Monday, 20 May 2013


In a cringy 1959 interview, Mike Wallace asked Ayn Rand this question:

"Should husbands and wives tally up at the end of the day and say, well wait a minuet, I love her if she's done enough for me today, and she loves me if I've properly performed my functions?"

Almost any interview with Rand involves this question in some form. The question concerns a confusion that the only kind of selfishness is a utilitarian kind. That selfish people are only ever trying to maximize their own utility--that nothing is valuable to the selfish person for its own sake. Now, of course it's an ignorant question to ask of Rand. Rand is quite clearly a virtue ethicists, and quick to praise beauty, rationality, love, human life, and so on as having some sort of intrinsic value. But the mistake doesn't happen because people read Rand and get confused, it happens precisely because the people that ask it don't read Rand, hear 'the virtue of selfishness' and jump to conclusions about what selfishness entails.

Selfishness in common-day English has two distinct meanings.

To act with disregard for others
To act with regard for yourself
On the surface of it, it might appear as if these were two sides of the same coin, but in action they lead to two entirely different ways of life. To act with disregard for others is to preclude yourself from any concern for other people, and because acting with concern for other people can be both profitable and rewarding for its own sake, would consequently lead to less value for the self overall. On the other hand, to act with regards for yourself, only entails that your actions are in-line with your intrinsic and extrinsic values, so will include lots of concern for other people where appropriate. Particularly in the example of loving someone.


  1. Interesting blog post.

    However, in common usage the meanings are interlaced. If I accused anyone unacquainted with philosophical egoism, and most who are so acquainted, of being selfish they would assume I meant they were self regarding and lacking empathy. This is what Wittgenstein warns happens when philosophers misuse language, they create faux-problems. There is no problem with how we use the word selfish, but Rand creates a problem when she subverts its meaning. She still manages better than Hobbes egoism, against which Hazlitt* brilliantly argued, or perhaps the superior stylist Stirner, against which Sartre** provides the best rebuttal.

    Beyond that, I am willing to accept that between bad foundationalist epistemology and bad rhetoric Rand endorses something like the respectable Aretaic turn, but she does so without the understanding of McIntyre or Anscombe that ethics must be derived from a contextual ethos, nor escape the criticism that it is just a semantic trick to elude moral error theory. The most effective reply would be to accept error theory and endorse only a normative virtue ethics, which Rand cannot do without giving up strangely Platonic ideas of objectivity.

    Nor do I even believe Rand escapes the horrible reactionary implications of virtue ethics, the reason for the wide unpopularity of such thinking amongst the contemporary intelligentsia. Her atheism even hints this might have been a redeeming feature of her thought. Instead she concludes with the same extreme conservative thinking on gender and homosexuality that all teleological natural law advocates propound ad nauseum. Only also eschewing certain Christian marriage conventions and positively celebrating abortion.

    *Our relations to future selves, on which egoism rests, is the same imaginative regard as relations to others. To which he adds the normative concern that percolates his essays that inward looking is diminishing, whereas outward looking beneficently expansive.
    ** ‘According to them, the love of the self—and consequently the me—lies concealed in all emotions in a thousand different forms. In a very general way, the me, as a function of this love that it bears for itself, would desire for itself all the objects it desires. The essential structure of each of my acts would be a reference to myself. The "return to me" would be constitutive of all consciousnesses.’ However, it confuses, 'the essential structure of reflective acts with the essential structure of unreflected acts.' He illustrates this point quite well too, 'I pity Peter, and I go to his assistance. For my consciousness only one thing exists at that moment: Peter-having-to-be-helped. This quality of "having-to-be-helped" lies in Peter. It acts on me like a force. Aristotle said it: the desirable is that which moves the desiring.'

    1. In common usage, perhaps, but philosophy has to be more precise than common language to keep the logical structure of arguments intact. Hence lots of words have their much more precise interpretation in a philosophy context than in their a 'every day' context, e.g. 'necessarily', 'frequently'.

      What's important, in my opinion, in terms of the Wittgenstein point, is to keep the *language* intact, in terms of actual meaning and etymology. And what's more important is to define terms if there'll be some confusion about them. I think Rand does both of these.

    2. That is a fair point. I would quibble over her novels though, which are read than her philosophy. I recall in The Fountainhead she once endorses psychological egoism, which aside from being weak, is also incompatible with ethical egoism—at least without something like the dialectics Stirner deploys and I’m sure Rand would never support. Misunderstanding is likely if you use specialised terminological variants of layperson language for a popular political-philosophical movement largely spread through fiction.

    3. I think Rand does take error theory into account. She's by no mean a moral realist. She's a Nietzchian-Aristotlian, lol. Her moral theory is interesting I think because it's a kind of constructivism, which is I think the only real way to get round error theory without conceding, but the idealised form of reasoning comes about on an entirely individualistic level. I actually have another post that gets into this a little, that you may or may not have read

      There's also an interesting paper by Darryl Wright, which is really hard to find but very interesting. It analyses the meaning of 'objective' for Rand. His conclusion is that she means it not in the sense of 'metaphysical objectivity' but 'epistemic objectivity' i.e. objectivity concerned with "the cognitive processes and mechanisms by which we form beliefs about the world are constituted in such a way as they at least tend towards the production of accurate representation of things as they are."

      The trouble I have with studying rand is that there seem to be two very different interpretations of her work (I suspect possibly due to her actually changing her mind about certain things between fountainhead and atlas shrugged, but not acknowledging it explicitly. At the very least she never acknowledged once she rejected Nietzsche that she had been a fan). In one she's got some very interesting metaethical premises, in the other she's unsophisticated and a bit of a nut. Unfortunately I'm not actually enough of a rand scholar (or one at all, really) to know more about it. But I do know that her more serious followers interpret her very differently than 'Objectivists' tend to.

    4. Yeah, I take your point.

      If anything perhaps the confusion over Rand's terminology is precisely because she's a popular philosopher, who as you say mostly was read through fiction, and so perhaps there's an extent to which is will be so readily assumed she means by her language what every day language would mean that it's going to be confusing.

      If she'd been a academic philosopher, which I secretly and perhaps perversely wish she had been, then words like 'selfishness' most likely wouldn't have been such an issue for her.

      The 'psychological egoism' verse 'ethical egoism' thing is a very good example of the kind of thing I have in mind when I say she seemed to change her mind quite significantly between the fountainhead and atlas shrugged. I wouldn't say she just mentioned psychological egoism in the fountainhead, it's the entire point of the book, heh, but it just disappears after that and seems to have been replaced with ethical egoism. It seems Objectivists focus more on the latter.

    5. Well I guess she wouldn’t be the first philosopher to undergo radical transitions in her thought with a confusing lack of clarity; just from memory I immediately think of Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Sartre, Lacan, Cioran…

      I think the article your mention is included in this book:

      Thanks for blog and the interesting discussion.

  2. Why do you think that interview was cringey? I liked it.

    Good concise post, anyway.

    1. Mostly because he asked questions like that. She seemed very awkward during the interview and it seemed to be his interviewing style that was to blame. Maybe if I watched it again I wouldn't think this.

      Thank you :)

  3. Also lots of people do read Rand and still accuse her of believing in a bad kind of selfishness, I'd guess usually because they are altruists in the sense of thinking we have unchosen positive obligations toward other people.