One of the most common critiques of Ayn Rand was her staunch defense of selfishness presented in The Virtue of Selfishness, a collection of essays originally published in her magazine, The Objectivist. It’s a common misconception that by defending selfishness, Rand was endorsing those that would willingly harm others to achieve their own ends, or that she was condemning charity or any act that involved helping others.
Rand’s definition of selfishness is somewhat different from the standard dictionary definition, which defines it as “seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others.” Ayn Rand’s definition is only “concern with one’s own interests”.
To an Objectivist, to be selfish is to have personal goals, and a desire to pursue them. To be selfish is to have principles, and a desire to abide by them. To be selfish is to forge your own path, instead of intervening in the lives of others.
From an Objectivist standpoint, altruism (as an opponent to selfishness) is true self-sacrifice, a net loss in one’s interests, and something that should be strongly opposed. This is significantly different from the self-sacrifice discussed by people like Jordan Peterson. When Peterson talks about self-sacrifice, it is a means to an end. Sacrificing immediate pleasure has benefits in the future, and therefore is a net positive in terms of one’s values.
Altruism, as defined by both Objectivists and Auguste Comte (who coined the term), is the assertion that to be moral is to sacrifice one’s own interests for that of others. Altruism cannot have any personal benefit. To help another “because you’re supposed to” is an act of altruism. When politicians demand that the rich “pay their fair share,” they are demanding altruism from the rich. When socialists demand redistribution of wealth, they do so in the name of altruism.
Many acts of charity can be described as objectivist selfishness. Helping out a friend in need is an act of selfishness. Donating to a cause you believe in is an act of selfishness. Risking your life to save a loved one is an act of selfishness. In each of these scenarios, the action is performed to further your own self interest. If someone is your friend, chances are you care about them, and want to see them happy. You also value the friendship. It is in your self-interest for them to be happy, and for the friendship to continue. Therefore, helping them is (from an objectivist standpoint) an act of selfishness.
Declaring selfishness as a virtue does not mean that all selfish acts are virtuous. If it is in your own self-interest to physically harm another human being, it is not virtuous to pursue that action. Objectivists value reason and logic. To follow reason is to be virtuous. To be violent is to value force instead of reason, and to violate another’s individual rights.
It’s unclear whether or not Rand’s modified definition of the word selfishness helped or hurt perception of her ideas. The Virtue of Selfishness works well as a title, and the book sold over 400,000 copies in the first four months, and over 1.35 million copies to date. On the other hand, most people immediately dismiss her work after hearing the title, assuming Rand is arguing for narcissism and disregard for kindness in any form (though it’s likely the immense public bias against Rand would do its work regardless of what she actually says).
Before any debate, it’s important to define your terms. Ayn Rand does so at the beginning of her book. Before making any assumptions about what your opponent is arguing for, it’s worthwhile to make sure your definitions are the same. By doing this, any misconceptions of your opponent can be cleared up in advance, and Rand’s opponents can address her actual arguments, as so many have continuously failed to do.