Rand was world-famous as the author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged when a collection of essays entitled The Virtue of Selfishness was published in 1964. In the opening essay, Rand presents a sustained argument for her ethic of rational self-interest.
1. Rand argues that ethics is a science, as it is based on objectively identifiable facts. Humans are not born with instincts and they have a volitional consciousness, so they must identify conceptually what is good for them and commit to policies of action. “Everything man needs has to be discovered by his own mind and produced by his own effort” (23).
2. Rand thus rejects subjectivist views of ethics, i.e., those that see beliefs and desire about goodness and values come only from the subject. “Today, as in the past, most philosophers agree that the ultimate standard of ethics is whim (they call it ‘arbitrary postulate’ or ‘subjective choice’ or ‘emotional commitment’)—and the battle is only over the question of whose whim: one’s own or society’s or the dictator’s or God’s” (15).
3. But, Rand argues, it is a fact that life is conditional: Life or death is the fundamental fact underlying all good or bad value judgments. Humans have needs (e.g., nutrition) and certain kinds of actions in the environment (e.g., production) are necessary to satisfy those needs. “Life can be kept in existence only by a constant process of self-sustaining action” (17).
4. Rand also thus rejects intrinsic views of ethics, i.e., those that hold good and bad to be features of reality independent of any relation to human needs and capacities. Oxygen, for example, is not intrinsically good but rather good in relation to human physiological needs.
5. Unlike plants and animals, humans are not able to survive merely by automatic behaviors or instincts. Each of us needs to exercise his capacity for reason. Even for basic nutrition, for example, man needs to learn “what food is good for him or poisonous.” More sophisticatedly, each one of us “needs a process of thought to discover how to plant and grow his food or how to make weapons for hunting.” And beyond that, reason enables us to discover how to make fire, weave cloth, make a wheel or an airplane (23).
6. But reason “is a faculty that man must exercise by choice. Thinking is not an automatic function.” Hence, one’s basic ethical commitment is to focusing one’s mind to become fully aware of reality to discover what one’s needs are and what actions are necessary to satisfy them. Choosing not to think, accordingly, is choosing not to live—just as, for example, a hawk’s choosing not to fly or a fish’s choosing not to swim (supposing they could make such choices) would be those animals’ choosing not to live.
7. Thinking and acting in the service of one’s life is aided by the identification of and commitment to virtues—consciously identified and habituated policies of thought and action: Rand identifies seven major virtues: rationality, honesty, independence, integrity, productiveness, pride, justice (27-30).
8. Socially, Rand argues that rational, productive, and proud individuals can and will interact to mutual benefit. A profound harmony of interests is this the natural condition of human beings—in contract to the pessimists who see conflict, predation, and parasitism as human nature. “Man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself” (30).
Read “The Objectivist Ethics” here or here. Summary by Stephen Hicks, 2020.
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