Leitmotif

Reason as the Leading Motive

Selfishness

Posted by Jerry on November 4, 2007

There are times when I read or hear something and I am reminded again of just how radical the Objectivist philosophy is and how difficult it must be for someone new to the philosophy to get their head around it–it is a complete reversal of practically every fundamental premise that was considered moral for millenia–from judeo-christian ethics to Kantian duty ethics.

Just take one example. Objectivism identifies the fact that all ethics proper to man is essentially egoistic; that is, whatever is proper to man’s life qua man is in his interest and is therefore moral. However, the concepts of egoism and selfishness are so corrupted in our language and philosophy that it is seemingly impossible to understand how moral acts can be selfish.

Mainstream morality offers only one alternative: you either sacrifice your own interests for others or sacrifice the interests of others for yourself. Selfishness is defined as concern for the self at the expense of others, a vice; and selflessness is defined as concern for the other at the expense of the self, a virtue. And for some odd reason, people who are selfish are considered evil.

However, as Ayn Rand noted, this moral vocabulary permits no concept for a benevolent interaction among men which requires no sacrifice! One is either selfish or selfless, and both are defined in sacrificial terms. What is the moral concept identifying a relationship among individuals where no one is asked to be the sacrificial animal for the other? For this reason, Ayn Rand saw the imperative need to rescue the concept of selfishness from philosophical adulteration.

Properly, selfishness is concern with one’s own interest. It is the job of philosophy and ethics to define what those interests are, whether the interests of men clash, and whether the pursuit of those interests are a vice. In other words, it is the job of ethics to define the moral status of human goals and goal-directed actions, and identify a set of values and interests that are proper to man’s survival. Objectivism is a value-oriented philosophy: it points out that values presume beneficiaries and that the pursuit of a rational value is selfish, because it is a concern with one’s own interests.

After reading Roger Scruton’s article Altruism and Selfishness, I realized that the Objectivist virtue of selfishness is not an easy concept to grasp. Scruton gets it all wrong despite coming close to understanding the concept. He says:

Learning to love your neighbor as yourself is learning to take pleasure in the things that please him, as a mother takes pleasure in the pleasures of her child. To call this “selfishness” is to abuse the language. A selfish act is one directed at the self; an unselfish act is one directed at others. And the truly unselfish person is the one who wants to perform unselfish acts, who takes pleasure in giving, and who enjoys the prospect of another’s success. This is not, as Rand would have us believe, just another form of selfishness. It is an altogether higher motive, one in which the other has replaced the self as the object of concern.

Notice how Scruton succumbs to mainstream altruist vocabulary by divorcing a mother’s love for her child from her own interest or the love one has for a neighbor from one’s own pleasure; he wants to insist that any love a mother has for a child is purely selfless. In effect, the argument is that the child is not a value to his mother. To pursue values eagerly is to be selfish, and were the child a value to his mother, then the mother would be selfish. 

Scruton divorces the concept of life from objectivity, the concept of objectivity from values, and the concept of value from self.

Scruton ignores the fact that life offers the concept of objectivity, that values are objective, and that rational selfishness involves the pursuit of rational values. For Scruton, selfish actions are only those that are directed toward the self. This sort of definition completely ignores the issue of whether those actions which are directed toward the self are indeed objectively proper and rational actions or not; that is, are those actions truly in one’s objective self-interest or are they self-destructive even though you might derive pleasure from those actions.

Scruton also argues that wanting to love someone or taking pleasure in giving is not selfish. Here again he does not address whether the object of our love or generosity is someone whom we value or it does not matter who this person is. The value-oriented or goal-directed nature of human action and human life is ignored completely.

For Scruton, the goal of our pursuit does not matter so long as the action is directed at someone else: if we love someone else, then we are selfless.

By this line of argument, he not only divorces values from actions but also equivocates any random, hedonistic, promiscuous, irrational acts of self-indulgence with selfishness even if it might actually be a self-distructive behavior.

If selfishness is properly the concern for oneself, then self-destructive hedonism and self-indulgence should be the epitome of selfless acts, i.e., acts done with no concern or regard for one’s self and well-being. In other words, it should be clear that pleasure is the not the standard of moral evaluation: merely wanting to love someone or wanting to be generous is not the standard by which we decide whether our actions are selfish or selfess, moral or immoral.

[Related post: Morality in the Jungle]

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6 Responses to “Selfishness”

  1. amelo14 said

    Great post. Indeed one has to try to rescue ethics from a purely sacrificial stance. However I would ask one thing, that is, if I have understood the complexities of your post: how does objectivism, in your sense of the term, see the connection between the citizen and the political community to which he belongs?

    Andrés

  2. Mike N said

    Good essay. Morality needs to be shed of the concept of selfishness. To look at all forms of life, one sees that every individual plant and animal acts in a self-interested way. It is only man who is forbidden this behavior, and there is no reason for it.

  3. Ergo said

    Craig Biddle of the “Principles in Practice” blog writes his response to the same article by Scruton. Check it out.

  4. Rohan Venkat said

    In fact, I would love to read a good article (or certainly a book, as the subject has lots to offer) on how the majority of human society has come to today consider selfishness, which is the very thing that defines human motives/humanity, a vice.

    One of the misconceptions that many not-quite-objectivists make when trying to explain why selfishness isn’t a bad thing, is that they themselves follow the standard idea that selfishness has to be linked to money or societal success. Selfish motives can be related to simpler things like efficiency (hence the creation of societies, to put it simply) and the feeling of having done good deeds (hence the existence of ‘altruists’ in our non-objectivist society)

  5. [...] on a personal evaluation of worth.  But acting in accordance with one’s personal values is a SELFISH act.  Choosing to help your friend over a stranger is a selfish act.  Choosing to save the life [...]

  6. [...] on a personal evaluation of worth. But acting in accordance with one’s personal values is a SELFISH act. Choosing to help your friend over a stranger is a selfish act. Choosing to save the life of [...]

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