Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Is it really wrong to be ‘selfish’?

Campaigning last week, Sen. Barack Obama responded to comments by Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sara Palin calling his tax plan “socialistic.” Obama implied the Republican ticket supported “selfishness.”

Campaigning last week, Sen. Barack Obama responded to comments by Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sara Palin calling his tax plan “socialistic.” Obama implied the Republican ticket supported “selfishness.”

“John McCain and Sarah Palin they call this [the consequences of Obama’s tax plan] socialistic,” Obama said. “You know I don’t know when, when they decided they wanted to make a virtue out of selfishness.”

Although it is unlikely casting selfishness as a virtue is something either McCain or Palin intended (it would take an enormous amount of intellectual and political courage even for a maverick), the notion of selfishness as a virtue is not without philosophical support nor without philosophical merit.

Obama’s negative charge parallels the title of a 1961 collection of essays “The Virtue of Selfishness” by author-philosopher Ayn Rand (with Nathaniel Branden). The essays are Rand’s statement of the moral principles of Objectivism, her ethical and moral philosophy which holds that the life of the individual — the life proper to a rational being, the self-interest of the rational individual — is the only viable standard of moral value.

Like his “spread the wealth around” comment, Obama’s intended denigration of “selfishness” reveals much about the ultimate nature of his policies. Analyzing Obama’s comment in the context of Rand’s philosophy provides further evidence that the conservative-liberal paradigm, the traditional political divide in this country, is shifting to a more overt expression of the age-old battle between individualism and the collective society.

Altruism, the moral code of collective society, is the underlying value of Obama’s domestic policy. Altruism holds “goodness” is based on the beneficiary of action rather than an action itself. Altruism, Rand demonstrates, is incompatible with reality and human nature. Coerced altruism, the notion that government has an obligation to redistribute wealth and opportunity, is incompatible with the creative requirements of individual survival and incompatible with a free society.

Rand’s best-known work is “Atlas Shrugged.” In the 1957 novel Rand predicts the future of an America based on government-coerced altruism — “spreading the wealth around.” As American society becomes ever more dependent on the men and women of great minds creating ever more wealth to support its requirements and ever-growing desires, the independent creative thinkers — the industrialists, financiers, philosophers, artists and working people who take pride in their work, personal achievement and contributions to society — “shrug.” They take menial jobs, refusing to let their talents be looted and plundered by a parasitic society; America collapses into a nasty and brutish Hobbesian world. As the physical infrastructure of the country collapses at an accelerating rate with each new government initiative, the lack of moral fiber and character of  those who would impose collective rule is ultimately revealed in violence — the last resort of the incompetent.

“Atlas Shrugged” is a fictional tribute to the power of the human mind. “The Virtue of Selfishness” is a rational justification of Rand’s philosophy.

Rand introduces the collection of essays by addressing the question: “Why do you use the word ‘selfishness’ to denote virtuous qualities of character, when that word antagonizes so many people?

“For the reason that makes you afraid of it,” Rand answers in her challenging and uncompromising manner. “There is a profound moral issue involved.

“The meaning ascribed in popular usage to the word ‘selfishness’ is not merely wrong,” she writes, “it represents a devastating intellectual ‘package deal,’ which is responsible, more than any other single factor, for the arrested moral development of mankind.”

“Selfishness” is not synonymous with “evil,” according to Rand. It does not justify the image of a murderous brute who tramples over corpses to gratify his arbitrary whims. “Selfishness” is simply “concern with one’s own interests.” The definition does not include a moral evaluation. It does not preclude that one’s own self-interest might correspond to the self-interest of others (and in a free-market society must necessarily do so). The definition does not tell us whether any specific self-interest isgood or evil, nor does it tell us what constitutes an individual’s actual interests. Answering those questions is the object of ethics.

The two moral questions lumped together in a “package-deal” by altruism are: What are values? and who should be the beneficiary of values?

“Altruism substitutes the second for the first,” writes Rand. “It evades the task of defining a code of moral values, thus leaving man, in fact, without moral guidance.”

In other words, Rand is saying that altruism declares any action taken for the benefit of others is good, and any action taken for one’s own benefit is evil. The beneficiary of an action is the only criterion of moral value. So long as that beneficiary is anybody other than oneself, anything goes. Obama’s “virtue out of selfishness” speech is an example.

“The point is,” Obama said preceding his selfishness comment, “it’s not just charity, it’s not just that I want to help the middle class and working people who are trying to get in the middle class — it’s that when we actually make sure that everybody’s got a shot — when young people can all go to college, when everybody’s got decent health care, when everybody’s got a little more money at the end of the month — then guess what? Everybody starts spending that money, they decide maybe I can afford a new car, maybe I can afford a computer for my child. They can buy the products and services that businesses are selling and everybody is better off. All boats rise. That’s what happened in the 1990s, that’s what we need to restore. And that’s what I’m going to do as president of the United States of America.

“John McCain and Sarah Palin, they call this socialistic,” Obama continued. “You know I don’t know when, when they decided they wanted to make a virtue out of selfishness.”

The moral justification for Obama’s scenario is not based on consequences that arise because of it. Going to college, getting decent health care, having a little more money at the end of the month, buying a new car or a computer for a child — wealthy and middle class both do these things. Obama morally justifies his plan not by those actions, but by who does them.

Here is what Obama implies: If a person works hard and earns enough to buy a car and a boat or a car for himself and a car his child and does so instead of sending boat or second car money to the government, Obama considers him selfish and Sen. Joe Biden considers him unpatriotic. But when a person is forced by government to allow government to send his money to another person whom he does not know, who may or may not “deserve” it, and that person buys a boat or a car with it (or health insurance or a college education or alcohol and cigarettes or funds an illegal drug operation), that is good. A person is virtuous, implies Obama, because he gave his money away irrespective of to whom it goes and ultimately for what purpose it is used.

Rand would have us think about the “grotesque double standards” produced by altruistic ethics.

Updating Rand: People harshly criticized Bill Gates for his wealth when he focused his efforts on building Microsoft, directly producing tens of thousands of jobs and indirectly creating millions more in a new high-tech economy, spreading the wealth by creating more of it. He was an “evil industrialist,” to use Rand’s characterization of creative competence. But now that Gates is advocating spreading his and others wealth using government as the distribution mechanism, he is suddenly a virtuous hero and role model for the selfish and unpatriotic wealthy, irrespective of the consequences of the projects funded.

Obama himself seeks and is given praise for his decision to become a community organizer when he graduated from Harvard Law rather than accept a high-paying job on Wall Street. The praise comes despite the realty that the group for which he organized, Acorn, has (best case for Obama) degenerated into corruption, and it is evident from recent events that Wall Street might have benefited from more young people with Obama’s professed convictions working to change the system from within.

In both examples, the mere act of self-sacrifice creates “virtue” irrespective of outcomes.

“Observe what this beneficiary-criterion or morality does to a man’s life,” writes Rand. “The first thing he learns is that morality is his enemy; he has nothing to gain from it, he can only lose; self-inflicted loss, self-inflicted pain and the gray, debilitating pall of an incomprehensible duty is all that he can expect. He may hope that others might occasionally sacrifice themselves for his benefit, as he grudgingly sacrifices himself for theirs, but he knows that the relationship will bring mutual resentment, not pleasure. … Apart from such times as he manages to perform some act of self-sacrifice, he possesses no moral significance: morality takes no cognizance of him and has nothing to say to him for guidance in the crucial issues of his life; it is only his own personal, private, ‘selfish’ life and, as such, it is regarded as evil or, at best, amoral.”

Thus, Rand concludes, that altruism — a beneficiary-criterion of morality — permits no concept of a self-respecting, self-supporting man who supports his life by his own effort and neither sacrifices himself nor others.

“If you wonder about the reasons behind the ugly mixture of cynicism and guilt in which most men spend their lives,” Rand writes, “these are the reasons: cynicism, because they neither practice nor accept the altruistic morality — guilt, because they dare not reject it.”

“The Virtue of Selfishness” is a philosophical rationale for rejecting the altruistic, beneficiary-criterion, what today some refer to as the “nanny state” mentality, in favor of a moral code that objectively defines a human being’s proper values and interests. It contends that concern with his own self-interests is the essence of a moral existence, and the individual must be the beneficiary of his own actions. That conclusion, however, is but the first step in the thought process of building an ethical system. It is not the criterion for evil, which altruism makes it, nor is it a substitute for morality per se. Rand holds that the individual must always be the beneficiary of his action, but his action, to be considered moral, must actually be in his own rational self-interest.

Randian selfishness is not a license to do as one pleases, as Obama implied of McCain-Palin selfishness. Nor does it justify a person acting on “irrational emotion, feelings, urges, whishes or whims.” Morality is not a contest of whims.

A similar error is the idea that because a person must be guided by his own independent judgment, any action he chooses to take is moral if he chooses it.

“One’s own independent judgment is the means by which one must choose one’s actions, but it is not a moral criterion nor a moral validation: Only reference to a demonstrable principle can validate one’s choices.”

Contrast that idea, as Rand does in the essay “The Objectivist Ethics,” with the progressive rational for action:

“Today, in worldwide practice … ‘society’ stands above any principle 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 [means] 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 [means] 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 the gang’s desires.”

In the essay “Collectivized Ethics” Rand uses the example of Medicare to support that point, but today, we might think of it also in terms of Obama-like proposals for a government-run, universal health care system. Writes Rand:

“‘Isn’t it desirable that the aged [or under ‘Medicare for All,’ all] should have medical care in times of illness?’ its [Medicare] advocates clamor. Considered out of context, the answer would be: yes it is desirable. Who would have a reason to say no? … It’s the good, isn’t it? — it’s not for myself, it’s for others, it’s for the public, for a helpless ailing public … fog hides the enslavement and, therefore, the destruction of medical science, the regimentation and disintegration of all medical practice and the sacrifice of the professional integrity, the freedom, the careers, the ambitions, the achievements, the happiness, the lives of the very men who are to provide that ‘desirable’ goal — the doctors.”

“Selfishness” in the Randian sense is defined without moral evaluation as “concern with one’s own rational self-interest.” “Rational self-interest” is distinguished from arbitrary whim in that the former contributes to a person’s survival and fulfillment as a human being. It creates the genuine self-esteem inherent in leading a productive life. The latter is “sacrifice.” “Sacrifice” is surrendering one’s rational self-interest (the highest principle) to petty personal desires or the whims of collective society (a lower principle). It is surrendering to “unthinking misconceptions, distortions, prejudices, and fears of the ignorant and the irrational.”

“The attack on ‘selfishness,'” writes Rand, “is an attack on man’s self-esteem; to surrender one, is to surrender the other.”

Bottom line: Individual freedom and planned equality are irreconcilable positions. A better world cannot tolerate the less-than-perfect choices free individuals make. Freedom will inevitably create inequality and thus, freedom is incompatible with a planned vision for a “better world.” That conflict cannot be compromised out of existence. It cannot be eliminated through a “moderate” agenda. The conflict cannot be camouflaged by complex, incomprehensible, however-well-intentioned legislation. A political messiah cannot eliminate it with rhetorical flourish or presidential power.

Ultimately there comes a time for every individual to elect between principle and pragmatism, between the uncertainty of freedom and the security of servitude, between striving for equality and striving for excellence, between his own rational self-interest and sacrifice to collective society, between “selfishness” and surrender. This may not be that election, but that time is coming.