Many people still think Ayn Rand advocated a take-what-you-want-and-damn-everyone-else kind of selfishness.
For example, Chicago Tribune movie critic Michael Phillips shared this impression on April 14, 2011 while reviewing Atlas Shrugged Part 1 :
Rand's pet theory [is] known as Objectivism, which can be described as "Us? There is no 'us'!" In Rand's worldview it's me-time, all the time.... [T]here's nothing to do but ... start anew, in a civilization run by the mysterious John Galt, who respects the rapacious dog-eat-dog nature of humankind.
National film critic Roger Ebert seems to be making the same point in his own April 14 review of the Atlas Shrugged Part 1 movie: “For me, [Ayn Rand’s] philosophy reduces itself to: ‘I’m on board; pull up the lifeline.’”
Even some fans take Ayn Rand to task on this issue:
[T]here is much to admire about Ayn Rand, her devotion to freedom of the individual. But that freedom comes at the cost of devotion to survival of the fittest.
In fact, the Objectivist ethics is a form of rational egoism, in which seeking happiness and dealing with others by trade are key principles. It sees positive relations with other people as an important component of a flourishing life. It isn’t an ethic of survival of the fittest or live-and-let-die. It’s an ethic of live-and-let-live.
Ayn Rand stated this point clear as day, in all-capital-letters, in the strikers’ oath in Atlas Shrugged:
I SWEAR BY MY LIFE AND MY LOVE OF IT THAT I WILL NEVER LIVE FOR THE SAKE OF ANOTHER MAN, NOR ASK ANOTHER MAN TO LIVE FOR MINE. (Atlas Shrugged , Part III, Chapter 1, “Atlantis,” p. 675)
The Objectivist ethics holds the human good does not require human sacrifices and cannot be achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone. It holds that the rational interests of men do not clash—that there is no conflict of interests among men who do not desire the unearned, who do not make sacrifices nor accept them, who deal with one another as traders , giving value for value. (“The Objectivist Ethics” in The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 31 paperback)
If the idea of a harmony of interests among rationally selfish people strikes you as implausible, just ask yourself: whom do I need to kill or make suffer in order that I can live and be happy? As long as overweening government doesn’t put neighbors at each others’ throats, as long as we are free to deal with each other based on our own interests, productive abilities, and judgment, no one needs to kill anyone in order to live.
In fact, we benefit when others flourish. America got rich, and England enjoyed Boeing airplanes and the ideas of jazz and rock’n’roll. It’s win-win, not win-lose. Because of this, a free society is not a cruel scene of conquerors and conquered. Instead, free-market capitalism and free expression allow people to flourish and cooperate. Freedom encourages independence and responsibility, too, because it respects the fact the we are each individuals. A community that ignores this fact will tend, not to liberate its people to live, but to enslave them to serve the leaders.
Still, many moral philosophers—most, in fact—think that egoism is no ethics at all. That’s because they define ethics as a body of principles for dealing with others. (By contrast, the ancient Greeks viewed ethics as an overall guide to life.) In other words, many of today's ethicists equate ethics with altruism. Many think that acting for one’s self-interest may sometimes be necessary, but it just isn’t “moral.” With these blinders on, these philosophers have trouble seeing Rand’s view for what it is.
Altruism and self-sacrifice are still the standard of ethics in the minds of much of the general public. For evidence, just read the letters column of any big city newspaper, attend a meeting of boy or girl-scouts, or listen to most religious preachers. Many people think this because they see self-interested behavior as short-sighted, unfeeling, and destructive. Their model of rational selfishness is a sociopath.
Living by rational self-interest doesn’t mean pretending other people don’t exist. Other people can be a tremendous source of all sorts of values, from the most commercial to the most personal. We benefit greatly from having true friends and finding someone whom we can really love. But as Ayn Rand pointed out in The Fountainhead, “To say ‘I love you,’ one must first know how to say the ‘I.’” Altruism preaches self-sacrifice, but that is just what will destroy any healthy human relationship. Friendship and love flourish when they actually benefit the parties involved. The alternative is just vampirism.
In practice, most people in America understand what’s wrong with out-and-out self-sacrifice. Most try to seek happiness and take care of themselves. It is rare these days, for example, to hear that one ought to just suck it up and stay in that unhappy marriage for the sake of duty or the family. This healthy appreciation for individual happiness is not far from the Objectivist view—and it shouldn’t be, if Objectivism outlines true principles behind successful living and flourishing. The facts of human nature will continue to challenge the conventional view of ethics and egoism. Self-sacrifice ends in pain and death. It is rational selfishness that leads to health, happiness, love, and trust.
William R Thomas writes about and teaches Objectivist ideas. He is the editor of The Literary Art of Ayn Rand and of Ethics at Work, both published by The Atlas Society. He is also an economist, teaching occasionally at a variety of universities.