Objectivism, the philosophy of the novelist and philosopher, Ayn Rand, is well known for advocating the pursuit of your own self-interest. Many people take this to mean that Ayn Rand thought that you should ignore the well-being of other people. But this is not what Ayn Rand thought, and this is not what Objectivism says. Objectivism holds that contributing to other people’s well-being can be in your self-interest, even if they are not involved in a monetary, business relationship with you. This potentially includes helping friends, lovers, children and even strangers.
Why did Ayn Rand hold this view? How is loving and helping others consistent with pure self-interest? These are questions that this article will answer.
Objectivism Rejects Materialism and “Range-of-the-Moment” Pleasure Seeking
In order to understand why Objectivism holds the position it does on helping other people, there are a couple of common misconceptions of “self-interest” that need to be rejected.
The first is that self-interest is materialistic: that is, that acting in a self-interested way means acting only to satisfy your physical needs, without concern for spiritual (i.e. mental or psychological) values.
But for human beings, “materialistic self-interest” is an absurd idea that Objectivism rejects. If self-interest were materialistic, then going to see any movie, no matter how good, entertaining, inspiring or emotionally powerful, would not be in your self-interest. You are no better off physically after seeing a movie than you were before, so there is no physical value to the movie. The same would go for video games, museums, roller coasters, Halloween parties, and all similar forms of entertainment. Instead of going out to eat with other people, you would always be best served eating a healthy and inexpensive meal at home. Sex would best be avoided, in favor of vigorous exercise, etc.
Clearly, there are many things that people can do that contribute to their own lives as human beings that do not directly improve their physical condition, but primarily improve their mental and/or emotional condition. Objectivism recognizes the part that spiritual values (pursuits) play in human life and human self-interest. As Ayn Rand wrote:
“You are an indivisible entity of matter and consciousness. Renounce your consciousness and you become a brute. Renounce your body and you become a fake. Renounce the material world and you surrender it to evil.”
–Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
Movies, music, games, entertainment and sex are valuable, self-interested pursuits to people, because they fulfill the needs of human consciousness, and an individual’s consciousness needs to be in good condition to create a rich, happy, and prosperous life for himself.
The second misconception of self-interest that must be overcome, is that self-interest consists essentially of the pleasure of the moment, without concern for long-term consequences. Again, Objectivism rejects this view, because your self is extended over time, existing for your entire lifetime. Actions that you take now can affect your well-being many years from now, and doing something that feels good in the moment can do great damage to your ability to achieve good things in life later. (As just one obvious example, think of heavy drug abuse.)
Objectivism takes the long-range nature of self-interest into consideration. It says that any pursuit of momentary pleasure must be evaluated for consistency with your long-range goals. It is only self-interested if it does not do damage to your rational, long-term goals.
“A rational man sees his interests in terms of a lifetime and selects his goals accordingly. This does not mean that he has to be omniscient, infallible or clairvoyant. It means that he does not live his life short-range and does not drift like a bum pushed by the spur of the moment. It means that he does not regard any moment as cut off from the context of the rest of his life, and that he allows no conflicts or contradictions between his short-range and long-range interests. He does not become his own destroyer by pursuing a desire today which wipes out all his values tomorrow.”
–Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness
Customers and Business Partners
People quite obviously benefit from other people with whom they trade. If a woman sells her homemade jam at a farmers’ market or online, she obviously benefits from the existence of people willing and able to pay for her product. It pays for her to be concerned with her customers’ needs, desires and interests, so that she can respond to them. She has put a lot of time and effort into building her business and building her customer base. Being concerned with her customers enables her to keep her business growing and thriving, making her more money with which to buy, not only the bare physical necessities of life, but also music, tickets to movies, gifts for her children, etc. Thus, her customers are important in her life and self-interest, at least to the extent that her business plays a role in supporting her life.
Similarly, in a free market, the interests of the customers of a corporation are important to the self-interest of all of those involved in the corporation. The long-term profitability of the corporation depends upon serving its customers, and the jobs of all who work there depend on its profitability. For the shareholders, obviously, the value of their shares also depends on the profitability of the company.
We can see that, especially in the less regulated sectors/eras of the US economy, businesses that effectively cater to their customers’ interests do better in the long term. Computers are constantly getting better and faster for their price, as customers demand; cars are getting safer and often have safety features not required by government regulations; and, in the late 1800s, Standard Oil reduced the price of kerosene from 58 cents per gallon to 7 cents per gallon, benefiting customers enormously by providing reliable light before the invention of the light bulb.
In the case of business partners, if they bring anything significant to your business in terms of skills, knowledge, industry insight, or management experience, it is clearly in your interests that they are healthy and doing well financially. Most businesses fail in the first few years, and your business is at much greater risk of failure without a good partner.
Friends and Lovers
When a person acquires virtues of character (i.e. is a good person) he or she becomes potentially valuable to others as a friend or lover. Friends and lovers are people who reflect your own values in some significant way and provide you with a number of benefits–especially of the dominantly spiritual/psychological variety.
Genuine friends are not only familiar with you, but also share and reflect some of your values and character traits. That is, they reflect part of what makes you who you are. Friends are a continuing source of inspiration, of interesting discussion, of fun, of humor, of moral support. Their company can greatly enrich many experiences, like movies, video games, museum trips, sports events, etc. They can alert you to new (or old) things you will like or value, such as music, movies, TV shows, college classes, even job opportunities. They can share your joys and help you put your problems in perspective. Since they know and understand you to some extent, they can sometimes give you good advice and potentially help you solve your problems.
Ayn Rand likened love and friendship to “spiritual trade”: Both partners put roughly equal time and effort into the relationship and get roughly equal benefits from each other. Both partners pursue the friendship out of mutual self-interest.
If you are putting time and effort into a friendship, giving benefits to the other person, while they aren’t doing the same, then your friendship becomes one-sided and a sacrifice for you to maintain. If you are always the one calling the other person, hosting him at your home, doing the vast majority of the talking in conversation, paying for the social activities, etc., while he doesn’t reciprocate, what good is the friendship to you? You get no spiritual benefits, and continuing in the one-sided friendship would be selfless: It would be self-sacrifice for someone who isn’t really a friend in the proper sense of the term.
In the case of a lover, all of the above discussion of friends applies, but added into the set of spiritual values gained from each other is deep sexual intimacy. This is a deeply pleasurable experience, and it requires a partner who is a reflection of oneself on a deeper level than casual friendships. Moral character is important in casual friendships, but it is especially important in very deep friendships and sexual relationships. Since you are pursuing the highest, most all-encompassing, most life-affirming pleasure with your partner and trusting her in close contact with your naked body, it’s very important that she be a good person and that she has a basic experience from sex that mirrors your own.
If, in sex, you experience a sense of your own self-worth, of your ability to accomplish great things in the world, of your ability to feel deep joy and pleasure, and you see sex as a clean, noble act with a good person for mutual spiritual elevation, then it will be a deeply alien and unsatisfying experience to have sex with a partner who sees sex as degrading, and demands that you spit in her face, cause her pain, call her a whore, and do “dirty, nasty” things to her.
As with friendships, deep love relationships involve a “spiritual trade,” but with greater emphasis at the level of fundamental moral character and one’s basic approach to life as a whole.
The symbol of all relationships among [rational] men, the moral symbol of respect for human beings, is the trader. We, who live by values, not by loot, are traders, both in matter and in spirit. A trader is a man who earns what he gets and does not give or take the undeserved. A trader does not ask to be paid for his failures, nor does he ask to be loved for his flaws.
–Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
Note here, when Rand says that a rational person does not ask to be loved for his flaws, she does not mean that you cannot rationally expect to be loved despite your flaws, (so long as they’re relatively minor.) She means that you cannot rationally expect to be loved because of your flaws, but only loved because of your virtues. Note also that the sort of “flaws” that Rand primarily means, (and that count against you in spiritual issues) are moral flaws: things that you chose to do that you knew on some level (or should have known) were morally wrong. Innocent errors of ignorance and psychological disorders are not moral flaws.
If you attempt to continue a love relationship with a partner who does not approximately mirror your virtues, whom you don’t respect as an equal, who does not appreciate your thoughts and viewpoints, or who does not respect you, you are sacrificing a big part of your life. Whether explicitly for the sake of the partner’s alleged “happiness,” or just out of emotionalism and self-delusion, you are engaged in spiritual self-sabotage. This is false “romantic love” as self-sacrifice, and you are missing out on the joy and fulfillment of real romantic love.
With all the benefits one gets from friends and lovers, it should be clear why it is typically in one’s self-interest to give some measure of help to a friend or lover who is in distress through no fault of his own.
Parents and Children
If loving one’s peers is a spiritual trade, loving one’s own children is a spiritual investment. A healthy would-be parent sees having a child as a future supplement to her happiness, not the creation of someone to sacrifice her happiness to. She puts a lot of time and effort into birthing and rearing her child, especially early on, and derives emotional pleasure from her child’s growth, development, and achievements. Part of this pleasure is vicarious, in that it reminds the woman of her own experiences as a child and reflects her experiences back to her in a clear, perceptual form, at a time when she is experienced and conceptually developed enough to more fully appreciate them. Part of the pleasure comes from the actualizing of her values in reality, by using her own mind and judgment to create the conditions that promote the healthy development of a valuable thing: a new, morally good human being. The woman can go beyond merely seeing an imitation of her own childhood, and use her own mind to design her child’s childhood, improving it from what hers was.
When the child is an infant, a great part of the parent’s love for him is for his potential: what he can (and will likely) become with the right parental care and education. As the child gradually matures into a good person, that love gradually becomes actualized: the parent can then love the child for his actual virtues and for the values he carries on from her. As an adult, the virtuous child becomes akin to a very good friend, having much the same sort of relationship with the parent that I discussed for friends. (1)
If the parent-to-be judges, as best she can, that she will be in a position to support a child, and that the pleasures she will get out of parenthood will be worth the time and effort she will need to put into it, then she has a self-interested reason to have a child. It is not then a self-sacrifice for her to put the time and effort into raising her child, but an investment that comes with deep and lasting benefits. It is perfectly moral, according to Objectivism.
If [a woman] wants a family and wants to make that her career, at least for a while, it would be proper—if she approaches it as a career, that is, if she studies the subject, if she defines the rules and principles by which she wants to bring up her children, if she approaches her task in an intellectual manner. It is a very responsible task and a very important one, but only when treated as a science, not as a mere emotional indulgence.
–Ayn Rand, Playboy Interview, 1964
If, however, the parent-to-be judges that having a child will ruin her financially, or will be predominantly drudgery, without sufficient emotional reward, then having a child is a genuine self-sacrifice, and Objectivism would say that it is immoral (self-destructive) to have a child at that time. If she doesn’t think about the consequences of having a child, but just has a baby out of irresponsibility, or on her whims, then she is a self-destructive emotionalist, and likewise immoral according to Objectivism.
From a young child’s standpoint, the benefits that a parent provides him are many and obvious.
When a child is old enough to act independently and make money, (teen to adult) and a parent did a good job of raising him, respected him, didn’t abuse him, etc., he has a self-interested reason to provide some measure of help, if the parent is in trouble through no fault of her own. The amount of help depends on the circumstances and the nature/closeness of the relationship he has with his parent. Such help is loyalty to his own values and promoting them in reality, in the form of another person, (his parent.) And if he has a close friend-like relationship with his parent, he has the same reasons as he would have for helping a friend.
For the purposes of rational self-interest, other family members are essentially like friends, (peers,) or like a mixture of friend and parent, (older family,) or like a mixture of friend and child (younger family.)
In this day and age, a fairly common reason that people offer for demanding that you do something for another person, is to do it “because he/she is family.” If you truly do something for someone else for the sheer fact that he’s family–that is, a blood relation or step relation of yours–then that is genuine self-sacrifice, irrational and immoral according to Objectivism. There is no good (self-interested) reason to help someone merely because he’s related to you by birth. Your essential self, as a human being, is not constituted by your physical DNA, nor the choices of your parents, but by your choices and character.
Now, if you know the individual in question, know he’s a good person, and could properly regard him as a friend, then there may be good reason to help him on that basis. But an appeal for self-sacrifice on the basis of a familial relationship is just as illegitimate as any other call for self-sacrifice, according to Objectivism.
One might initially think that Objectivism would say that strangers should be ignored and treated with utter indifference, but this is actually not the case. Virtually all of the friends, lovers and business partners you have–and even some of the family relations–start out as strangers. From that fact alone, strangers represent potential values for you.
Now, it’s true that strangers also represent potential disvalues–that is, potential enemies, manipulators, thieves, etc.–but in a free society where people are generally decent and honest, it is much more likely for any given stranger to become an ally, rather than an enemy. So, in such a context, it is rational and self-interested to treat strangers with respect, kindness, and (non-self-sacrificial) benevolence. Acts of kindness that do not sacrifice your greater interests can lead to lasting and beneficial social relationships. Even beyond that, good strangers are sources of indirect benefits to you. In a basically free society, they produce innovations, technology, products, wealth and spiritual values that–at least to a small extent–help you improve your own life.
So, for example, you might help a stranger jump-start his car, if you don’t have anywhere really important to be at that moment. But if helping him at that moment would make you late for a critical business meeting, your daughter’s birth, or to drop your child off at school, then helping the stranger would be a self-sacrifice.
Helping a drowning child, at the cost of getting your clothes wet and virtually no risk to your own health, is self-interested, since the act may result in new beneficial relationships, and it saves a human life that will likely produce indirect benefits for you. The child, simply by the fact of being a living, (presumably good) person in your society, reflects a part of your own life and self-interested values, thus generating an appropriate emotional response in a rational egoist: an empathetic desire to save him.
Self-interested charity can extend to people whom you don’t directly see, and be done for some of the same reasons you help directly-seen strangers: That good strangers are sources of indirect benefits to you. In a basically free society, they produce innovations, technology, products, wealth and spiritual values that–at least to a small extent–help you improve your own life. In helping them with a little bit of money that you won’t miss, you can promote the success of your values in the world. In the process, you underscore to yourself, not only your dedication to those values, but your own ability to produce an overabundance with which to support those values.
But if you put your life at significant risk for a stranger, or give more than you can afford to charity, or devote lots of time to helping strangers out of a sense of duty, or out of a desire to conform to altruist morality, then you are engaging in self-sacrifice, which is ignoble. You are wasting and draining your life by not acting to achieve positive values, according to your own best judgment.
My views on charity are very simple. I do not consider it a major virtue and, above all, I do not consider it a moral duty. There is nothing wrong in helping other people, if and when they are worthy of the help and you can afford to help them. I regard charity as a marginal issue. What I am fighting is the idea that charity is a moral duty and a primary virtue.
–Ayn Rand, Playboy Interview, 1964
As you can see, genuine self-interest is much more inclusive of benevolent social relationships than the materialist and “short-range-pleasure” misconceptions of it lead many people to think. These misconceptions are promoted because people accept the conventional but irrational morality of altruism (self-sacrifice).
Some people willfully promote the “straw man” versions of egoism, because they want to hide from themselves and others the ugly and destructive nature of what their morality really preaches. They set up a false dichotomy where the morality of altruism includes some good, life-promoting actions that actually belong to rational egoism, while the only alleged alternative is an irrational and destructive “selfishness” that leaves suffering in its wake.
Other people more innocently buy this altruist false dichotomy, because they have been taught from a very young age that the “higher,” spiritual values belong to morality, and morality, they have been taught, only consists of altruism. Thus, if one does not accept “morality,” (their morality of altruism,) one must not have any concern for the “higher,” spiritual values. But this is dead wrong: there is a viable alternative morality that includes spiritual values and principles.
Rational egoism, as Ayn Rand conceived it, encompasses both mind and body, and both short-term and long-term values. It very much takes into account the benefits that other people can have for your life as a total human being–that is, as a person who has spiritual needs, and is not a mindless zombie gobbling down material wealth and mere momentary pleasures.
I highly recommend that readers of this essay read Ayn Rand’s fiction and non-fiction works, as well as secondary works by Objectivist intellectuals. Especially relevant to the topic in this essay is Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness, Craig Biddle’s Loving Life, and Tara Smith’s Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics.
(1) If the child makes bad choices that lead him to become a truly bad person in adulthood, say a murderer or serial robber, then it would be irrational and morally wrong of a parent to continue to treat the child as someone worth valuing at all. It is only irrational denial and self-deception that would allow the parent to give “unconditional love” to this child.