systematic presentation of Rand’s ideas with an in-depth account of the Objectivist virtues. One further resource that I’ve found valuable is Tara Smith’s book Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Smith’s book aims to explain the “fundamental virtues that Rand considers vital for a person to achieve his objective well-being: rationality, honesty, independence, justice, integrity, productiveness, and pride.”

Rationality, Smith writes, is the primary virtue, and it “does not demand heights of intelligence so much as a conscientious refusal to evade any thoughts, knowledge, or questions that occur to a person on the issue in question. Rationality demands seeking to know the nature of the world that a person must navigate so that he can navigate it effectively; consequently, it demands trying to learn, to understand, and to integrate new knowledge with preexisting knowledge.” Smith devotes a chapter to rationality and shows what each of the derivative “virtues consists of, why it is a virtue, and what it demands of a person in practice,” drawing on Rand’s writings and the work of Peikoff.  

The egoist, many people assume, cannot form meaningful human bonds, deep friendships, let alone love other people. Is that true? In an insightful section, Smith challenges that assumption. She explores aspects of an egoistic conception of love and friendship. Rand writes: “Love, friendship, respect, admiration are the emotional response of one man to the virtues of another.” On her view, “Concern for the welfare of those one loves is a rational part of one’s selfish interests.”

Two aspects of the book that I found especially illuminating: First, Smith relates Rand’s ethical theory to contemporary scholarship, notably the growing interest in virtue ethics. Second, Smith looks at conventionally accepted virtues and traits — charity, generosity, kindness, and temperance. We hear these invoked as positive, morally praiseworthy behaviors. Do they actually further an individual’s well-being? To answer that, Smith first clarifies what these terms actually mean, and then asks if they’re consistent with rational egoism. 

What Smith luminously conveys in this book is a true portrait of a rational egoist: an individual moved, not by thoughtlessness, emotionalism, or predation, but by a commitment to rational, life-furthering moral virtues.

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