Selfishness is a Virtue
Updated: Jun 4
You may know about Ayn Rand from a college literature course. She was a best-selling novelist and author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. She also spent a lot of time thinking about the world. Though not formally trained as a philosopher, she developed a view of the world she called Objectivism. At its core was the idea of rational self-interest – she termed it “selfishness.”
Where did Ayn Rand get the idea that selfishness is a virtue? Let’s start by rolling back the clock – Alissa Rosenbaum (Ayn Rand) was twelve years old living in Russia in 1917 when the Communists overthrew the Czar. She saw her father’s pharmacy confiscated by the Communists and her former life of relative prosperity vanish. She escaped the Soviet Union in 1926 under the pretext of studying in America to help the Soviet film industry. That’s when she changed her name to Ayn Rand.
Morality in the Soviet Union wasn’t moral. While “people” were said to be important, individuals were not. Marxism and the Soviet state were supreme and “the ends justified the means.” It was okay to be unjust in the name of justice. It was okay to steal from some to give to others. It was okay to murder in the name of humanity. And, it was okay to imprison those who disagreed. This was the Soviet moral code.
The Soviets used the term “selflessness” (altruism) to justify the confiscation of property. Ayn Rand saw the immorality of it. Her father’s pharmacy was stolen – it was theft.
Ayn Rand’s independent streak
Rand was strongly committed to the rights of individuals versus the control of government and saw capitalism as the economic system most compatible with the freedom of the individual. She saw a valid role for limited government, but rejected the idea of government-imposed “selflessness.” To her, it endangered personal liberty.
She said her new philosophy of Objectivism “in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”
It’s not that Rand didn’t value people. She did. Though she was an atheist, she saw everyone as having equal value. And, she wasn’t opposed to helping others. Her perspective was, if you want to help others, that’s great, but society has no right to force you to do it. She viewed the latter to be “collectivized ethics.”
To Ayn Rand, the real motive for being selfless was selfishness. To her, altruism was like a business transaction. It was a “trade” where we choose to help others because we receive something in return – perhaps emotional satisfaction. From her perspective, selfishness is a virtue.
Relative to the Soviet Union where rights, property and liberties were taken away in the name of “selflessness,” it’s easy to see why Rand saw state-forced altruism to be evil. However, does it necessarily follow that selfishness is a virtue? Not really.
What does Judeo-Christian ethics say?
Western morality was built on Judeo-Christian ethics. From a Judeo-Christian perspective, people have value, rights and responsibilities. People possess high, equal, universal and unchanging value because God ascribes it to them. And, people have the responsibility to treat themselves and others accordingly.
In Judeo-Christian ethics, people have the right to enjoy the fruits of their labor, to earn wages, to own property, to freely transact business, and to leave their children an inheritance. People also have the responsibility to work to provide for themselves, their families, and their extended family members who are unable to provide for themselves. They even have a shared responsibility with others to help those in their communities who are unable to help themselves.
In Judeo-Christian ethics, the right to accumulate wealth and the responsibility to provide for yourself are not deemed to be selfish. So, what is selfishness?
What is selfishness?
Ayn Rand had a narrow definition of selfishness. She said it was “concern with one’s own interests” and that this wasn’t evil. However, that’s not how we actually use the word and she acknowledged this.
Selfishness is generally understood to mean “concern with one’s own interests without regard for others.” Using this definition, we consider monopolies and predatory business practices to be wrong. After all, just because you can earn all the money in the world doesn’t mean you should. How would other people feed their families?
It seems Ayn Rand equated the right to meet your own needs and personal responsibility with selfishness. It’s not. It’s actually unselfish to work to provide for your own needs and that of your family – so you’re not being dependent on others. It’s also unselfish to help people in need with the extra resources you may possess. The two are not mutually exclusive.
What is virtue?
Virtue is behavior that demonstrates high moral standards. In Judeo-Christian morality, these standards are based on key moral attributes: truthfulness, faithfulness, purity, goodness, justice and love. We would generally not include selfishness – concern with your own interests without regard for others – to be among them.
If selfishness is not a virtue, does that mean anything done in the name of selflessness (altruism) is virtuous? No.
What is selflessness?
Ayn Rand also had a distorted view of selflessness. She said, “Altruism declares that any action taken for the benefit of others is good, and any action for one’s own benefit is evil.” This is probably what the Soviets said to be true. However, it’s not.
Selflessness is an aspect of love. Yet for selflessness to be moral, it must also be truthful, faithful, pure, good and just. Injustice, theft, lies, and brutality in the name of selflessness is not moral. And, “forced selflessness” isn’t selflessness – it’s coercion.
Real selflessness (and real love) also doesn’t actually expect anything in return. It’s not a transaction or a trade. It’s freely given – even when rejected by the person to whom it’s extended. (Just ask any parent if this is true.)
Where does that leave us?
Ayn Rand was correct in rejecting the false forced “altruism” and theft of the Soviet Union. History gives support for her negative views of forced collectivization, government-imposed altruism and oppressive taxation. And, her passion for freedom and personal liberty is laudable. She seems to have generally gotten these things right.
The moral side of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism seems to be a reaction to Marxist Communism. It’s under-developed relative to what most westerners would embrace as morality. While it embraces the idea of equal human value and sees nothing wrong with helping others, it sees self-interest as the core moral virtue.
If other people have value, we will treat them well because they have value, not because we somehow benefit. We are not the center of the Universe; other people matter too. Though our explicit financial responsibility for ourselves and our families is arguably greater than our responsibility for others, morality says we do have some shared responsibility for those in need. And, they have a responsibility, if they are able, to seek to not be dependent on others.
Personal responsibility is a virtue. Selfishness, as commonly defined – concern with your own interests without regard for others – is not.
 Ayn Rand, Capitalism, The Unknown Ideal, (New York, Penguin Putnam, Inc., 1967), 193.  Harry Binswanger, The Ayn Rand Lexicon (New York, NY: The Penguin Group, 1988), 253. Ayn Rand was not an anarchist or a libertarian.  https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ayn-rand/  Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, (New York, Signet, 1964), 93.  Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, 52.  IBID, 34-35.  Rabbi Joseph Telushkin states, “…the rationale for loving our neighbors is precisely because God, who created all of us in His image, demands it. Judaism sees ethics as ultimately dependent on a source above humans, on God. Without God, morality is reduced to a matter of opinion.” Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy (New York, NY: William Morrow and Company, 1991), 63.  Psalm 128:1-2, Leviticus 19:11 and 19:13, Deuteronomy 27:17, Jeremiah 32:8, Psalm 18:14  1 Thessalonians 4:11-12, 1 Timothy 5:8  Leviticus 23:22, Deuteronomy 26:12  Psalm 112:1-3, Psalm 128:1-6  Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, vi  Ayn Rand acknowledged that her definition of selfishness didn’t fit with popular usage. Her view was that popular usage had been distorted by the false one-sided ethics of altruism.  Isaiah 5:8, Psalm 52:1-7, Psalm 82:2-3  2 Thessalonians 3:6-12, Titus 3:14 (Providing for yourself keeps you from being unnecessarily dependent on others.)  Ephesians 4:28  Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, viii  Love also includes the ideas of giving, patience, kindness, friendship, protection, mercy, and forgiveness.  Our ability and opportunity to help others also comes into play. To have great ability and opportunity to help others and choose to not would suggest a lack of concern for others. In the Tanakh (the Old Testament), freely giving to the poor was characterized as lending to God. There were also laws to help the poor. For example, goods were sold to the poor at cost, they were not charged interest on loans, they were to be allowed to gather grain or crops missed in the fields during harvest, and a portion of the annual 10% offering was to be shared with the poor every third year. These laws were not oppressive to those affected. Shared responsibility for the poor need not plunder those who are not poor.