Ayn Rand on Virtue of Selfishness

“I am a man who does not exist for others”, Ayn Rand in ‘The Fountainhead’.  This quote by the protagonist Howard Roark aptly explains the view of Ayn Rand of selfishness.  She terms selfishness as a virtue of selfishness.

Who is Ayn Rand?

‘The Fountainhead’ is one of the well-known and the first successful book of Ayn Rand.  She was a Russian-born American novelist who discussed the pathbreaking philosophical branch called Objectivism.

Objectivism celebrated the concept of man as a heroic being, with his happiness as the moral purpose of his life.  The productive achievement was the noblest activity, and the reason the only absolute.

The emphasis on individualism, her support of capitalism and her intense dislike for communism are standard throughout Ayn Rand’s books.

She supported rationality and disapproved of altruism. Though she was in favor of libertarianism, her name is associated with the modern libertarian movement.

‘The Fountainhead’ and ‘Atlas Shrugged’ are two of the more famous Ayn Rand novels. Both featured the concept of Objectivism heavily.  All her leading characters in the two books symbolized the idea.  Her early fiction included ‘Night of the January 16th‘, ‘We the Living’ and the novella ‘Anthem’. 

Ayn Rand Anthem paved the way for the establishment of her philosophy through her writings.  She wrote Anthem while preparing for ‘The Fountainhead’.

Ayn Rand ‘The Fountainhead

Howard Roark, the protagonist in ‘The Fountainhead’ battles against the well-established standards and refuses to dilute his desire for innovation fighting against the authorities.    He is seen as the ideal man, and his role reflects Ayn Rand’s philosophy that individualism is superior to collectivism.

“I came here to say that I do not recognize anyone’s right to one minute of my life.  Nor to any part of my energy.  Nor to any achievement of mine.  No matter who makes a claim, how large their number or how great their need.  I wished to come here and say that I am a man who does not exist for others”. Howard Roark, in ‘The Fountainhead’.

At one glance, the sentence might horrify you. We live in a society that believes in altruism as the prescribed way of life.  Helping another person is a paramount duty and being selfless is a virtue.  In a community of this nature, this sentence would be equivalent to blasphemy.  

Altruism

Altruism is encouraged by most religions and teachers.  The well-being of others is more important than the well-being of the self.  Sacrifice is glorious.  There are enough research papers published about how altruism makes us happy.  Our happiness increases when we help others or do a kind deed. 

Notwithstanding this, Ayn Rand did not subscribe to the idea of altruism.  According to her, altruism was “incompatible with freedom, with capitalism, and with individual rights”.  In her view, the independent mind is responsible for all human progress and prosperity.

Though altruism can be benevolence and self-sacrifice, Ayn Rand made a clear distinction between both.  Generosity or benevolence is a noble thing, and she was not against any voluntary act of helping others.

Any act which required a person to sacrifice at the cost of self is not worth it. “The ultimate moral value, for each human individual, is his or her well-being”.  This concept is in direct contrast to popular belief, chiefly promoted by philosophers like Auguste Comte, who believed that the ultimate goal of all moral acts is to promote the happiness of others.

Ayn Rand ‘Atlas Shrugged

The concept of not subscribing to self-sacrifice is clear in Ayn Rand’s last novel and a masterpiece, ‘Atlas Shrugged’.  The protagonist asks this question to one of the characters in this novel.

“If you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort, the heavier the world bore down upon his shoulders.  What would you tell him?”

“I.. don’t know.  What could he do?  What would you tell him?”

The protagonist replies, “To shrug.”

Selfishness

She supports her defense of promoting self in her book – ‘The Virtue of Selfishness. There is virtue in being selfish. Selfishness, in her view, is a serious, rational principled concern with self. “Altruism permits no concept of self-respective, self-supporting man.

A man who supports his own life by his effort and neither sacrifices himself nor others.  It permits no concept of benevolent co-existence among men, and it permits no concept of justice”.

A truly selfish person is self-respecting and self-supporting.  He does not sacrifice anything for others nor expects anyone to offer anything for him.  Howard Roark, the architect in the book ‘The Fountainhead’, epitomized this.  Selfishness is rational self-interest.

Richard Dawkins talks of a similar theory in his book, ‘The Selfish Gene’.  He states that genes are selfish not because of any motive or will drive them, but merely that their effects can be metaphorically and pedagogically can be said to be selfish.

The survival of the species is a purely selfish act.  The species is not considerate of anything that hinders its survival. Group selection is not for the good of the species, and each parent of a family necessarily behaves selfishly to protect the family.

Ayn Rand believed that all human beings have biological and psychological needs.

Is there virtue in selfishness?

Contrary to what some religious and ethical textbooks may say, we all should learn to be selfish. Selfishness in the sense of standing up does not depend on any charity or alms. Selfishness is also preserving one’s identity so that you are strong enough to protect others. It means standing up to what you perceive as injustice so that you can help others.

If you are lying on the ground, how can you ever hope to lift someone?  All the ideas of altruism and selfless service fall flat as long as you are on the floor.  Even God is not willing to help those who do not help themselves.

You would remember that when the flight is taking off, the aircrew announces the safety procedures. They caution you that the oxygen masks will drop automatically in low cabin pressure and insist that you put on your mask first before assisting others.

This is because you wouldn’t be around too long for helping others unless you can breathe properly!

Selfishness is doing a job with perfection and dedication. It is not competing with others to fail them. It is competing with others to succeed, stretch the goals, and experience increased achievement levels.

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