BBC has a pretty creative cartoon sketch on Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, which is pretty good and well-meaning (unlike the dishonest comments made by the American left-(and right) wing press), though it gets a few things wrong. Overall it is worth a watch.
Is it good to be selfish?
Morality and selfishness sound like opposites – but not according to the Russian-American novelist of the 1950s, Ayn Rand. She thought it was obvious that behaving rationally meant putting your own interests first: you actually have a duty to be selfish. Altruism or self-sacrifice are immoral, she claimed, as is asking for help from others.
What Rand actually said was that one had no DUTY to help others — she was perfectly fine with (private) charity, and yes asking for help. She also would not call selfishness a duty, but a virtue that must be chosen.
Here is Ayn Rand on the difference:
One of the most destructive anti-concepts in the history of moral philosophy is the term “duty.”
An anti-concept is an artificial, unnecessary and rationally unusable term designed to replace and obliterate some legitimate concept. The term “duty” obliterates more than single concepts; it is a metaphysical and psychological killer: it negates all the essentials of a rational view of life and makes them inapplicable to man’s actions . . . .
The meaning of the term “duty” is: the moral necessity to perform certain actions for no reason other than obedience to some higher authority, without regard to any personal goal, motive, desire or interest.
It is obvious that that anti-concept is a product of mysticism, not an abstraction derived from reality. In a mystic theory of ethics, “duty” stands for the notion that man must obey the dictates of a supernatural authority. Even though the anti-concept has been secularized, and the authority of God’s will has been ascribed to earthly entities, such as parents, country, State, mankind, etc., their alleged supremacy still rests on nothing but a mystic edict. Who in hell can have the right to claim that sort of submission or obedience? This is the only proper form—and locality—for the question, because nothing and no one can have such a right or claim here on earth.
The arch-advocate of “duty” is Immanuel Kant; he went so much farther than other theorists that they seem innocently benevolent by comparison. “Duty,” he holds, is the only standard of virtue; but virtue is not its own reward: if a reward is involved, it is no longer virtue. The only moral motivation, he holds, is devotion to duty for duty’s sake; only an action motivated exclusively by such devotion is a moral action . . . .
If one were to accept it, the anti-concept “duty” destroys the concept of reality: an unaccountable, supernatural power takes precedence over facts and dictates one’s actions regardless of context or consequences.
“Duty” destroys reason: it supersedes one’s knowledge and judgment, making the process of thinking and judging irrelevant to one’s actions.
“Duty” destroys values: it demands that one betray or sacrifice one’s highest values for the sake of an inexplicable command—and it transforms values into a threat to one’s moral worth, since the experience of pleasure or desire casts doubt on the moral purity of one’s motives.
“Duty” destroys love: who could want to be loved not from “inclination,” but from “duty”?
“Duty” destroys self-esteem: it leaves no self to be esteemed.
If one accepts that nightmare in the name of morality, the infernal irony is that “duty” destroys morality. A deontological (duty-centered) theory of ethics confines moral principles to a list of prescribed “duties” and leaves the rest of man’s life without any moral guidance, cutting morality off from any application to the actual problems and concerns of man’s existence. Such matters as work, career, ambition, love, friendship, pleasure, happiness, values (insofar as they are not pursued as duties) are regarded by these theories as amoral, i.e., outside the province of morality. If so, then by what standard is a man to make his daily choices, or direct the course of his life?
In a deontological theory, all personal desires are banished from the realm of morality; a personal desire has no moral significance, be it a desire to create or a desire to kill. For example, if a man is not supporting his life from duty, such a morality makes no distinction between supporting it by honest labor or by robbery. If a man wants to be honest, he deserves no moral credit; as Kant would put it, such honesty is “praiseworthy,” but without “moral import.” Only a vicious represser, who feels a profound desire to lie, cheat and steal, but forces himself to act honestly for the sake of “duty,” would receive a recognition of moral worth from Kant and his ilk.
This is the sort of theory that gives morality a bad name. [“Causality Versus Duty,” Philosophy: Who Needs It, 95]
Rand’s approach, which she labelled ‘Objectivism’, starts from the claim that there is an objective reality out there and that human beings understand it through reason not emotion. There is no God. We survive by pursuing our own rational self-interest. She thought it followed from this that the highest moral purpose was for each of us to pursue his or her own happiness. The weak shouldn’t expect any help from the strong.
Here is what Rand actually said on the issue:
In proportion to the mental energy he spent, the man who creates a new invention receives but a small percentage of his value in terms of material payment, no matter what fortune he makes, no matter what millions he earns. But the man who works as a janitor in the factory producing that invention, receives an enormous payment in proportion to the mental effort that his job requires of him. And the same is true of all men between, on all levels of ambition and ability. The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time. The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains. Such is the nature of the “competition” between the strong and the weak of the intellect. Such is the pattern of “exploitation” for which you have damned the strong. [Galt’s Speech, For the New Intellectual, 186]
All forms of collectivism were evil in her eyes. The role of government was nothing more than to protect individual rights of ownership and to let the powerful flourish.
Actually under capitalism everyone flourishes as power is decentralized amongst the smallest minority on earth — the individual — as opposed to centralizing all power with the state as collectivists advocate. Quoting Rand:
A disastrous intellectual package-deal, put over on us by the theoreticians of statism, is the equation of economic power with political power. You have heard it expressed in such bromides as: “A hungry man is not free,” or “It makes no difference to a worker whether he takes orders from a businessman or from a bureaucrat.” Most people accept these equivocations—and yet they know that the poorest laborer in America is freer and more secure than the richest commissar in Soviet Russia. What is the basic, the essential, the crucial principle that differentiates freedom from slavery? It is the principle of voluntary action versus physical coercion or compulsion.
The difference between political power and any other kind of social “power,” between a government and any private organization, is the fact that a government holds a legal monopoly on the use of physical force.
Returning to the BBC description:
In her bestselling novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead she portrayed uncompromising characters who relentlessly pursue their own visions. In Atlas Shrugged her hero John Galt declares “I swear—by my life and my love of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”
You can learn more about Ayn Rand — in her own words — by visiting Ayn Rand.org