Man — every man — is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.
—Ayn Rand, 1962
The ethical principle Ayn Rand describes here was hardly her original discovery. She expressed it so clearly and succinctly that it may be useful to call it the Ayn Rand principle, though we could just as accurately call it the Thomas Hobbes principle (except he lived 400 years ago, and freshness is all). Friedrich Nietzsche wrote of “divine selfishness, of how it was once possible to be alone, undisturbed, unloved, hated, despised on earth, and whatever else may characterize the utter baseness of the dear animal world in which we live.”
Various trends in modern political and economic theory can be mapped back to the Ayn Rand principle, especially (but not exclusively) among conservative thinkers. The vigorous capitalism preached by influential economists like Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan is often described as Randian (the Friedman/Greenspan laissez-faire attitude took a beating when the American financial system collapsed in 2008, but no competing modern theory of economics has emerged to clearly oppose it). The Randian embrace of self-interest and power politics is also visible in the muscle-bound approach to foreign policy proclaimed by politicians like John McCain, Sarah Palin, John Bolton, Henry Kissinger, Dick Cheney, and George W. Bush. Ronald Reagan, whose 100th birthday is being celebrated this weekend (not by me, but by many others) has notably called himself an admirer of Ayn Rand.
Ethical principles come into play in our personal lives as well as our political and economic lives. The Ayn Rand principle of self-interest must influence how we think about love, marriage, family, friendship, neighborliness. These are some of the reasons why it’s important for each of us to decide whether or not we agree with the Ayn Rand principle, and I’m disappointed that many professional or amateur philosophers who do not agree with it have not been able to express themselves clearly and powerfully enough to be heard. For those of us who don’t see rational self-interest as the primary motivating force of life, there is an inclination to express our distaste for the Randian principle by ignoring it rather than refuting it. Unfortunately, this may leave the impression that the principle itself is solid, that it is the “harsh truth”, that the only question remaining for modern ethicists is whether or not to sugar-coat the harsh truth, and how best to do so.
This is unfortunate because, in fact, the Ayn Rand principle is dead wrong. We ought to respect the clarity of her statement, but we must also recognize that its underlying logic is flimsy at the core. The idea of individual self-interest as the core of human experience doesn’t stand up to close examination at all, but rather depends on confusions of language that can be easily pointed out.
Of course, the brutal, selfish nature of life often feels to us like a harsh reality, especially when we run up against it in our everyday lives. This is one reason why the Randian principle has so much appeal; we see selfishness everywhere. This is why it’s so important for us to examine the principle itself, and point out the many ways it fails to truly describe who we are and how we live.
I have a pretty good idea of where to begin refuting Ayn Rand’s principle of selfish ethics, and I’m actually so excited about this mission that I’m planning to construct an argument over several blog posts during the next few weekends. The purpose of today’s post is to introduce the question, and to begin to enlist your help. I’d like to survey all readers of this blog about the Ayn Rand principle, about the idea of selfishness as the core of human ethics and morality. Do you believe that we are primarily motivated by individual self-interest? Do you think Ayn Rand was right or wrong? I’d love to know what you think about this.
Myself, I hope I don’t seem over-confident when I say that I’m sure we can tackle the Ayn Rand principle together, and that I expect we’ll leave it wriggling and gasping for breath by the time we’re done. We can start by analyzing the words we’re using, and we should certainly pay special attention to the word ‘self’ (another recent post of mine offers a hint as to where I think we ought to begin). Of course, many of you may believe the Ayn Rand principle to be essentially correct. If you do, I hope you’ll join the argument as well.