The Virtue of Selfishness is a collection of essays regarding the topic of individual rights, ethics, values, and the subtly corrosive effect that altruism and collectivism have. What is especially remarkable about this book is her superior use of logic. The Virtue of Selfishness is not an emotional appeal to get you to believe in her cause; it is a thoroughly argued, brilliantly reasoned argument for liberty and individual rights. Although Rand has been received an equal amount of criticism as she has received praise, it is rare to find one such detractor who dares challenge her logic.
“In popular usage, the word “selfishness” is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment.
Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word “selfishness” is: concern with one’s own interests.
This concept does not include a moral evaluation” (vii)
A common fallacy is substituting a particular concrete – the ethics of altruism – for the wider abstract class to which it belongs – the entire field of ethics. Not only is this confusing for those who practice ethics, but even worse, it discourages many others from having any standard of ethics. Rand states this the best:
The first thing (man) learns is that morality is his enemy; he has nothing to gain from it, he can only lose; self-inflicted loss, self-inflicted pain and the gray, debilitating pall of an incomprehensible duty is all that he can expect. (viii-ix)
Altruist ethics imply that there is no moral difference between an industrialist who makes a fortune for himself and a common robber. Rand explains the “fundamental moral difference”:
The evil of a robber does not lie in the fact that he pursues his own interests, but in what he regards as his own interests; not in the fact that he pursues his values, but in what he chose to value (ix)
The pervasive influence of altruism also has profound psychological consequences, as Rand illustrates:
If you wonder about the reasons behind the ugly mixture of cynicism and guilt which most (people) spend their lives, these are the reasons: cynicism, because they neither practice nor accept the altruist morality – guilt, because they dare not reject it. (x)
However, the other side of the coin is not right either. “Nietzschean egoists”, as Rand refers to them, believe that regardless of nature, any action intended for one’s own benefit is good. What they fail to recognize is that morality is not defined by the beneficiary of one’s actions, but rather, the rationality of one’s actions.
Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy is about rational self-interest, not simply one’s self-interest.
Altruism, however, makes no distinction between the man who is primarily concerned with his rational self-interest and the hedonistic brute.