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Notes on The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand

Chapter Summary of Ayn Rand's The Virtue of Selfishness
Page numbers in parentheses.
(December 20, 1999)

Introduction, by Ayn Rand

Altruism holds that any concern with one's own interest is evil. Whereas selfishness cares more about the values than it does about the beneficiary, altruism cares more about the beneficiary of values than it cares about the values itself. Altruists may do things for the sake of others that aren't truly helpful (for example, consider a genocidal dictator who claims to act on behalf of the people) and thus, altruism creates injustice. Under this moral system, morality is a personal loss unless by good fortune someone else decides to be moral towards you. This system brings "mutual resentment." "Since nature does not provide man with an automatic form of survival, since he has to support his life by his own effort, the doctrine that concern with one's own interests is evil means that man's desire to live is evil--that man's life, as such, is evil. No doctrine could be more evil than that. Yet that is the meaning of altruism..." (ix) Her idea of selfishness doesn't mean merely controlling or benefitting from one's actions; the action must refer to a demonstrable principle.

1. The Objectivist Ethics, by Ayn Rand

"Ethics, as a science, deals with discovering and defining such a code [of values to guide man's choices]." (13) First: why we need ethics at all. No one has ever explained why ethics matter, why certain things are good, besides that good people do them--and that's dangerous, because we don't know who's a good role model. We must first ask if ethics are a cultural, irrational, human invention, or a metaphysical, unalterable reality. "Whatever else they may disagree about, today's moralists agree that ethics is a subjective issue and that the three things barred from its field are: reason--mind--reality. If you wonder why the world is now collapsing to a lower and ever lower rung of hell, this is the reason. If you want to save civilization, it is this premise of modern ethics--and of all ethical history--that you must challenge." (15) "'Value' is that which one acts to gain and/or keep." (15) "[Value] presupposes an answer to the question: of value to whom and for what?" (15) Life makes the concept of value possible. Only a living, changing organism can have values: the preservation of life. Value is determined by the kind of entity it is. "The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do. So much for the issue of the relation between "is" and "ought"." (17) By our nature, we experience pleasure or pain. We have no choice about this condition and no choice in what makes us feel pleasure or pain. Because we are not automatically self-sustaining like plants, we need consciousness to survive. Our consciousness tells us what's good for us where our senses don't automatically tell us. Man has abstract concepts which can be organized through reason, widened, and thus obtain unlimited knowledge. Reason is exercised by choice. You must focus. When you are unfocused, you have sense perceptions, but you are only subhumanly conscious. Man "has to discover the rules of thought, the laws of logic." (21-2) The penalty of unconsciousness is destruction. "Ethics is not a mystic fantasy--nor a social convention--nor a dispensable, subjective luxury, to be switched or discarded in any emergency. Ethics is an objective, metaphysical necessity of man's survival-- not by the grace of the supernatural nor of your neighbors nor of your whims, but by the grace of reality and the nature of life." (23) The Objectivist values are: Reason, Purpose, Self-Esteem. The Objectivist virtues are: Rationality, Productiveness, Pride. There may be a difference between "selfish" pursuit of one's own whims and "selfless" pursuit of other's whims, but in any case, both are undesirable because they're both whims! "The moral cannibalism of all hedonist and altruist doctrines lies in the premise that the happiness of one man necessitates the injury of another. Today, most people hold this premise as an absolute not to be questioned. And when one speaks of man's right to exist for his own sake, for his own rational self-interest, most people assume automatically that this means his right to sacrifice others. Such an assumption is a confession of their own belief that to injure, enslave, rob or murder others is in man's self-interest--which he must selflessly renounce. The idea that man's self-interest can be served only by a non-sacrificial relationship with others has never occurred to those humanitarian apostles of unselfishness, who proclaim their desire to achieve the brotherhood of men. And it will not occur to them, or to anyone, so long as the concept "rational" is omitted from the context of "values," "desires," "self-interest" and ethics." (30-31) "The principle of trade is justice." (31) People should earn what they get, not take it undeserved, and not give anything to anyone else who is undeserving. "To love is to value. ... The man who does not value himself cannot value anythign or anyone." (32)

2. Mental Health versus Mysticism and Self-Sacrifice, by Nathaniel Branden

"The proper function of consciousness is: perception, cognition, and the control of action." (36) A self-contradicting consciousness or a consciousness dissociated from reality is unhealthy. You need self-esteem to deal with reality. Anxiety and guilt paralyze you and distort your values. If you have "faith," you undercut the absolutism of reality, and consequently you undercut the absolutism of your consciousness, and consequently you cannot trust yourself, and your mind becomes a tool of distortion. The need for self-esteem entails the need for a sense of control over reality. "There is only one reality--the reality knowable to reason." (38) Self-sacrifice can only mean mind-sacrifice. All values exist in a hierarchy. Traditional moralists defend themselves by saying their morality is not suicidal because most people are hypocrites, not strong enough to go to extremes, and will occasioanlly act in their self-interest. This ruins people's self-esteem, it makes them feel guilty for their selfish desires, and that guilt destroys their lives and incapacitates them. Science does have a responsibility to promote values.

3. The Ethics of Emergencies, by Ayn Rand

Love and friendship are profoundly personal, selfish values: love is an expression and assertion of self-esteem, a response to one's own values in the person of another. One gains a profoundly personal, selfish joy from the mere existence of the person one loves. It is one's own personal, selfish happiness that one seeks, earns and derives from love.

A "selfless," "disinterested" love is a contradiction in terms: it means that one is indifferent to that which one values.

Concern for the welfare of those one loves is a rational part of one's selfish interests. If a man who is passionately in love with his wife spends a fortune to cure her of a dangerous illness, it would be absurd to claim that he does it as a "sacrifice" for her sake, not his own, and that it makes no difference to him, personally and selfishly, whether she lives or dies. (44-45)

If you have the choice either to save one person you care about or to save ten people you don't care about, you should save the one you love--the other option is a waste of your effort and a self-sacrifice. If you saw the one you love, you personally benefit from doing so. Other people can be of value to you because they are capable of practicing the same virtues. But you do not see them as interchangeable with your own life. Your life is the source of your values and even your capacity to value. When you value others, it is an extension of valuing yourself. It is species solidarity. You should volunteer to help strangers in an emergency simply because you value human life and do not wish to see it destroyed. However, you should not risk your own life to do so and you should not feel compelled to seek out emergency situations. In normal, non-emergency conditions, you should not volunteer to help people out of "poverty, ignorance, neurosis or whatever other troubles they might have." For: "Illness and poverty are not metaphysical emergencies." You may choose to help an ill man, if it is within your means. But don't feel compelled to subordinate your goals to his. Altruism assumes a "malevolent universe" metaphysics; it assumes that our goal is to combat disaster. Given the situation of two men in a lifeboat that can only hold one man, "The fact is that men do not live in lifeboats--and that a lifeboat is not the place on which to base one's metaphysics." Of the right moral conduct during an emergency situation: "...any help he gives is an exception, not a rule, an act of generosity, not of moral duty, that it is marginal and incidental..." (49)

4. The "Conflicts" of Men's Interests, by Ayn Rand

"To claim that a man's interests are sacrificed whenever a desire of hisis frustrated--is to hold a subjectivist view of ethics." (50) Desires, feelings, emotions, wishes, and whims are not valid standards of value or criterion of interests. "Subjectivist" here is defined as one who believes "that it is proper, moral and possible for man to achieve his goals, regardless of whether they contradict the facts of reality or not." A rational man should desire something because it is right, and subordinate his whims to his reason. A rational man sees each moment in the context of the rest of his life. All goals must be pursued directly or indirectly by his own effort (the "indirectly" is through means of trade). If you say that a goal will be achieved "somehow," you really mean that you're counting on someone else, and the only person you should count on is yourself.

5. Isn't Everyone Selfish?, by Nathaniel Branden

"Some variety of this question is often raised as an objection to those who advocate an ethics of rational self-interest. For example, it is sometimes claimed: 'Everyone does what he really wants to do--otherwise, he wouldn't do it.' Or: 'No one ever really sacrifices himself. Since every purposeful action is motivated by some value or goal that the actor desires, one always acts selfishly, whether one knows it or not.'" (57) Egoism is the doctrine that man is an end in himself. Altruism is the doctrine that man is a means to the ends of others. If you die for someone else because life without them would be unbearable, or if you risk death for your own freedom, this is not self-sacrifice. Even if you feel it is a sacrifice, rationally, it is not, because you are doing it for your own benefit. "Just as feelings are not a tool of cognition, so they are not a criterion in ethics." (59) "Obviously, in order to act, one has to be moved by some personal motive; one has to 'want,' in some sense, to perform the action. The issue of an action's selfishness or unselfishness depends, not on whether or not one wants to perform it, but on why one wants to perform it. By what standard was the action chosen? To achieve what goal?" (59) "Emotions and desires are not causeless, irreducible primaries. They are the product of the premises one has accepted." (60) "The basic fallacy in the 'everyone is selfish' argument consists of an extraordinarily crude equivocation. It is a psychological truism--a tautology--that all purposeful behavior is motivated. But to equate 'motivated beahvior' with 'selfish behavior' is to blank out the distinction between an elementary fact of human psychology and the phenomenon of ethical choice. It is to evade the central problem of ethics, namely: by what is man to be motivated?" (60)

6. The Psychology of Pleasure, by Nathaniel Branden

"Man's emotional mechanism is like an electronic computer: man has the power to program it, but no power to change its nature--so that if he sets the wrong programming, he will not be able to escape the fact that the most self-destructive desires will have, for him, the emotional intensity nad urgency of lifesaving actions. He has, of course, the power to change the programming--but only by changing his values." (62) There are five areas of enjoyment: productive work, human relationships, recreation, art, and sex. "Productive work is the most fundamental of these: through his work man gains his basic sense of control over existence--his sense of efficacy--which is the necessary foundation of the ability to enjoy any other value. The man whose life lacks direction or purpose, the man who has no creative goal, necessarily feels helpless and out of control; the man who feels helpless and out of control, feels inadequate to and unfit for existence; and the man who feels unfit for existence is incapable of enjoying it." (62) "For the rational, psychologically healthy man, the desire for pleasure is the desire to celebrate his control over reality. For the neurotic, the desire for pleasure is the desire to escape from reality." (64) "Vegetative" pleasures are boring, safe, predictable. "Demanding" pleasures demand the use of one's mind, which means, at a bare minimum, awareness. "Paradoxically, it is the so-called pleasure-chasers--the men who seemingly live for nothing but the sensation of the moment, who are concerned only with having 'a good time'--who are psychologically incapable of enjoying pleasure as an end in itself. The neurotic pleasure-chaser imagines that, by going through the motions of a celebration, he will be able to make himself feel that he has something to celebrate." (66)

7. Doesn't Life Require Compromise?, by Ayn Rand

You compromise on particulars such as the price of a good. But you can't compromise opposite ends of a dichotomy, such as life or death, autonomy or slavery, because a compromise between those makes no sense. To most people, compromise means betrayal of one's principles. This is ethical subjectivism and "it is not hard to see who would profit and who would lose by such a doctrine." The literal meaning of "Doesn't life require compromise?" is "Doesn't life require the surrender of that which is true and good to that which is false and evil?"

8. How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society?, by Ayn Rand

Always pronounce moral judgment. "A man is to be judged by the judgments he pronounces. The things which he condemns or extols exist in objective reality and are open to the independent appraisal of others. It is his own moral character and standards that he reveals, when he blames or praises." (72) Jesus' injunction "Judge not, that ye be not judged" is really a "moral blank check one gives to others in exchange for a moral blank check one expects for onself." (72) If you don't condemn bad people, you are an accessory to their crimes. If your own values are attacked and denounced, you must offer a full, clear, verbal defense of your stance. Moral cowards make an irrational, paralyzed society.

9. The Cult of Moral Grayness, by Ayn Rand

It's all right to make a mistake when you judge. What's not all right is to refuse to judge, or to judge against a standard that is untenable (such as altruism). Because man has freewill, no generalizations are possible. Anyone can break the pattern. People say, "There's no black and white" because they're unwilling to be good. They're afraid of being judged as bad. People think that it is immoral to identify a moral code, which makes no sense. When compromise is your standard, your virtue is the number of values you're willing to betray.

10. Collectivized Ethics, by Ayn Rand

The question, "What will happen to the poor and handicapped?" assumes that something should be done. Actually, the choice is up to you. Altruists devise plans for "the good of mankind" or "society" but ignore actual people. People should not have to sacrifice themselves for others and no one has the right to suggest that. A health insurance project such as Medicare ruins the lives of the doctors forced to provide it. Medicare is morally equivalent to a bank robber who kills two guards to get what he wants. Capitalism is the only system that allows for progress.

11. The Monument Builders, by Ayn Rand

Socialism is the denial of individual property rights and the government control of production and distribution. It is driven by intellectuals who are driven by power-lust, or prestige, the desire for unearned greatness. Any concept of public interest means that some people's interests are subordinated to others, a situation which can only be maintained through physical force. Building monuments with public funds is bad. America is great because we have beautiful, functional buildings that are all privatized. As for people in the slums, they lead a life of luxury compared to the lower classes in ancient times and in other countries, and that's because of capitalism. There is no such dichotomy of human rights and property rights. The former can't exist without the latter. If a producer does not own the results of his effort, which directly or indirectly sustains his life, then he does not own his life. If you deny property rights, then men become property owned by the state.

12. Man's Rights, by Ayn Rand

A free society is a capitalist society. Altruist/collectivist societies listen first to divinity, if any, and then to "society." They place divinity/society above moral law, so these are amoral societies. There is only one fundamental right: a man's right to his own life. "Right" pertains only to action, hence, the right to property means the right to practice life-sustaining actions on that property. If you give people what they do not deserve, others are enslaved. They do not say this explicitly but it is a consequence. Some people claim that if you don't sponsor someone else's views, you practice "censorship"--they are claiming they have a right to make you spend your money according to their wishes! It is wrong to federally subsize art. By definition, only a government can practice censorship. Conclusion: "Those who advocate laissez-faire capitalism are the only advocates of man's rights."

13. Collectivized "Rights," by Ayn Rand

"What subjectivism is in the realm of ethics, collectivism is in the realm of politics. Just as the notion that "Anything I do is right because I chose to do it," is not a moral principle, but a negation of morality--so the notion that "Anything society does is right because society chose to do it," is not a moral principle, but a negation of moral principles and the banishment of morality from social issues." (101) Whether by force or by vote, you can't eradicate a right. "There is no such thing as 'the right to enslave.' A nation can do it, just as a man can become a criminal--but neither can do it by right." (104)

14. The Nature of Government, by Ayn Rand

We need a government to enforce rules. Men gain enormous benefits from dealing with each other. In social existence they gain knowledge and trade. But they must first acecpt the principle of individual rights. It is a moral imperative to retaliate against those who initiate physical force. Otherwise you reward evil. Now, if the government didn't organize itself into protective forces, individuals would have to fearfully protect themselves. We'd have chaos. People would be prone to family feuds, arbitrary punishments, and lynch mobs if they didn't have a court system that objectively observed the evidence. "A government is the means of placing the retaliatory use of physical force under objective control--i.e., under objectively defined laws." (109) "Under a proper social system, a private individual is legally free to take any action he pleases (so long as he does not violate the rights of others), while a government official is bound by law in his every official act. A private individual may do anything except that which is legally forbidden; a government offical may do nothing except that which is legally permitted." (109-110) The reverse situation, where the government is free and the citizens must receive special permission to act, is a rule by brute force. The proper functions of the government are: police, armed services, and law courts. The courts serve in part to mediate capitalist disagreements.

15. Government Financing in a Free Society, by Ayn Rand

In a fully free society, taxation would be voluntary. [I don't understand the topic well enough to find this chapter interesting or easily comprehensible. It's basically a lot of speculation of how taxation could be.]

16. The Divine Right of Stagnation, by Nathaniel Branden

Life is motion. Inactivity is death. Reason places man above animals; reason is man's survival tool; man transforms his environment through reason and consequently his productive work. Our need of thought and effort never ends. We just raise the bar higher. "Constant growth is, further, a psychological need of man. It is a condition of his mental well-being. His mental well-being requires that he possess a firm sense of control over reality, of control over his existence--the conviction that he is competent to live. And this requires, not omniscience or omnipotence, but the knowledge that one's methods of dealing with reality--the principles by which one functions--are right. Passivity is incompatible with this state. Self-esteem is not a value that, once achieved, is maintained automatically thereafter; like every other human value, including life itself, it can be maintained only by action. Self-esteem, the basic conviction that one is competent to live, can be maintained only so long as one is engaged in a process of growth, only so long as one is committed to the task of increasing one's efficacy. In living entities, nature does not permit stillness; when one ceases to grow, one proceeds to disintegrate--in the mental realm no less than in the physical." (122) Capitalism leaves men free to act, rewards their effort and penalizes their passivity. "Medievalists and socialists" want to guarantee a Gardne of Eden in which you get what you don't deserve. Nature, on the other hand, does not owe you security for the future. Capitalism demands action, just as reality does.

17. Racism, by Ayn Rand

Racism, claiming that the content of a man's mind is determined by his ancestors, is a doctrine for brutes. Theories of "bad blood" and "good blood" in relation to morality and intellect, lead to bloodshed in practice. The reason this happens is that men who "regard themselvs as mindless aggregates of chemicals" are only capable of brute force. "Just as there is no such thing as a collective or racial mind, so there is no such thing as a collective or racial achievement." (127) "Racism has only one psychological root: the racist's sense of his own inferiority." (127) It is "a quest for automatic self-esteem." (128) The only antidote to racism is the philosophy of individualism and laissez-faire capitalism. "No political system can establish universal rationality by law (or by force). But capitalism is the only system that functions in a way which rewards rationality and penalizes all forms of irrationality, including racism." (129) Capitalism abolished serfdom and slavery. Affirmative action is reverse racism.

18. Counterfeit Individualism, by Nathaniel Branden

Individualism "is an objective requirement of man's proper survival." People who refuse to sacrifice themselves do not necessarily intend to sacrifice others. The individualist is a man of reason and knowledge. Individualism is not merely a rejection of the conformity that says "It's true because other's believe it." Individualism declares more than "It's true because I believe it." You have to see the reason why it's true. Otherwise, you're just a rebellious or psychotic nonconformist, not an individualist.

19. The Argument from Intimidation, by Ayn Rand

The argument from intimidation is not an argument at all, but a fallacy. It is like the ad hominem fallacy in which you attack the character, e.g. "Candidate X is immoral, therefore his argument is false." The argument from intimidation uses more psychological pressure. "Only the immoral can fail to see that Candidate X's argument is false." Classic example is the story "The Emperor's New Clothes." Similar incidents occur when the public tries to admire nonobjective art, and everyone praises the ugly mess. Primordial archetype of this argument is "To those who understand, no explanation is necessary; to those who don't, none is possible." It originates from social metaphysics--regarding other people's consciousness as superior to objective reality and to one's own consciousness. Thus disapproval of others seems worse than denying one's own knowledge. The argument is a "symptom of cultural bankruptcy" and can only be resisted by "moral certainty." Use truth and falsehood, not approval or disapproval, as your criterion of judgment. Expect that your "enemy" in the "intellectual battle" will disagree with you. The argument from intimidation is like "hit-and-run" driving; you give a moral judgment without preceding it with an intellectual argument. It is not enough to be right. You have to know why you are right.

Bertrand Russell "What I Believe" (written 1925; cited as evidence in the 1940 hearings that he was unfit to teach at City College of New York)

I read this December 24,1999, a couple days after I read Rand's The Virtue of Selfishness. Both authors start out from the same premises but I think Russell fares much better.

* Space is finite. Science will eventually discover everything. We'll need new mysteries. * Religion arises from fear of nature. Belief in God and immortality is pleasant and assuages fear of death. The belief that soul and body are separate is a "metaphysical superstition." The metaphysical arguments that the soul is immortal also seem to prove that the soul pervades all space, an implication which is ignored because people "are not so anxious to be fat as to live long."
* Instead of the illusory antithesis between mind and matter, we should focus on the antithesis between what we can and can't change. Death is a good example of something we can't change. Religion dwells on things we can't change and postulates an omnipotent God who is on our side to indirectly make us feel more powerful. However, this approach does nothing but attempt to dignify our fears.
* Teleologies such as optimism, pessimism, vitalism, and evolutionism attempt to impose a cosmic significance on facts which are interesting to us.
* The good life is inspired by love and guided by knowledge. It can only be found in community. It requires the dissemination of knowledge, economic trade, etc. If you think you are autonomous, you are misleading yourself and you fail to realize how much your welfare depends on other people. Conscience is not sufficient to seek the good life because one's conscience is based on whatever one was taught during childhood. You need knowledge and self-control, not passion. Bondage to routine is bad.
* Regardless of whether revolution is ever politically necessary, there are no shortcuts to the good life. We must be good people first. Malevolence is the worst feature of human nature; it probably has more to do with war than all the economic and political causes put together. Half of conventional morality is a cloak for our malevolence.
* Principled love seems ungenuine. Love is an emotion.
* Love moves between "pure delight in contemplation" and "pure benevolence." The former is primarily for inanimate objects and for strong, powerful people who wish to be adored; the latter is especially for those who wish to be nurtured or to have relationships.
* It is a natural, animal instinct not to feel compete benevolence towards rivals, especially sexual rivals. We demand secure possession of the beloved. This makes life more interesting. However, he also says that "jealousy and possessiveness kill love."
* A few ascetics enrich a community but we wouldn't want everyone in the world to be that way.
* We compromise between delight and benevolence without surrendering either. There are limits of how much we can surrender.
* Legislators can alter people's desires with incentives. If a legislator has "bad" desires, that is only to say that his desires conflict with those of the community.
* Harmful actions are caused by ignorance and bad desires, which, socially defined, are "those which tend to thwart the desires of others, or, more exactly, those which thwart more desires than they assist."
* Prudence--planning for what you will desire tomorrow--is a necessary part of morality. It's important to teach it to children. Wars are acts of passion, not reason, and could be prevented. Prudence only appeals to self-interest and hence raises no controversy.
* Laws or rules are important. There are two types: criminal law, social censure, or the like; and changing men's character and desires, turning them away from hate and towards love.
* "Virtue" and "sin" have no scientific justification. Moral rules originate from superstition. Superstition is oppressive and discourages free thought; currently, it has more hold in our society than does utilitarianism.
* Sex should be allowed between consenting individuals, regardless of marital status or reproductive intentions. Pregnancy should only be attempted with the serious, responsible intention to raise a baby.
* Punishment, and the "moral indignation" that provokes the desire to punish, is a form of cruelty. It is not necessary to punish criminals. It is better to prevent crime with love, education, and support.
* Individualism is a defect of traditional religion and morality. Although early religion demanded that people were "subject to an alien despotism" (namely God), the more recent Protestant, individualistic emphasis on finding salvation is an "aristocratic ideal." We need an idea of social welfare rather than individual welfare.
* " an essentially social conception." It is the recognition of the equal claims of all human beings. Justice alone gives security.
* Moralists try to change people's behavior. They claim to practice "moral exhortation" but this amounts to "economic rewards and punishments." For example, in criminalizing prostitution, moralists have caused prostitution to be more dangerous. The scientific moralist must combat fear, which is irrational and doesn't prevent misfortune.
* The world is a stage of life-and death competition, but we don't always have to look through that lens. For example, the welfare of nations doesn't have to be competitive. Envious? Increase your efforts, don't ruin someone else's.
* Nature per se is neither ethically good nor bad, but nature and science can be used wisely to serve good ends. "Nature, even human nature, will cease more and more to be an absolute datum; more and more it will become what scientific manipulation has made it." Technology is never "unnatural," just new; however, we should be cautious.

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