[This essay formed the basis of a talk at the Atlas Society celebration of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, in Washington, DC, on October 6, 2007]
When Ayn Rand titled her collection of writings on ethics The Virtue of Selfishness, she also provided a clear clue to what kind of selfishness she had in mind. With the subtitle, “A New Concept of Egoism.” she put prospective readers on notice that by using the term selfishness she didn’t mean the usual neo-Hobbesean view where a selfish individual will only act so as to fulfill his or her desires, the selfishness of homo economicus, for example.
Readers of Rand’s first blockbuster, The Fountainhead, could already tell that the protagonist, Howard Roark, an ethical egoist, wasn’t a self-indulgent pursuer of mere desire-satisfaction. This is because the concept of integrity plays such a vital part in understanding who Roark is, the kind of human individual the novel is about, as well as the faults of some of the villains, such as those of Peter Keating.
Clearly no Hobbesian egoist need care about integrity! Why? Because for Hobbes human nature is purely nominal, whatever we agree to think it to be. For Rand human nature exists objectively, founded on the basic facts about human beings. And selfishness in such a view needs to be honored (recalling the title of one of Nathaniel Branden’s books, Honoring the Self ). Only a self that is potentially good deserves to be honored. (As an aside, Hobbes’s egoism is not an ethics at all but a theory of psychological motivation. It is only in contemporary moral philosophy that many who discuss ethics made his more of a normative than descriptive position.)
All this needs to be understood and appreciated in the context of Objectivism’s naturalist conception of reality. The human self is an entirely natural entity, not divided between two realms as so many of the world’s religions take it to be. Instead of the customary view under religion’s influence, which sees people as some peculiar combination of mind and body, spirit and flesh, or the like, for Rand a person is one whole being with, of course, various aspects. So, yes, people are rational, which is a central capacity for them, and chemical, physical, social, economic and so forth, some more this than the other, depending on their self-determination as well as the basic attributes of being human.
Human beings are comprised of many features, some central or defining, some less so and even incidental (such as their height or national origin). What is crucial for ethics, however, is that leading a good or excellent human life involves only considerations pertaining to natural capacities, faculties, opportunities, and purposes. A good self, then, is going to be good in terms of natural criteria, based on human nature. This is the context in which the following point Rand makes in The Virtue of Selfishness needs to be grasped:
“Objectivist ethics is a morality of rational self-interest—or of rational selfishness. Since selfishness is “concern with one’s own interests,” the Objectivist ethics uses that concept in its exact and purest sense.”
The sense is that the human self is a natural being, not supernatural or mystical. So the criteria self-interestedness is what is proper to such a being, a being whose self is a part of nature and whose well-being or excellence needs to be understood in terms of the standards of its nature.
Let me put some of this in my own, what you might call, neo-Aristotelian language. Living beings can flourish or perish or languish somewhere in-between. What constitutes their flourishing is based on their nature. If you want some good tomatoes, you have to have a clear idea of what a tomato is and see which of the ones available fulfill the nature of a tomato to the fullest. Animals, plants, indeed all living beings, are evaluated along these lines, unless some peculiar metaphysics are introduced that separate evaluations from nature. If this temptation is resisted, as it ought to be, the evaluation of one’s conduct and life will proceed along lines of what kind of natural entity one is and how one’s nature will be most fully realized, how such an entity will flourish.
Rand’s ethics calls to mind what the famous 19th century German anthropologist Friedrich Ratzel said: “Man is a piece of the earth—not an exception, nor one with something added from outside. Man is an actor in nature, not a spectator of nature. And in reverse man and his behavior are as illustrative of nature as is an atom or a solar system. There are not two worlds. Man, however, is not abased by being a piece of nature. Rather nature becomes, among other things, that which includes man with all his ways and byways…. In brief—nature is the kind of realm in which thinking goes on. Thinking is not a derivative from the eating of a tree of knowledge.”
The virtues that Ayn Rand identifies in her essay “The Objectivist Ethics” and elsewhere in the corpus of her writing all amount to standards by which one ought to choose to conduct oneself and strive to be as good a human individual as it is possible for one to be. This is the kind of ethical egoism that Rand identifies as the proper morality for human beings.
I do not wish to reiterate all the points about ethics Rand makes but I do wish to recall that she holds that we need morality or ethics because we are not equipped, as other living beings are, with hard-wiring or instincts that automatically guide us to be the best of our kind. We need the standards of a good or excellent human life spelled out, identified, and chosen as our guide to conduct. But the function of the virtues are akin to the function of instincts, namely, to point the way to living properly, living the best way possible to us. So while other animals would automatically pursue their self-interest or aid their follows, human beings must choose to do so, to be prudent as well as to be generous. That what makes their conduct morally significant, the choice they make to act as they do.
Let me end by making note of one very important aspect of the conception of human nature Ayn Rand’s Objectivist ethics embodies. This is our individuality. Yes, we share certain capacities and faculties with all other human beings but each of us is a unique individual. So the accurate determination of our good, the proper ways we ought to act and live, will have a great deal to do with not only what we are, namely, humans, but also with who we are—you, I, and all of us individually. So while the most basic standards of right conduct will be the same for us all—excepting crucially incapacitated people—their implementation will have to be adjusted to who we are in particular. In moral philosophy this point is of immense significance as it solves the problem of the one and the many as pertains to ethics, of pluralism and universalism. It also puts us on notice about how difficult it is to make moral judgments without detailed information about the agents whose conduct one is morally judging, and evaluating.
Ayn Rand was a revolutionary, yet she also stood on the shoulders of some great thinkers of the past—Aristotle comes to mind in metaphysics and epistemology, as well as meta-ethics, Locke in politics, and various free market theorists in economics. But it is as a philosopher, specifically as a moral thinker, that Ayn Rand has made her major contributions both in her fiction and in her non-fiction works. As she wrote: “The one alternative for humans and all living things is life and death. Matter and energy might change forms but life can be snuffed out. Each living thing has unique tools of survival. For plants, it’s photosynthesis. For animals, it’s instincts. For humans, it’s our rational capacity, our capacity for abstract, conceptual knowledge.”
But, reason does not operate automatically. We must choose (or will) to focus our minds.
Ethics is based on these facts of reality. Ethics tells us how to survive. But we must survive as humans or qua man, and thus human life is about flourishing. Thus the standard of value is life and, because we’re each individuals, the purpose or goal of our conduct should be our individual survival and flourishing.
Now some who find Rand of great interest claim that based on these facts the first moral act is to think or focus the mind, and the first act of evil is to refuse to think. But this is not what Rand believed. She thought that first one has to elect to live a human life. Once that choice is made, then to neglect to think rationally is to succumb to vice—a breach of the promise to live like a human being. Rand goes on to make clear that because we must produce the means of our survival, productivity is a virtue. Also self-esteem or pride is a virtue since our own good is the object of our actions. Thus in Atlas Shrugged the heroes are productive individuals, especially entrepreneurs.
Rand’s metaethics of objectivism contrasts with intrinsicism, usually seen in religions, and subjectivism. Intrinsicism means things are of value in themselves, outside of all context. Subjectivism means value is just a matter of opinion. Objectivism holds that the highest value for each of us is our human life, with our humanity and its proper needs as the standard by which we commit ourselves to act, to live our human lives.