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The Virtue of Selfishness: Fiftieth Anniversary Edition Mass Market Paperback – CLV, November 1, 1964
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Ayn Rand here sets forth the moral principles of Objectivism, the philosophy that holds man's life--the life proper to a rational being--as the standard of moral values and regards altruism as incompatible with man's nature, with the creative requirements of his survival, and with a free society.
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You don’t have to be interested in philosophy or Ayn Rand to get something out of this book, but you do have to approach it with an open mind. Quite predictably, a continuous theme throughout the book is the immorality of altruism and virtuousness of (rational) selfishness. I picked up this book a bit skeptical, especially because of the cult that seems to surround Ayn Rand. But this work was extremely thoughtful and thought-provoking. Probably one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read. More people should give it a chance.
Rand and Branden talk a lot about “the virtue of selfishness.” “Selfishness" is defined from the get-go as “rational self-interest,” and Rand even offers an explanation for why she uses the word “selfishness” at all (it’s in the Kindle preview!).
In the first chapter, Rand says that life is an end in itself, and that “Reason, Purpose, and Responsibility” are the things we should value in order to secure our life. We achieve those three values by being rational, productive, and having pride in ourselves and our work. So, since our life is an end in itself, there’s no moral obligation to subject ourselves to the will or whims of others. In fact, she argues that living for others is flat-out immoral.
Throughout the book, Rand and Branden addressed almost every concern and question I had (and have seen others have) regarding the ethics of her philosophy. Altruism is defined as sacrificing oneself for someone else, and Rand denounces it as immoral. But there are cases where an “altruist act” is actually in your rational self-interest. Rand gives the following example: Someone is going to torture your significant other to death in order to get something from you. If you love this person so much that living without them would be impossible, then the moral thing to do would be to “sacrifice” yourself. It’s not really self-sacrifice though, since it's in your rational self-interest.
Rand also denounces racism, violence (except in self-defense), criminal activity, and exploiting others for your own gain (!!!). Really, it’s like her critics have never read her work. She is very clear on her stance with each of these issues: vehemently opposed.
One unanswered question I still have after reading this work: since I have the right to do what I want with my property and time, can I give a homeless man a dollar? Can I loan my friend my car for the weekend? Would either act be immoral? I’m confident that the answer is yes, I can do these things, but I’m not sure whether (according to Objectivist ethics) it would be immoral.
What I got from this book:
The essays by Nathaniel Branden on self-esteem and mysticism were especially enlightening for me. I also really enjoyed reading about the “doomsday mindset” (my words - I forget how Rand/Branden called it exactly) that we all apparently have inherited from religion and superstition. This “the world is going to shit” outlook is what compels us to embrace altruism.
Overall, the virtue of selfishness itself is incredibly empowering. It says that I am responsible for myself and my actions, and that I owe it only to myself to live a happy, meaningful life. I love that. And I loved this book.
Who should read this book:
Everyone and anyone can get something out of this book, but especially students and people just getting into the working world. It’ll empower you to work harder and take responsibility for yourself and your actions. And it’ll also get you to think more about what you’ve been taught, what you believe, and why.
I alternated evenings between reading this book and listening to Leonard Peikoff’s lectures on “The Philosophy of Objectivism” (available online through the Ayn Rand Institute). I thought Peikoff’s lectures complimented this work well. Now I’m reading something that’s the polar opposite: Bertrand Russell’s Authority and the Individual. I recommend both/either if you want to do some more in-depth thinking about individualism. I also recommending Nathaniel Branden's The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem for those interested in self-esteem and self-efficacy (which was a prevalent theme in The Virtue of Selfishness).