Why “Selfishness” Doesn’t Properly Mean Being Shortsighted and Harmful to Others

Carpenter Working with Pencil and HammerThe definitions of the terms we use have consequences for our ability to think and communicate clearly.

Imagine for a moment that your friend told you that he defines “carpenter” as “one who shapes wood by shooting it with a gun.” You’re baffled and you ask him what word he uses for someone who shapes wood by other means, such as a saw, lathe, and/or sander. He says that he really has no word for this. He has a couple of synonyms for “carpenter,” but they also carry the implication that the person shaping the wood used a gun.

Hopefully, you can see that the problem with this hypothetical situation is not merely that you and your friend are using terms differently: shooting wood with a gun is a terribly impractical way of shaping it into useful forms. If the only concepts you have of wood shaping mean using a gun to do it, then you can’t really talk about those who shape wood using the practical methods in their profession.

Ayn Rand held that the common concept of “selfishness” is in an exactly analogous position to your hypothetical friend’s use of “carpenter.” At root, “selfishness” means pursuing one’s own interests and well-being. But the common use today adds in a second element: “pursuing your interests/well-being by means that are shortsighted and hurtful to others.” In today’s culture, the approximate synonyms of “selfishness,” such as “egoism” and “self-interest,” tend to be regarded with the same connotations of shortsightedness and harmfulness, so they are not much different.

Yet Ayn Rand rejected the idea that being shortsighted and hurtful to others is inherent in pursuing one’s interests and well-being. In fact, she recognized that the pursuit of one’s genuine interests in everyday life is specifically the opposite of “shortsighted and hurtful to others.” An individual’s genuine interests require long-term planning to fulfill, and his well-being is not served by doing harm to others. Attempting to pursue one’s self-interest by shortsighted and hurtful means is like trying to shape wood into a beautiful chair by shooting it with a pistol: utterly doomed to failure.

The basic reason that the genuine, long-term self-interests of individuals do not conflict is that the valuable things that can serve human self-interest are produced or created by rational thought. These things do not exist in a limited supply that requires individuals to gain things by taking them from others; human well-being is not a zero-sum game. (For more on the harmony of rational interests, I recommend the essay in The Virtue of Selfishness entitled “The ‘Conflicts’ of Men’s Interests.”)

We can easily see that valuable material things are created by looking at the economic history of the United States: the amount of wealth (material goods and available services) in the US today is clearly greater than the wealth of the entire world 10,000 years ago. Most of the technology that makes that wealth possible did not exist even 500 years ago.

We can see that wealth is created by rational thought by observing many examples, such as a machine tool (invented by rational thought) that allows the shaping of metal into useful items 5 times faster than would be possible without it, an assembly line (again, invented by rational thought) that cuts the time and effort required to make an automobile by 85%, etc. (For more on this, see: Wealth is Created by Action Based on Rational Thought.)

In general, when two people trade values they have created for values others have created, by mutual consent, they are both pursuing their self-interest, and neither person is harmed. Each person values the thing he is getting more than the thing he is giving in return. So trade is a practical means of pursuing one’s self-interest that is neither shortsighted, nor harmful to others. Yet the terms that most people use for the pursuit of self-interest include these negative connotations. So, just as in the hypothetical case of your friend and the “non-gun-wielding carpenter,” the meanings of the terms commonly used for the pursuit of self-interest serve to prevent people from thinking clearly about the motives and methods of honest, win-win traders.

A False Dichotomy

Selflessness and selfishness are supposed to be opposites. But the proper opposite of “selflessness” (sacrificing one’s interests) is “pursuing one’s interests,” not “attempting to pursue one’s interests by the impractical means of harming others” or “doing whatever one feels like in the moment, without considering how it actually affects one’s interests in the long term.”

Today’s apparent dichotomy between “selfishness” and selflessness is a false and disastrous one. Selfishness, in popular meaning, is pursuing one’s own interests allegedly by harming others, and is represented by criminal figures like Bernie Madoff. Yet Bernie Madoff says that his life was hell when he was lying and defrauding people, and that he is happier in prison. He was fighting a losing battle against the reality of his actions, and it was inevitable that he would end up worse off, all things considered, than he generally would have in pursuing honest productivity. (For more on this, see: Bernie Madoff: Not Rationally Selfish, But Self-Destructive.)

Selflessness, as the apparent opposite of selfishness, means not pursuing one’s own interests, but rather sacrificing them for the sake of others. Mother Teresa was considered the epitome of selflessness, because she spent most of her time ministering to the poor and sick in India, with no expectation of earthly reward or compensation. This left her tremendously unhappy, as her personal letters show.

Andrew Carnegie Quote on Property Rights in front of a steel mill

“If you want to be happy, set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy, and inspires your hopes.”
–Andrew Carnegie

There is no proper place in this dichotomy for people like Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, Steve Jobs, or indeed, most decent, honest Americans making better, happier lives for themselves through productive work. All of these people are pursuing their self-interest through productivity and trade–that is, through honest work and voluntary, win-win relationships with others. They do not harm other people in the process of pursuing their self-interest, but in fact benefit others, whether directly or indirectly. (Note that the 19th-Century industrialists like Andrew Carnegie didn’t harm anyone in the process of building their businesses, but rather benefited them: they made opportunities for jobs available that weren’t there before before–that their employees voluntarily took advantage of–and they greatly reduced the price of commodities such as steel and kerosene, enabling their customers to build steel buildings and heat and light homes at night, when it would have been too expensive otherwise. These industrialists never deserved the epithet, “robber barons,” since they robbed no one.)

So, to think clearly about the goals of many people’s behavior most of the time, we need to conceptually separate the goal of self-interest from notions of the means by which it is pursued. This is especially true when that “means” is quite impractical, and not really a means to the well-being of the self at all. The actual, practical means of achieving one’s self-interest, as Ayn Rand showed, is rationality, and this does not involve violating the rights of others or disregarding them altogether. Rather, it means recognizing the values that others can offer oneself, when they are good and honest. It involves living by the virtues that Ayn Rand identified: honesty, integrity, independence, productiveness, justice and pride.

This is real selfishness: the rational pursuit of things that will actually contribute to the maintenance and well-being of one’s self: one’s body and mind in the long term.

Self-Interest, Materialism and the “Soul-Body Dichotomy”

There is, I think, a place for one or more concepts designating an impoverished understanding of people’s interests. One current word that could stand for one type of impoverished view of people’s interests is “materialism.” This is the idea that all that really matters for people (and about people) is their physical circumstances, not their mental aspects, such as their goals, motivations, values, virtues and vices. This is an idea that Ayn Rand did not hold, but that many people today, especially on the political left, do.

Despite their lip service to the contrary, those leftists who want to redistribute wealth through governmental taxation and welfare programs based on physical need are materialists. They see the world through the filter of “rich vs. poor,” and they want to “help” the poor by punishing the rich. The mental and moral status of the poor individuals does not matter to them: It does not matter whether the poor person became poor through a freak accident, or through a long string of immoral choices, irresponsibility and self-deception. All that is required to entitle the individual to other people’s money is physical need. And that welfare temporarily helps the individual physically is all that is required to “prove” that accepting it is in the individual’s self-interest.

Similarly, it does not matter to the welfare statist how a rich person got his money: whether it was by honest productivity, win-win trade and the exercise of rational virtues, or by dishonesty, graft, government corruption, or slavery. The mere material fact that the individual is rich means that he owes a poor person a share of his money. Since keeping his money in the face of the physical need of the poor is “selfish,” it is destructive and evil by the common understanding of “selfishness.” The government is merely “rectifying a material inequality” by forcing the rich person to give his money to the poor person, regardless of whether the money was earned or not. (When the money was honestly earned, a non-materialist would properly call this governmental action “legalized theft.”)

(Note here that much of the “rich vs. poor” leftist worldview ultimately comes from the class warfare of Karl Marx, who was an avowed materialist. Also, this leftist materialism is just one side of a false idea that Ayn Rand called the “Soul-Body Dichotomy.” A different form of this dichotomy affects the religious right, making them susceptible to halfhearted support of governmental welfare redistribution as well. See “Soul-Body Dichotomy” at the Ayn Rand Lexicon for more.)


When a child is being “selfish,” and not recognizing other people’s interests and how treating them with respect helps him, the problem for him is not that he is being self-interested (“selfish”) when he should be self-sacrificial (“selfless.”) The problem is that he is (often innocently) materialistic and short-sighted in pursuing his interests. Children often do not have the experience and depth of understanding of the world to choose what is actually in their long-term self-interest. Everyone must learn how to be properly selfish: it is not automatic. Indeed, a great many people never learn it, and spend many years slowly destroying themselves through irresponsibility and vice.

One of the great contributions of Ayn Rand to human thought is that she saw through the false dichotomy of an other-destructive (and, in fact, self-destructive) “selfishness” and a self-destructive “selflessness.” She saw that there is another way of life that involves the destruction of no one–a way of life that enables all good individuals to prosper, with no victims.

This way of life can be found in her novels, such as Atlas Shrugged, and her non-fiction works, such as The Virtue of Selfishness.


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Objectivism for Dummies?

Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand by Leonard Peikoff

A more in-depth, book-length overview of Objectivism.

I find it a bit strange that one of the top Google auto-completes I see for “Objectivism” is “Objectivism for dummies,” considering that there is no “For Dummies” book on this topic. But what it indicates is that there is significant interest in a basic, understandable introduction to Objectivism, the philosophy of the novelist and philosopher, Ayn Rand.

If this is what you want, I’d like to recommend my Introduction to Objectivism page. Not only does it have a clear and straightforward presentation of the philosophy of Objectivism, but it also has a large number of links to resources for learning more.

Introduction to Objectivism

I’d also like to recommend reading Ayn Rand’s novels, such as Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainheadif you haven’t recently–to get a fuller feel for the type of person that Objectivism praises, and the type of life that it holds out as an ideal. As I like to caution, however, Rand’s novels are romantic novels, and they feature extraordinary and dramatic situations. The principles her ideal heroes live by are the ones she advocates, but one must be careful about being too literal, (or, in Ayn Rand’s terminology, “concrete-bound” or “anti-conceptual”) in applying those principles to real life.

Happy learning! :-)

Sword of Apollo


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On This Memorial Day, Let Us Remember, Not “Sacrifice,” But Those Who Fight for Freedom

The U.S. Marine Corps Color Guard marches during pass in review during the closing of a Battle Color Detachment ceremony at Eisenhower High School, Rialto, Calif., on March 4, 2012.Every Memorial Day, we hear speeches from government leaders praising what they call the sacrifices of American soldiers. On Memorial Day 2013, President Obama said:

[N]ot all Americans may always see or fully grasp the depth of sacrifice, the profound costs that are made in our name — right now, as we speak, every day.

On Memorial Day 2014, Obama said this:

Early this morning, I returned from Afghanistan. Yesterday, I visited with some of our men and women serving there — 7,000 miles from home. For more than 12 years, men and women like those I met with have borne the burden of our nation’s security. Now, because of their profound sacrifice, because of the progress they have made, we’re at a pivotal moment. Our troops are coming home. By the end of this year, our war in Afghanistan will finally come to end. And yesterday at Bagram, and here today at Arlington, we pay tribute to the nearly 2,200 American patriots who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan. We will honor them, always.

But is it really “sacrifice” that we properly honor on Memorial Day? Or is it something else that we should be focusing on?

On September 11, 2001, 19 Muslim totalitarians boarded American planes and flew them into the World Trade Center buildings, the Pentagon, and the ground in Pennsylvania. What they did was a sacrifice of their lives for the sake of killing “the enemy” and defending what they saw as the sanctity, purity and salvation of their people against the “corrupting” influences of the “decadent” West. Was this act noble because it was a sacrifice? No?

Then it is not sacrifice per se that we properly honor on Memorial Day, since we do not honor all of those who sacrifice for any cause. Is it then the sacrifice of oneself for the sake of freedom? Is this what we properly honor?

Well, let us ask: How many American soldiers do you know of who go into battle intending to die there? How many go intending to lose limbs? How many go intending to lose friends? If what we honor and revere is sacrifice in the name of freedom–if it is sacrifice that is a good thing, then every soldier and his family should hope that he dies in battle. If the size of the sacrifice in the name of freedom is the standard of moral worthiness in a soldier, then losing his life is the greatest good he can accomplish. If he can’t manage that, then he should at least strive to suffer major injury.

Yet the attitude of wanting to die or be maimed in battle is quite properly abhorrent to most Americans. It shows that the soldier places little value on his life; he does not have the self-esteem to love his life, to want to live it, and thus to love those who enrich that life, such as friends, family and lovers.

So what is it that we properly honor on Memorial Day? It is the love of freedom, and the dedication to fight for it when necessary for its defense.

Freedom is a profoundly good thing for each individual in a society. It is good because it supports and furthers human life and happiness. It allows people to choose what values they wish to pursue based on their own best judgment and enables them to achieve great things. It is in each individual’s best interest to be free, and it is in their enlightened self-interest to fight for that freedom when it is threatened.

We should honor those who are so dedicated to the goodness that is freedom, that they willingly risk their lives to fight for it when it is threatened. They make the decision to risk their lives because they love their freedom and will not stand for its loss. They might die in battle, but that is not their goal and the risk they take is not a sacrifice on their part. Their goal is to defend their freedom and live to enjoy it.

With this standard of the noble defense of one’s own freedom–and the freedom of good people one cares deeply about–in mind, it is incumbent on each of us to look carefully at the wars the US leadership has been asking American soldiers to fight. Are they really necessary as defenses of American freedom, or are they attempts to “help” others who are unwilling to help themselves? If the people of a country are unwilling to be dedicated enough to freedom to really fight for it, and to enact it into law, in the form of protections of individual rights, then it is not a good thing for our soldiers to risk their lives for these people’s “self-determination.” They are risking their lives–putting themselves and their loved ones’ future well-being in jeopardy–for a cause that will not result in good things in the long run. Thus, it is also not good to ask or pressure them to fight in these types of wars.

I consider the deaths of soldiers who died in wars, other than those in defense of American liberty and American interests, terrible tragedies and wastes of human life. These soldiers should be remembered for the good things they did in their civilian life. Those who have fought for what they deeply and genuinely believed would defend liberty and safety in their own country–whether they have lived or died–deserve special praise and admiration. Their military service was an expression of their good character and their dedication to the value of freedom.

Let us thank these admirable individuals and may they always be remembered with great respect and love on Memorial Day.


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Why Healthcare in the US is So Expensive, and What Can Be Done About It

The Meaning of “Necessary” Versus “Contingent” Truth

Billiard balls ready to be brokenThere is a long history in philosophy of distinguishing between truths that are “necessary” and truths that are “contingent.”

A necessary truth represents a true statement whose negation must imply a contradiction in reality, such that the negation would be impossible.

So, if “One plus one equals two,” is a necessary truth, then the statement “One plus one does not equal two” will imply a contradiction. Given the meanings of “one” and “two,” we can immediately see that the addition of two “ones” (units) always does yield “two,” yet the statement “One plus one does not equal two,” contradicts this. It’s incomprehensible that one plus one should ever add to anything but two. So “One plus one equals two,” is commonly held to be a necessary truth, with its negation being impossible.

A contingent truth represents a true statement whose negation does not imply a contradiction in reality, such that the negation could have been the case.

So, if “John married Jessica last Sunday,” is a contingent truth, then the statement “John did not marry Jessica last Sunday,” could have been true, without implying a contradiction in reality. Since John could have chosen not to marry Jessica, or to have married her on a different day, we can see that this is indeed a contingent truth.

The Objectivist View on the Necessary/Contingent Distinction

Objectivism-The Philosophy of Ayn RandCausality (the Law of Cause and Effect) is the Law of Identity applied to action. This means that an entity’s actions follow from its nature. That is, the nature of the entity (its attributes, properties, etc.) causes the action it will take in any given situation. In any given context, there is only one action open to it: the one in accordance with its nature. Any other action would contradict its nature.

Continue reading

The Basics of Ayn Rand’s Philosophy: Introducing my “Introduction to Objectivism” Page

The happiness of a man whose enlightened mind illuminates the world. Silhouette of Howard Roark with light rays emanating from his head.Hot off the digital press is my “Introduction to Objectivism” page. It conveys the basics of Ayn Rand‘s philosophy in an overview summary. It also explains some of the benefits of learning about her philosophy–called Objectivism–a little about the nature of moral and philosophical principles, and a little about how this rational philosophy fits in with modern science.

Exploring Objectivism is an intellectual adventure that really gives you a greater appreciation for your life, the world around you, and the power of abstract ideas to bring good or evil, success or failure.

So jump on in! :-D

Click here: Introduction to Objectivism


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Earth Day Video: Why You Should Love Fossil Fuels

On Earth Day, let’s pause and reflect on how much better fossil fuels have made our lives and our environments:

The burning of fossil fuels to generate plentiful energy has given us the opportunity to live in a prosperous, industrial civilization. Burning fossil fuels gave us the opportunity to invent nuclear and hydroelectric. And if people are left free (by the government) to innovate, it will likely also give us the opportunity to invent other energy sources that can fully replace fossil fuels, before they run out. (Solar and wind, in their current states, don’t even come close.)

Read Alex Epstein’s book: The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels

Visit the website of the Center for Industrial Progress


@AlexEpstein (Click here)

#ILoveFossilFuels (Click here)


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The Social Justice Warrior’s 9 Theses Against this Blog and Its Author

This blog is racist, because it supports Israel over Islamic totalitarians, and because it posts videos of people speaking in front of Tea Party sympathizers. (You know, those horrible racists!)

This blog is sexist, because it uses “he,” instead of “he/she” or “(s)he” or “he or she” or “she,” when referring to those of unspecified gender.

This blog is ableist, because its author doesn’t believe people should be robbed to support the disabled, (and all the disabled are permanently useless and can never support themselves without the government forcing others to care for them.)

This blog is hateful of poor people, because it doesn’t support the forcible tearing down of rich people for their sake.

This blog is against sound economics, like the Broken Window Theory and “wealth inequality means everyone is poorer.”

This blog dares to peek beyond the Veil of Ignorance, and challenge John Rawls’s view of (social) justice as fairness.

This blog is homophobic, because its author doesn’t support laws forcing private businesses to hire or serve people they don’t want to, such as gays.

This blog is anti-science, because its author doesn’t want government to destroy people’s freedom on the basis of unreliable computer models.

This blog is triggering, because it contains offensively positive references to Ayn Rand.


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