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 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.
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 others 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.)
A False Implication of Causation
So it’s illegitimate to have, as your only concept of self-interest, one that implies materialism and/or harm to others. But what if we are careful to distinguish between “self-interest”–which carries no implication of materialism–from “selfishness”–which is “self-interest pursued in a short-sighted or materialistic way”? Is it then legitimate to use “selfishness” for that meaning?
No, it’s not. The very fact that you are using any single term to mean both “self-interested” and “materialistic,” implies that there is some kind of logical or causal connection between the two. (This is especially true if you have no single term to mean the combination of self-sacrificial and materialistic.) But there is no such connection. People can be materialistic and attempt to be self-interested, or they can be materialistic and attempt to sacrifice themselves for others, (like many on the political Left.) Materialism about people’s interests is entirely separate from a person’s orientation to self-interest or self-sacrifice. So materialism must remain a separate term from any meaning “self-interest.”
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 emotionalism.
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.
[Edited: 2-7-17: Added section “A False Implication of Causation.”]