Is Ayn Rand correct when she declares that the pursuit of self-interest is the primary motivating force of our lives, and that a fulfilling sense of human ethics can be built around the honest recognition of the pursuit of self-interest?
This is a gigantic question. It tends to stir up passionate responses, as we discovered last weekend after I brought up the question. The “Ayn Rand principle” has become a philosophy of life to many people, because it provides a refreshingly straightforward, direct and affirmative sense of morality. The Ayn Rand principle provides a chin-up ethic that people can actually live with.
The problem is, ethical considerations aside, the Ayn Rand principle is nonsense words. It’s pure applesauce. Ayn Rand had an Oprah Winfrey-like ability to communicate strong messages to her readers, and her ethical philosophy seemed to say a lot. But it doesn’t stand up to close examination at all. Let’s start with the concept of self-interest and apply a little introspection.
Imagine you’re driving a car in the dark on a curvy road on a rainy night, and you’ve got your spouse in the passenger seat, your child in the back seat, and your child’s friend in the back seat. You drive carefully, tense with responsibility, because at this moment you are completely focused on taking care of four people. You are not just interested in your self; you are interested in the safety of everyone in the car, and if a horrible moment occurred when you had to swerve into a tree to stop the car, you would certainly try to maneuver to take the brunt of the hit yourself, because you value the safety of the three other people in the car more than you value your own.
You as an individual barely exist at this moment. There is a car, there are four people in it, and you’re the driver. You do not feel a private self-interest at this moment, but rather a shared self-interest.
Let’s look at a different type of example, and pay attention to how the concept of “self” is being used. The year is 2003, and three people are arguing about President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq.
Person A supports the decision to invade, and says that Bush is acting in the interest of global peace, democracy and freedom.
Person B is against the war, and says the invasion is an act of blatant self-interest on the USA’s part, that it’s all about controlling oil resources.
Person C is against the war and says that George W. Bush is an egotist who is invading Iraq to fulfill his fantasy of being the next Winston Churchill or Ronald Reagan.
If we try to map these three points of view to the Ayn Rand principle, we find something interesting: Person C believes the invasion is an act of self-interest, and so does Person B. But in Person C’s case the self-interest is on behalf on an individual self — President George W. Bush with his insufferable ego — while in Person B’s case the “self” is the United States of America.
So what is a self, anyway? What does the word mean? In fact, it typically has one of two discrete meanings.
First, there is the individual self, which might also be called the absolute self, or maybe the atomic self. In this sense, “self” refers to a single person. I am an individual self. You are an individual self. An individual self, or individual person, is clearly bounded in time and space. At the risk of over-generalization, it seems safe to say that every individual self has a name, a birthday, a functioning heart, a functioning brain. Every individual self was born with two parents, and will die. This is the first widely understood meaning of the commonly used term “self”.
The second might be called the functional self, or the relative self, or perhaps (taking the chemistry metaphor further) the molecular self. We refer to this type of self constantly in our everyday lives. “How’d we do?”, I ask a fellow Mets fan on the streets of Queens. Whenever you are in a transaction with another party, then the “self” relative to this transaction is the sum existence of the group of people who are doing this transaction with you. These selves, these wholes are ethically alive; they exist for themselves, as themselves.
If the “self” can refer to any group made up of any number of people — an individual self, the United States of America, the New York Mets, all of humanity since the beginning of time — then how does Ayn Rand’s principle mean anything at all?
All the principle of self-interest means, then, is that we are always acting in the interest of … many different people including ourselves. Didn’t we already know that?
A persistent Randian might argue: doesn’t collective self-interest boil down to individual self-interest multiplied by the number of people involved?
I don’t think it does. Thinking in terms of chemistry again: it’s a fact that sodium chloride dissolves in water. This does not mean that sodium and chlorine dissolve in hydrogen and oxygen. It means that NaCL dissolves in H20. There’s a big difference.
The Ayn Rand principle is soft in the middle when it comes to clearly defining what the “self” in “self-interest” is. What appears at first to be solid philosophy turns out to be pop psychology. However, the Ayn Rand principle has a big fan base, and it’s an important topic, and I don’t think we ought to stop beating up on the Ayn Rand principle after this single objection.
There are more weaknesses in this principle, and I plan to write more about this with the next installment of this series. This weekend, we took apart the word “self” in “self-interest”. Next weekend, I’d like to examine what exactly the word “interest” means.
I’d also love to hear your feedback about how you think this inquiry into an important ethical question is going so far.