QuickPoint 6: Psychological Egoism is False — Not Everyone is Selfish

The Virtue of SelfishnessAyn Rand properly recognized that people do not necessarily act in their own self-interest. There is a difference between having a psychological motive to act in a certain way and a self-interested reason to act in a certain way.

Having a psychological motive can simply mean having a subjective whim, and an action taken on this basis can be very damaging to oneself (and so, not self-interested.) There is also self-sacrifice out of a desire to “be good,” i.e. to follow the duties of an irrational morality.

(Imagine a young woman who has the passion and ability to become a great artist. She wants to become an artist, has ideas for great paintings, and being an artist would be her means to a happy, flourishing life. But she accepts the morality of altruism, and she is convinced that, rather than going to a top art school, it is her duty as a “privileged American” to devote her life to saving Third-World children. This is not self-interested, just because she wants to save Third-World children out of a sense of moral duty. Nor is it self-interested just because she may get some pleasure out of “being moral”–at first.)

Given one’s basic nature, situation, experiences, abilities and psychological makeup, one’s own self-interest is objective, not a matter of one’s momentary whims. Any pleasures one pursues must be consistent with one’s overall, long-term well-being–both physical and mental–to be moral.

Those who refuse to think and continually subvert their own minds are not selfish. They need their minds–their ability to reason–to achieve any positive thing they value. What can they achieve without reason? In principle, only their own destruction, and, to the extent they use force, that of others.


Related Posts:

Atlas Shrugged, Altruism and Egoism

Why a Proper Ethics is Not a Set of Social Rules, But a Complete Way of Life

Values Are Relational But Not Subjective

QuickPoint 1: Thinking is Individual

Human Emotions are the Products of Beliefs and Subconscious Value Judgments

Capitalism: Individual Rights vs. “The Common Good” — Full Version

Note: This is an expanded version of my entry for the “What is Capitalism?” essay contest on Ayn Rand Institute Campus. The essay prompt was: “Why does Ayn Rand argue that the moral justification of capitalism does not lie in the claim that it is the best way to achieve the ‘common good’?” The maximum length for the essay was a mere 800 words, so I had to heavily edit my original draft for submission, (already brief at just over 1,000 words.) Here, I’m able post the essay without that length constraint. For the 799-word version, click here.


Adam Smith

Ever since the Enlightenment, there have been many attempts to justify capitalism–or a quasi-capitalist mixed economy—on the basis of its being the best way to achieve “the common good,” or “the public good.” For example, Adam Smith wrote that “By pursuing his own interest [a man] frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.” Thus he implied that the public good is a valid concept and consideration. (1) According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Jeremy Bentham thought that “[Rights] ought to be made because of their conduciveness to ‘the general mass of felicity,’ and correlatively, when their abolition would be to the advantage of society, rights ought to be abolished.”

More common among modern conservatives and the moderate left, is the statement that regulated quasi-capitalism is “practical.” This statement is generally made without answers to the question: Practical for whom and to what end? The implied answer seems to be: For everyone and to any end. So this claim of practicality can be taken as an implied appeal to “the common good” as justification.

Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand

But Ayn Rand justified pure, laissez-faire capitalism on different grounds. She rejected “the common good” as an invalid, collectivist notion, and instead held that capitalism rests upon the principle of individual rights. This principle, in turn, rests upon the morality of rational egoism, which rests on the nature of man. Thus, the justification for capitalism as the proper governmental system for man starts with the nature of man as a living organism.

Continue reading