Rational Egoism

1. Introduction

Ayn Rand endorsed selfishness as a virtue. She advocated a morality of rational self-interest. A morality of self-interest. Eh? Come again? What’s that? The idea that a person should be selfish is so alien in our culture that people struggle to understand what this woman could possibly mean. The very words are jarring and turn many people off completely. They couldn’t possibly take seriously such a heathen idea.

We are not accustomed to hearing selfish people characterized as virtuous. Indeed, in our culture we typically think of virtue as one thing, and egoism as not merely something else, but the antithesis of virtue—diametrically opposed to it. We’ve been raised to equate the noble with the altruistic, the virtuous with the self-sacrificing. Selfishness is the thing to be overcome, to be morally praiseworthy. Isn’t it?

You know the saints. Mother Teresa and the secular saints we canonize for their good works for others, putting the needier first. The entrepreneurs lauded not for the decades of productive work and making unimaginably valuable products that enhance countless lives, but lauded for their philanthropy, their charitable activities, their signing away their estates through the heralded “giving pledge.” Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, well, you think he can’t be all bad; he gave all that money to the Newark Public School system. These are our role models, celebrated at commencement addresses each spring on college campuses, as speakers encourage the graduates to serve something larger than yourself, to give back.

The playbook today is from the philosopher Peter Singer, who some of you may be familiar with, who calls for a drastic reduction in your personal consumption, the portion of your income that you spend on yourself, or the people you care about, or your values, so that you can give more to others.

From grade school, children are raised to contribute to others: cleaning the parks, cleaning the park bathrooms for the homeless, hammering up habitats for “humanity,” whoever; riding their bikes to raise money to educate kids in Ethiopia. Now, it should be said, I have nothing against kids in Ethiopia. I even like humanity—on a good day. But I mean, Ayn Rand is not knocking many of these ends—many of them are good causes.

But she is challenging the idea, the pervasive assumption that others’ lives are worthier than your own, that an anonymous passerby has a greater claim on your time than you do, that their well being should come first. Rand directly and unabashedly rejects that view, the entrenched view. She is a radical for egoism.

In her lifetime she wanted her happiness. And she wanted you to go after yours. Now, you wouldn’t be here, you wouldn’t be listening to this lecture unless you were either already somewhat sympathetic to Objectivism or seriously curious, wanting to understand it better, to know more of what it advocates and why. So I’m not going to spend a lot of time motivating my subject.

Because Ayn Rand’s moral theory is so foreign, though, it’s important to digest exactly what she’s endorsing. It’s also important because reviews are frequently, mistakenly, thrown together with those of others who reject conventional morality: Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Hobbes, various amoralists.

So I’m going to offer a basic account of Rand’s rational egoism. Across its major segments, what I will do is outline the crucial features of what rational egoism is, what it is not, and what it is for. The second segment will focus much more on that, what it’s for. The reward of rational egoism, the payoff: happiness. Your interest, realized; personal flourishing.

Okay, so on the handout you’ve got a basic outline of segment 1 today.  I’ll start by addressing the question of why we should be egoistic. Then in the bulk of segment 1, I will elaborate on what Rand means by “rational egoism” and what she doesn’t mean. I’ll discuss several misconceptions, explaining what self-interest is not, and what the rational pursuit of your interest is not. I’ll then say a little bit about the role of virtues in Rand’s ethics. She identified several virtues, principles of actions, as essential to living as a genuine egoist.

2. Why be egoistic?

Okay, so why be egoistic? And this is number 2 on the outline.

Why be egoistic? The case for egoism is, in a way, simple. You should be egoistic because you have to be to attain your own well-being. If a person wants to live and to flourish, to achieve the happiness that’s possible to a human being, he must act in ways that serve that end. Egoism amounts to doing that. It’s the only path to that end.

Egoism is the thesis that each person ought to pursue his own self-interest. That’s it, quite basically. Again, the thesis that each person ought to pursue his own self-interest. Why does that make sense? Because we have needs. Because if you don’t tend to your health, you’ll get sick. If you don’t feed yourself, you’ll die. If you don’t earn money, you won’t be able to feed yourself. Now notice in doing these things, which seem pretty innocuous, you are being self-interested. Human beings survive by acting for their own benefit, in their own interest.

Think of a baby, an infant, a small baby infant. A baby has got to eat, and sleep, and move, and battle infections. In doing all of these things, which the grown-ups are glad the little child is doing, right? And as it grows gradually, and does more as it starts reaching and grasping and crawling and walking and talking. In doing all of these things, which we’re applauding and egging on, the child is promoting his own welfare. It’s a selfish little son of a gun, isn’t he? But it’s not just babies who need to do this to advance their interests. Each of us does, his whole life long.  Indeed this applies to any living organism. It must act in its interest to sustain its life.

Now obviously, lower forms of life do not consciously choose their actions. The worm doesn’t decide on a particular course. The cactus doesn’t undergo photosynthesis by choice, and then you know on a bad day, it says, “I’m going to sleep in. I’m not in the mood today.”

But the point is: every organism must operate in a certain way, a way that serves its life, if it is to survive. Life is a process. It’s not a static object, an entity. It’s a process—a series of actions; self-generated, self-sustaining actions. And the nature of life demands egoism. Living requires self-promoting action.

Now, for human beings, some of the requisite actions are automatic: physiologically hard-wired in, genetically coded. I need to breathe, digest, pump blood. But I don’t need to deliberately make myself do these things every day, right? I wake up in the morning and remind myself of certain things to do, but these don’t make it on to the to-do list, right? You don’t need to deliberately instruct yourself in that way.

If human beings acted only in the biologically programmed ways, however, that wouldn’t be enough. We must also direct other actions to fulfill other needs that we have, needs for food and shelter, medical care when ill, needs for money, for knowledge, companionship, recreation, a host of things.

The upshot is: egoism is rational policy. Each person ought to pursue his own well-being because he has to if he is to live, to flourish, to attain happiness. And notice something: Despite the widespread, reflexive condemnations that are usually heaped on selfishness, there are several pockets of egoism in our society that people typically approve of, where they don’t pour scorn. A few examples: asking for a raise. We think that’s perfectly reasonable. We often egg each other: “Yeah, you should ask for a raise, you deserve more, you deserve better, they should appreciate you, that’s a self-interested thing to do.” Oh, but somehow, that’s okay . . .

Or we say: “Yeah, don’t be a doormat. Don’t let him walk all over you.” We learned that from Oprah many years ago, right? And we think that’s good. Voting your pocketbook is often seen as quite sensible. Defending yourself if attacked, self-defense. Concern for your privacy from the NSA’s snooping. There are these pockets where even a society that tends to condemn self-interest is okay with it. Well, I think these havens for the assertion of self testify to the general claim I’ve been making: we must practice egoism. We “tolerate” egoism in these areas because we depend on egoism.

Living requires that a person act to promote his own interest. A consistently practiced renunciation of self-interest—consistently, 100 percent—would be utterly impossible. No one could survive on such a policy.

Now, given this brief explanation of why we should be egoists, we can now turn to the specific kind of egoism that Ayn Rand has in mind. And truly, she maintains, hers is the only “kind” of egoism, or the only “brand” of egoism that truly is egoism, that actually serves a person’s interest.

This should become clearer as we inspect self-interest and its pursuit more closely. Especially several things that are not self-interest or its pursuit, that they are not, but that they are commonly mistaken to be.

3. Self-interest is not transparent

So we’re now on part 3 on the outline. We’re going to go through many misconceptions.

First, self-interest is not transparent.

Think about decisions you’ve perhaps sometimes made where your objective was clear: you wanted to do what was going to be best for you. Okay? Yet how to do that was not, and is not, always obvious. An example: where to go to college, a decision let’s say an eighteen-year-old is facing. Well, you have to weigh a lot of factors to figure out which will be the best school for me. You can think of some of the sorts of things you’d need to consider: cost, the financial aid package that I could get from this school. How much time you’d have to work a job to get the other income you need, if you’re going to go to that school with its tuition, and you know, other associated expenses. You have to think about the school’s strengths in different academic areas that you’re interested in: art history, biology, computer science, whatever it might be, right? You’d want to think about other aspects of the college experience: is this school a party school? Is this a commuter school? Where is it located? How far is it from my family? How far is it from my boyfriend, right? Is this a prestigious school, would it be something to come out with a diploma from there? Would it be a good thing in the particular areas I’m interested in? How likely is this to help me really find the kind of job I’d like? Then you have to do the same thing for all those other schools (we’re imagining a benevolent universe in which you’re accepted into many schools and have many options). But the point is: you’ve got to think about those same questions in the various pros and cons of this school vs. that. My God, you’ve got a lot of work to do.

It’s not obvious what’s best even when, again, your objective, your aim is: I want to do what’s best for me: my self-interest.

Let’s just walk through, quickly, one or two other examples of this. Because people face similar uncertainties in many of the decisions that they encounter over the course of their lives—fast-forward fifteen or twenty years. You’ve gotten that diploma, you’ve even gotten a job, right? You’re married and settled and happy with the kids, and happy with the work that you’re doing. Happy with the job that you’ve got. But . . . That company makes you an offer with significantly more money attached. And I don’t know how much money is significant for you, but you know, fifteen thousand dollars more a year. Wow, that would be nice, that would be good. Is it easy to see that that would be in your interest—to take that job?

No. Money is one factor, but there are others. What would the nature of that work be? Different responsibilities, would you like those, would you learn from those, would they be challenging, would they be overwhelming, would they be boring, what’s the deal? What are the people like at that office versus the one I’m in now? What’s the culture at the company like? Would this mean less time with the family? Sometimes you might want less time with the family, right? Would it mean longer hours, a longer commute, a lot of travel, whatnot? A lot of things to consider.

One more example on a somewhat more grim note. You’re diagnosed with a serious illness. The doctor lays out the treatment options. Which should you select? Well, to decide you’d need to compare things like efficacy rates, side-effects, your physician’s experience in delivering the different kinds of treatment, the expense, what the insurance will cover. The point, again, is this. Even if you seek to advance your own self-interest, if that goal is paramount and unequivocal, it’s not always clear how to do that.

So we shouldn’t assume that the egoist always easily knows how to promote his interest. The claim that something is truly in a person’s interests marks a sophisticated judgment about how it fits into the entire framework of his values. And it’s the claim that it will be a net plus to his overall, long-range happiness.

A self-interested course of action is not always self-evident.

4. Egoism is not subjectivism or materialism

Next, a related point. Egoism is not subjectivism.

Not anything that you think is in your interest actually is. Your thinking that something is good for you doesn’t make it good for you. The man you consider Mr. Right could turn out to be all wrong. The investment that you expect to pay a safe, steady return, sometimes doesn’t. The drug that you’ve been taking, that you think is helping your thyroid condition—it sometimes turns out isn’t, right? The latest health studies show, “my God, they’re mistaken about the full impact of that sort of medication.”

The point, again, Rand is not embracing subjectivism. You can be mistaken about what is in your interest. That’s why we struggle with certain of the decisions that we make, because we want to get them right for the sake of our actual well-being. And remember—the ground-floor—it’s our needs that set the terms of what is good for us.

Another thing that egoism is not, so this is 3c, if you’re following. I’m not going to recite every letter of the alphabet, okay, but just to sort of help gauge you periodically.

3c: Egoism is not materialism. Because your interest is not exclusively material. Many people think of the selfish person as acquisitive. He just wants a lot of toys, money, luxuries, material pleasures for himself. He’s the guy who seeks the snappy cars, the large houses, the lavish vacations, the flashiest technology, he dines at only the Michelin restaurants, right? He’s overly concerned with his physical comfort.

Now, this point is a little bit tricky because self-interest is in part material. So egoism is concerned with—or an egoist should be concerned with—obtaining material goods. But what’s rarely appreciated is that self-interest also has a spiritual dimension. Now, by “spiritual,” a word that Ayn Rand uses, she does not mean “mystical,” she does not mean “supernatural.” The “spiritual,” she says, is what pertains to your mind as opposed to your body. It involves your consciousness, your state of awareness. So what am I talking about?

Non-physical aspects of our well-being—your mental life, your emotional life, your psyche. Examples of spiritual goods: certain qualities of character, certain relationships with other people, intelligence, will-power, self-respect, self-confidence. These are spiritual values, as are a close friendship, a strong marriage, a rewarding career. You can’t buy these on Amazon, right? Even Amazon Prime.

But they sure are good to get, right? It’s good to have, yeah? A rewarding career, rewarding work or a rewarding marriage, and so on. Other spiritual values: education, art, inspiration, pride, purpose, optimism. These are goods. But they’re not material goods. These are values, however, because they definitely contribute to a person’s well-being.

The point is, since a person is more than a body, material resources are not the whole of his well-being. Our lives are psychological as well as physical. Correspondingly, self-interest is spiritual as well as material. Numerous nonmaterial goods, friends, music, education—I hope this lecture, all right—can be in a person’s interest.

What’s the significance of this? Well, it expands our understanding of egoism, of the scope of egoism. It indicates that the range of actions that can be self-interested is much wider than usually supposed. And it suggests ways in which certain actions that one might naturally assume are self-interested actually are not. Because they weaken one’s position vis-à-vis important spiritual values.  For instance, just because something gets you money, you shouldn’t assume it’s in your interest. It might be, it might not be. You must tally all the aspects of its impact on all facets of your well-being, to render a final verdict about that.

Taking the job that pays less, but is more rewarding in other ways, can often be the selfish thing to do. Images of self-interest severed from the spiritual dimension, that leave that out, are simply not true to human experience.

5. Self-interested action is not automatic or easy

Yet another dimension of self-interest, to recognize: acting in your self-interest is not automatic.

Rand does not endorse “psychological egoism,” the descriptive thesis that everyone always does, as a matter of fact, act to promote his own self-interest. No, just as it can be difficult to figure out which action, which course of action, is really most in my interest, it can be difficult to do what’s most in my interest. How? Why?

I may not be in the mood. It happens. Has it happened to you? It requires time and energy and sometimes I don’t feel like it. It’s generally good for people to exercise and eat healthfully, but lots of people don’t always do that, right? Because in the moment, you just want to lounge on the sofa and binge on House of Cards and pizza and those cinnamon sticks that they sell you from Domino’s or whatever it is, right? Yeah, have a good time. It’s generally in a person’s interest to plan for his retirement, right? To do some financial figuring and calculating and make decisions about ways of saving, and then open the appropriate accounts and regularly sock away money. But people often don’t do this.

Why? The calculations are daunting, and saving money means postponing gratification. You can’t have that . . . I want that spiffier new car, and so on, and so we don’t do it. Another kind of disincentive to self-interested action, you may encounter social disapproval, right? Other people are accustomed to others performing their altruistic duties, so when you say to the friend, “No, I can’t help you out this weekend, I’ve really got to tend to my own stuff.” “…Your own stuff?” “Yeah, my own studies or my own chores or, God forbid, maybe my own afternoon off that I’ve really been looking forward to.” You’ll get some really dirty looks. You’ll get some very curious reactions.

It requires a certain strength of character to subject yourself to that, to say no to the friend, to say no to the United Way solicitor in the annual campaign at your company. To say no to the nice guy in the office, the likeable guy who means well, who’s running a marathon to raise money for breast cancer or something, right? So it takes a certain strength of character to assert your self-interest.

Again, acting in your self-interest is not automatic. And my next point is very, very closely related. You want to notice, well, it’s nearly the same the same point, maybe it’s an implication. The point is this: the pursuit of self-interest is not easy.

The achievement of self-interest is an accomplishment. Consider what’s required to achieve any long-range goal: earning a bachelor’s degree, running a marathon, making a team, making, let’s say, a college swim team or an Olympics team; a career in nursing, a career in teaching, in film-making. Let’s go with the Olympics example.

Think about all that goes into a serious effort, you know, a credible effort by a young swimmer, let’s say, to make the national Olympics team. Think about the thought that’s got to go into that, the planning, the deciding on the best means, the best regiment of training, exercise program, practice schedule, diet, coaches to hire to egg me on and train me in the appropriate ways. And then adopting that regiment and sustaining it over months, often more than a year, right? This will naturally affect many other aspects of the person’s activities: how much sleep he gets, what he does on weekends, who he socializes with, what he spends his money on because he’s got to spend money on those coaches or the training facilities, or the travel to different competitions and so on. Now admittedly, making the Olympics team, that’s a pretty ambitious goal I’ve chosen here. But the goal of your well-being, your happiness, is still more complex because it involves orchestrating all of your goals, material and psychological: job satisfaction, social life, health goals, financial goals, family goals and so on. Again, the thought is that egoism requires thought to figure out what course will best serve your overall well-being, and the discipline to follow through in action. It isn’t easy.

6. Egoism requires a self

And I’d especially stress a related point: this is f, 3f, on the outline. Egoism requires a self, a self to serve.

Egoism demands that you make a self. What am I talking about? Well, in a moving scene in The Fountainhead, Peter and Dominique discuss this, and I’ve given you a little excerpt from that scene on the handout. I’ll read just an even briefer version of what’s on your handout. So this is Peter and Dominique.

“What’s the real me?” she asks. And Peter continues, “What’s the real anyone? It’s not just the body. It’s . . . It’s the soul . . . It’s—you. The thing inside you.” Dominque: “[t]he thing that thinks and values and makes decisions?” “Yes! yes,” he agrees. Now, if you’ve read The Fountainhead, you’ll realize that, quite sadly, Peter abandons this recognition about self within moments.

In a different scene, in a much-quoted line of Rand’s, Roark observes, “To say I love you, one must first know how to say the ‘I.’” By the same token, you can’t love yourself unless there’s a self to love. You can’t love anyone or anything. You can’t have values or interests until there’s a you. Rand regarded selfishness as an achievement. She wrote, and I put this quotation on your handout, “Selfishness is a profoundly philosophical, conceptual achievement.”

I think she meant this in the twin senses of, you know, being selfish means doing what is good for you, what is beneficial, having the forethought or courage or self-discipline to select your actions well, to choose among your alternatives such that you are advancing your interest. But equally, I think, underappreciated, it involves forging a self. In shaping the course of experiences that have been yours, you know, from the moment you were born, into a person of cohesive identity for whom there are definite “good fors” and “bad fors.”

Making something more than a social security number out of your stream of breathing and digesting and bodily processes. So, this is a little tricky, this thought. And I don’t think I’ve got it fully, clearly, articulated yet. But stay with me a bit more, okay? Let’s try to get this a little bit clearer. Again, main thought: egoism requires a self to serve. There’s got to be somebody home, so to speak. A self isn’t simply a placeholder. The humanoid who reacts when the name “Tara Smith” is called; it’s not like a postal box, or a receptacle or a stream of experiences, whatever happens to come this way.

A self lives. It drives its experience. It acts as a human being. It sets goals and acts to attain them. It is self-generated, remember, earlier we were saying “life is a process of self-generated actions,” yet it is self-generated at the human level of self—volitionally.  A self is not a given. Interests are not a given. The science of life, you might say, the science of life—that’s given. The causal necessities, the basic physical needs we have—that’s set. That’s not up to us. But the art of life, the fun of life, the meaning of life, is not. And you are not. What makes you a person, a self, again, a person, an individual, who responds to that, you know, when that particular name is called: Tara or Kathy or Keith or what have you, right? You make that person. You supply that. You, personally. Your life is not a science project. You’re not some simply more confirmation that “Yup, they need water, they need protein, those human beings.”

Man is a being of self-made soul. And making that soul is crucial to your ability to be selfish and to be happy. Being selfish, I’ve said, means going after your values—objective values that advance your well-being. A selfish person has values, makes himself a valuer and acts to promote them. Valuing itself is central in the life of an egoist.

But it’s important to understand that valuing isn’t simply wanting.

Valuing is thoughtful activity.  It’s thought-driven, reason-guided, a discipline. To be a successful egoist you have to learn how to value. Selfish valuing is not instinctual. It’s not second nature.

It requires the intelligent selection of ends as well as of the means that will attain those ends.

You’ve got to assess potential values, candidate ends that you might embrace against the larger canvas of your whole life—all of its component values, commitments, your central purpose. To achieve happiness you have to learn selfish ways to handle your wants, how to manage them, when to yield to them, when not to, what policies should govern that, how to evaluate your wants, which of them I should think, “No, that’s healthy, that’s normal, that’s okay: that’s a sign of problems. Wait, that’s coming from faulty, or at least dubious, premises. That may be a psychological issue I have to work on, right?”

Again, you’ve got to learn to manage your wants, to be a serious rational valuer. Selfishness, again, selfishness is demanding. It’s not simply what’s left over after you reject altruism, okay? It’s not merely the default position. Rational egoism is a positive achievement.

7. Egoism is not hedonism or emotionalism

Still a few more points to sharpen our grip on rational egoism.

Egoism is not hedonism. This is 3g on the handout. Hedonism is the doctrine that pleasure is the standard of value. Pleasure and pain provide the yardstick of good and bad, right and wrong. If it feels good, it is good. If it feels bad, if it provokes pain or discomfort, it’s bad. Now, think again of egoism, Rand’s egoism. Rand’s egoism posits that you should pursue your own rational self-interest. But interest does not equal pleasure. People confuse the two because of the frequent overlap between the self-interested and the pleasurable. A lot of people find certain exercise enjoyable as well as good for them, good for their cardiovascular system and so on, right? Reading a given book could be both enjoyable and good for you. You might learn useful material from the book. It might be a self-help book. It might be a book about investments. It might be the fiction of a good author and so on.

Still, it would be a mistake to conclude that everything pleasant is self-interested or that everything that is in your interest will be pleasant. And it’s not hard to identify cases where the two diverge, all right? Sometimes it would be more pleasant to go to the party. But it’s really in your interest to stay home and study for the exam you have in the morning.

Sometimes it’s unpleasant to go to the dentist, but it would really be in your interest to go to the dentist. Sometimes you really want to tell the boss off. But that might not be in your best interest. Now, so, I mean, these examples I think are pretty straightforward, this is not a difficult point to grasp. This is not a brain teaser, right? It’s easy to get in the abstract. Yet, in practice, I think, it’s a real, frequent stumbling-block.

In particular, cases where something is attractive: “Oh, that would be so much fun or so pleasurable.” We often confuse the two and tangle our thinking about what our self-interest really would counsel here. So I simply want to say: beware. You really want to digest this point in the abstract, the fact that pleasure and interest are not one and the same thing, and remind yourself of it when making decisions.

Happiness isn’t achieved by simply doing whatever you feel like doing, whatever feels nice. Egoism is not the same thing as hedonism because hedonism, treating pleasure as the standard of what you should do, doesn’t serve your true well-being. It isn’t a reliable guide, okay?

Now it should be clear from all that we’ve said so far, that proper egoism is not emotionalism.

It doesn’t put emotions in the driver’s seat, directing your choices.

Reason should be your guide. Emotions are reactive. You experience specific emotions as a result of things that you believe, and your evaluations of them. For instance, you come home or you pick up the voicemail: oh my gosh. And you hear the doctor’s voice on the voicemail and he sounds kind of grave. And you’ve been waiting for the biopsy results, right? Your heart plummets. Your emotions: oh my god, this is bad news. Or a brighter example: you’re elated by that letter telling you you’ve been admitted to your first, you know, your first choice for what college to go to. Why? Because now you think, “I can go there,” right? It’s “I wanted to go there, I wanted to go there more than any place else, and now I know that I can, at least subject to how the money is going to work out,” right? Now I know that’s a possibility.” Again, an emotion is a reaction to an event based on your beliefs, based on your evaluation of that event. But, because the beliefs and evaluations that underlie our emotions could be mistaken, they are not a reliable gauge of what is actually good for you, right? You may have misread the tone of voice on the doctor’s voicemail, right? We’ve probably all had the experience sometimes of having been really angry at a person based on something we thought they did, and later finding out they didn’t do that, or the circumstances were quite different, so the anger was unjustified, right?

That’s the reason for which emotions are not a good guide, okay? So, again, rational egoism is not emotionalism. Yet, yet, while rational egoism isn’t emotionalism, it is emotion-ful. Rational self-interest is emotional self-interest, it’s passionate. Not by design, not by deliberate effort, but naturally. If you care about something, you will feel about it. It’s ups and downs will register. That’s not a calculated choice, that’s not a cultivated skill, it’s a fact of our wiring.

A truly self-interested person who seeks his best interest is invested. He wants what’s good for him, so he cares. He feels about the things affecting his well-being, all sorts of things: the political candidates, the new policies at the office, the waiter who screwed up his offer, his order, right? It all counts.

Now, it doesn’t all count equally. I sometimes have to tell myself, “Okay, chill, it’s just the coffee that he got wrong, or . . . okay.” But, the egoist feels his feelings. He accepts his feelings and he feels his feelings—he isn’t governed by them, okay, this is where it’s not emotionalism. He isn’t governed by them. He doesn’t assign them a cognitive role or a decision-making role that they aren’t equipped to play. But he doesn’t banish his emotions—he isn’t ashamed of them. He recognizes them as sources of information about him, about his own beliefs and values, that can be very telling if he inspects them, if he introspects about them, and they provide the fun of life, okay?

Just this morning I thought of a line from a play that I like, and had I thought of it earlier I would have looked up the context to relate a little bit more clearly to you, but I think I can. It’s a play by Tom Stoppard called The Invention of Love, based on the life of a real person, A. E. Houseman, some of you may be familiar with him. He was a poet and a classics scholar, a professor of classics. I think it was at Oxford. Maybe it was Cambridge, but okay. So there’s a scene in the play, and I think this is what happens. He calls on a student and he calls the student by the incorrect name, and the student responds with something like “I don’t care, I don’t mind, that’s okay.”

To which Houseman, the professor, responds: “Don’t mind, Ms. Graves? Don’t mind? Life is in the minding.” Which I think is . . . Life is in the minding, it’s in the caring. Okay.

8. Egoism is not predatory exploitation

A final misconception I’d like to correct:

Egoism does not mean walking all over other people, treating others as fodder for your purposes, mere means to your ends.  Ya’ll aren’t just extras in the movie they’re making about me, okay? Rational selfishness is not a matter of taking advantage of others, being out to exploit them, to hurt them. Egoism does not call on a person to manipulate, to mistreat other people for the simple reason that abusing others is not in one’s interests. A common assumption deeply imbedded in many people’s thinking is: since Altruism calls for sacrifice of me to others, Egoism must endorse sacrifice of others to me. But that entire framework is misguided. Sacrifice is not a necessary ingredient of rational egoism.

Think about what a sacrifice is. It’s the surrender of a value. More exactly, a sacrifice is the swap of a greater value for a lesser value. The surrender of a quarter for the chance of a dollar is not a sacrifice, it’s an investment. Life does call for numerous exchanges of that sort: forgoing a smaller value in order to gain a greater one. I’d like to keep my savings, but I’d also like a college education, because I deem the latter of more value to me, all things considered, I exchange the one to get the education. Doing that isn’t a sacrifice. It’s selfish, often it’s smart selfishness.

Now again, recall the basic instruction of egoism. You ought to pursue your own self-interest, right? Promote your own welfare. That doesn’t say anything about other people. Not as part of the basic instruction of egoism.

Altruism prescribes sacrifice for others.

Subordinate yourself, put their well-being first. Egoism prescribes: do for yourself. Egoism does not say, “Sacrifice others to yourself.” Egoism does not say, “Ripping off others is the best way to do this.” In Rand’s view it is not. In fact many of the self-interested things that we do every day have nothing to do with other people, right? Think about your morning so far, wherever you are in the day. Done anything self-interested today? Maybe you ate a deliberately healthy breakfast, right? Maybe you took vitamins or supplements because you thought that would be good for you, right? Maybe you ran or went to the gym or maybe you did those stretching exercises so you back doesn’t flare up again, maybe you meditated because you thought it was good for you. I meditated this morning.

Did these episodes of selfishness rely on exploiting others? Erecting obstacles in their path? Hardly. Now, Rand has much to say about proper relations between people, primarily in her discussions of justice and rights. My immediate point here is simply that a person can be thoroughly self-interested without, in any way, damaging others.

Indeed he can only be self-interested by recognizing that others have a lot more to offer him than what he might get from scamming them. Exploitation of others is not what self-interest is made of. Okay.

9. What egoism demands: rational virtues

All of this has explained the basic meaning of rational egoism, the “what” of egoism. It’s basic character. The “how” of egoism is also crucial. Because the goal of your flourishing comprises a complex network of interrelated ends, and because the path is neither apparent, nor easy, Rand addresses how to advance one’s interests through her account of specific moral virtues.

Now, we don’t have time in this lecture to go into these. But I simply want to provide an overview, and we will look a little bit more closely at two of the virtues in the next segment of the lecture.

Rational egoism is a code of seven fundamental virtues, and I do have these on the handout. The central and overarching virtue in Rand’s view is rationality, respecting facts, respecting the primacy of existence, the law of identity, employing logical inferences from observed realities. This must be the guide to everything that you do. But she also, very helpfully, identifies six other virtues as applications of rationality to the major kinds of decisions that human beings regularly confront.

The six virtues, the six further virtues that she names are:

Honesty, justice, integrity, independence, productiveness and pride. Now notice that the first three, honesty, justice, integrity—are praised in many moral theories, while the others are not. Productiveness, for instance, usually seen as, at best, a matter of prudence rather than a moral issue. Independence, rarely considered morally virtuous, often denounced as overly individualistic, atomistic, at odds with people’s interdependence, right? It’s an anti-social pathology to be independent. Pride, long-condemned as among the seven deadly sins, with humility instead applauded. But note, though, that even on those three that are conventionally, widely endorsed: honesty, justice, integrity, Rand’s understanding of what each of these virtues is, and of why it is a moral virtue, is distinctive.

 For her theory is egoistic through and through.

The case for honesty, for instance, in Rand’s view, the case for honesty isn’t based on its role in social relationships, in fostering goodwill or trust (though it might have those effects). Rather, the case for honesty is grounded in the fact that faking things doesn’t change things, regardless of who you’re trying to fool.

Similarly, justice isn’t noble sacrifice for the good of others, you know, “well, I suffered the loss, but I did the just thing in giving her her share.” No. Justice is a win-win proposition: a trade of values. Treating a person as she deserves, rewards her, or punishes her as the case may be, as her character merits. In doing so I’m being honest about her and her bearing on my self-interest. It’s a selfish proposition. And again, you can go into explaining these in much more depth. You could talk about integrity as well. Ayn Rand has a great deal to say about all of the virtues. Dr. Peikoff illuminates each of them still further in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. My book Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist dedicates individual chapters to try to build on what they taught, still further in explaining the virtues, and also takes up some of the other conventional virtues to see how those should be situated against a rational egoism.

My point here is simply to indicate that, while my focus so far has been on the many things that egoism is not, and that self-interest is not, I simply want to indicate that the Objectivist literature offers a rich elaboration of what it is in much more positive profile. And I have listed a few reading recommendations in the accompanying outline, or handout.

Okay. Let’s draw to a close. A few final thoughts. Close of part one, that is. By puncturing a number of misconceptions, I hope you now have a somewhat cleaner, more accurate grasp of rational egoism. This is what that woman is talking about. Ayn Rand’s moral views are radically different from centuries of convention. They’re provocative. I hope, you know, if you’re new to learning about Objectivism, I hope that you will be provoked, provoked into thinking, thinking more about the logic of self-sacrifice and the logic of egoism. Reading more, listening to more lectures, I hope you’ll think more seriously about a moral code that holds that there is nothing wrong with pursuing your self-interest and everything right about it, if you pursue it rationally, practicing the kind of principled, virtuous action necessary to attain it. For the undeniable fact is: human beings live, we survive and we prosper materially and spiritually by doing things that are good for us—whether you are that infant we talked about earlier, whether you’re nineteen or thirty-five or eighty-five.

Your life and your happiness depend on your doing things and acquiring things: a job, a home, a friend, a sense of fulfillment; doing things that keep you going. Your values are the fuel that sustains you. To condemn a man for selfishly seeking those things is to condemn a man for living. Selfishness is a virtue, as her book title claims. And it is the path to happiness, as we’ll see in part 2. Okay. Thank you.

10. Question period

Thank you. Plenty of time for questions. And this is where I’m supposed . . . You know, I said I don’t have to remind myself to breathe every morning, but I do have little post-its that tell me to breathe for Q&As, so I’ve got to try to remember that: Breathe.

Q: Would you agree that rational egoism can be perfectly consistent with risking one’s life in certain situations? Two examples come to mind, one is: taking certain specific actions that put your life in danger. Ayaan Hirsi Ali could have left Islam quietly. Because she spoke out, she’ll need bodyguards the rest of her life. I don’t think she’s indifferent as to whether she lives or dies. Second category would be types of professions where risk is inherent: soldiers, emergency responders, we get the cliché frequently, at least in New York we do, most people run away from burning buildings, these brave folks run toward them.

A: Yeah, no, that’s a very interesting question. And yes, I do think that the rational pursuit of your self-interest, of your happiness, can be compatible with taking life-risking actions, because . . . .  In some ways this gets a little bit complicated, but the pursuit of your life is the pursuit of a life of a certain kind—filled with things that you value. In a way this is a variation on the point I made: your life is not a science project, right? Your life is not to see how long can this one live, you know, just pure longevity. No. The quality of life is what makes you want to keep your life going. But the quality of life encompasses your values, the conditions under which you would value continuing living. Someone like the political Islamic dissident Ayaan Hirsi Ali thinks, “I don’t want a life in which I have to be silent about issues that mean a great deal to me. I understand that in speaking out on these I am risking things. But what I would definitely lose by the alternatives available to me, are of greater value to me.” So she is not sacrificing anything I think, you know, in terms of thinking: “no, I want a certain kind of life. I am willing to pay for it, including by taking certain risks.” So it’s the embrace of your values that can make it make sense for a rational, self-interested person, to be willing to risk those values in the kinds of examples and cases that you raise, as well as in others.

Q: Can you elaborate on the distinction between Egoism and Selfishness. Sometimes I use them interchangeably and I’m curious to hear your thoughts on that.

A: Well, I tend to use them interchangeably, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using them interchangeably. And I do think both think both terms should be embraced unapologetically. She is talking about selfishness. This is what it is to be a self, to have a self, to grow a self, to serve a self. And you know, people sometimes wonder, “Why did she have to use that abrasive term?” You know, why . . . Because that’s what it is. She didn’t want to avoid, or evade the issue. She thought, “Let’s talk about this.” Calling it other things, trying to soft-pedal it—this is what it is. Now, conventionally, in the way, people speak, I think we’re often . . . Let me say a couple of things. We’ll often condemn something that someone did as “selfish.” And in many cases there is something in what he or she did that is criticizable, that was wrong, that should be criticized. But we tend, as a society, to use, in a very crude, coarse way, that handy catch-all: “It was selfish.” Now, maybe it was inconsiderate. Maybe it was much worse than that. Maybe it was deceptive and manipulative. But let’s pinpoint exactly what was wrong, or what the alleged wrong was, in what somebody was doing, to get at . . . Is there really something wrong there, or not? So, I certainly understand that people tend to use the term to convey, to describe behavior that sometimes does have something wrong with it. But that’s not what we’re talking about, and the correction to the “wrong” behavior isn’t that he should have been more selfless.

Q: Just to fine-tune the question, I actually meant that, in the positive term, within the scope of Objectivism, where you put the distinction between ‘egoism’ and ‘selfishness.’ Obviously they are both positive.

A: I use them both interchangeably, being selfish, selfishness, egoism, the pursuit of your interest, yeah, and I don’t know of anybody, somebody might correct me, but I don’t know of any within Objectivism or, you know, scholarship on Objectivism, any particular distinction to be drawn there.

Q: I actually have the same question, I was going to ask what you thought the difference is, whether there are any nuances between ‘self-interest’ and ‘selfishness’, but since he basically asked that, I’m just going to ask: why do you think Ayn Rand condemns altruism and not just self-sacrifice, because her definition of altruism is self-sacrifice. But when you look up, for instance, just a quick Google search, self-sacrifice is the giving up of one’s own interests or wishes in order to help others, or to advance a cause. But “altruistic” is similar, it says: showing a selfless and disinterested concern for the well-being of others, unselfish. But there are more rational synonyms in there like compassionate, being kind, benevolent, and I think a lot of times when my friends hear, “Oh, Ayn Rand condemns altruism,” she thinks that she’s condemning being kind or being benevolent.

A: Yeah, well, a few things. You definitely want to be careful in talking with friends about what you’re advocating or what Ayn Rand is advocating. This isn’t anti-benevolent, this isn’t anti-kindness, it’s not even anti-charity all the time, you know, like . . . “we’re non-stop non-givers to charity.” It’s anti-sacrifice: that’s the heart of altruism, right? Otherism. Others are what count. Not you. You, less. That’s what you’re . . . So, in some ways, unfortunately, there’s no quick linguistic way to say just what you mean, I mean, philosophical issues, you have to have these conversations with friends to explain . . . And I don’t mean this, and here’s why I don’t mean this, and here’s why Ayn Rand doesn’t mean this, and that requires your thinking about, well, really? How is charity ever consistent with rational self-interest. And if you haven’t thought about that we can talk afterwards and we can start, you know, get you started thinking about that, and so on. But it’s not that, and I don’t think, and no offense to your friends, but I don’t think they’re walking around with the Google definition of altruism in their minds: you know, any definition in the sense that it explains these nice, these nice synonyms according to certain dictionaries, like “compassion,” in a general sort of way.  So there’s no kind of shorthand, linguistic way. And if a friend is serious about thinking about the issues, then it takes some explaining, but essentially, altruism is self-sacrifice, and that’s what’s being called for, and while the language used by everyone, you know, training us all to be altruistic or self-sacrificing, the language varies in different time periods and so on . . . The essence is the same, and it’s that essence that she is rejecting in celebrating and endorsing selfishness.

Q: It’s often said that children are selfish, or babies are selfish, and you use the phrase “selfish son-of-a-gun.” So I was wondering if technically it wouldn’t be selfish even though it’s acting in one’s self-interest, because it doesn’t involve a self-conscious choice to act in one’s self-interest.

A: I don’t think that the infant is making a rationally self-interested choice. So, in that sense, you know, the infant is pre-moral. I think, now I might be corrected just by the scientists out there. But yeah, rational self-interest is a rational, deliberate, volitional, conceptual choice. And it is true that an infant is not making that kind of choice when it, you know, sucks mommy’s milk, or does those . . . So I didn’t say, you know, I was just being . . . It’s a selfish son-of-a-gun, isn’t it? It’s doing things that are good for him, right, and we’re all happy in egging it on because, you know, horror of horrors, the kid wants to live. But that’s what Tara wants to do, and Tara makes a selfish decision, right? It’s like, yeah, she wants to live, she wants to be happy. That’s what Mary does or Henry does, when Henry makes any selfish decision, right? It’s not like, we’ll let you get away with it the first few months, oh, but then we’re going to teach you the altruism stuff. But no, you’re quite right that yea, strictly it’s pre-, you know, pre-rational, and pre-being self-interested. He’s not an altruist, either. If the kid is sick and he turns away mommy’s milk when he really needs it, or something, it’s like . . . “You little altruist, we’ve got to get you to OCON.”

Q:  You discussed earlier how rational self-interest is not hedonism. And you gave a number of examples of doing things for pleasure and how that would be a bad idea. And it seems to me that in each example, you would get short-term pleasure, near-term pleasure, and that that would be a trade-off against your long-term pleasure. And so I’m curious what is your analysis of long-term pleasure as a standard for ethics.

A: Interesting question, and it gives me, well, okay, a couple of things. And again, nothing against pleasure, everything against pleasure being the standard by which you make decisions, and by which you try to gauge what’s actually going to be good for me or bad for me, right? And I guess it gives me the opportunity to say: important as I think it is to distinguish the long-term effects of certain behavior from the short-term effects, right, that’s not all there is to a full, conceptual understanding of what your self-interest is. It’s not only a matter of day-after-tomorrow versus now, or next year versus this week. It’s also, you’ve got to take into account the full range, the three-sixty of your life, and your interests, and all of your values. So you know in some of the examples and different points I was talking about I tried to make reference to, you know, yeah, income makes a big difference to, you know, to a person’s well-being, but so does, what’s the state of the marriage, what’s the state of my, you know, emotional life, psychological life, my other relationships, am I having fun, am I working too hard, and so on. So, I do think it’s a mistake sometimes, and I don’t . . . I’m really using your question as an opportunity to make this clarifying point. I’m not saying that you’re falling into it at all, but I think it’s a mistake sometimes to focus as much as we do on “long-term versus short-term,” which is important, but which is only one dimension of getting how self-interest encompasses. It’s a lot more complicated even than that, than thinking through, okay. That said, it leaves me with the harder part of your question. And I don’t know, I don’t know much to say about that except, you want to take the long-range into account, but you don’t want to discount the here and now, that is . . . Life is made up of “heres” and “nows.” Getting the tenses right in life, is like, you know, your life is this whole, and it does make sense to look, to think about, well, if you’re going to be retired one day you’re going to need the income and so on, but you don’t want . . .  just as you don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket, you don’t want to put all your eggs in the future, the future, the future. You have to seize the moment sometimes, and that’s got . . . that’s a tricky thing to think about, but it’s got to be . . . but it’s got to be thought about in a way that you think is genuinely serving your all-things-considered well-being. Going back to one of the points I think I made at one point, I said something like: “You have to learn to manage your wants and your values.” . . . When to indulge, when not to, because it’s not that you should always put off having that pleasure or that treat or something like that, so there is definitely more to it than I can say on it now. Imagine that. There’s more to it.

Q: How does one develop a self?

A: No, that’s a, that’s a very fair question. And it’s another area where I thought, “now this could be misunderstood and . . .” It’s another one on which I don’t have all the answers, by any stretch. But, you know, it’s not something you, kind of, put on or say, “Oh, I’d better get a self-coach,” or, you know, that you can cultivate, but you pay attention to . . . I mean, I think part of it is, you pay attention to what you like at all levels. What kind of foods you like, what kind of people you like, what kind of TV shows you like, what kind of work you enjoy, what kind of hobbies you enjoy—but pay attention to the things that you like and then if you note . . . You know, I’m really liking that, and what did I . . . And think about them. And think about, well why do you like . . . Now, I’m not saying you have to say, “Oh boy, today, you know, I’d better pay attention and go write notes tonight on everything I enjoyed today and everything I didn’t enjoy, but sort of give yourself room to experience things, to think about, reflect on what you experience and why you like them, and then, all the more, go after the things that you like, that you enjoy, not using your enjoyment as the standard, but that you think, “Yeah, you know, that’s a legitimate like, that’s not doing any harm to my other values and so on.” And in a certain sense, you will be honing a self, or finding a self, or finding: “wow, I like hazelnuts. Who knew that? But yeah, you know, I like hazelnuts, so I’ll go for hazelnuts when they have hazelnuts on the swordfish on the menu, or something like that.” So, there’s a lot to say on it, and there’s  a lot of work I think to be done on that kind of issue. And I’m not a psychologist, but, does that at all get at what you’re asking about?

Q: Yes, I see, integrating those interests together.

A: Yeah, and I mean, you want to think about . . . is this interest or taste or inclination of mine really fit with the others, and how so, how not? So, I mean, I didn’t mean build a self like put on “Oh, okay, I’m going to, you know, fall into certain of the infamous traps of ‘Oh, I must have, you know, orange hair, or I must, I must have a career decision by the time I’m 21,’ you know, you can’t force certain things, but you want to allow yourself . . .”

Thank you.

Q: My question is about how egoism is not predatory. Is respecting the rights of others self-interested when living in a culture that widespread violates them? Such as moderate theft in an impoverished culture, it’s tolerated and expected.

A: Okay. I mean, respecting the rights of others is in your interest insofar as what it does, is it respects the freedom of others, their sovereignty over their own lives. And other people are of greatest potential value to you when they are able to act as human beings, which means they are free to act by their judgment, by their reason. I mean, we are valuable to one another primarily, or essentially, or fundamentally, because we are thinking beings. That’s why we’re so much more valuable to one another than all the birds and the bees and the squirrels and all those other charming characters, right? So in respecting others’ rights you’re respecting the conditions, the necessary preconditions for their being the potentially great values that they are, okay? It does get harder once you’re in a system that’s polluted by infractions on rights, and you know, sort of the choking-off of freedom, but I didn’t quite understand what you meant by “if you’re in a society where theft is tolerated? . . . ”

Q: Well, such as in any kind of poverty where crime is rampant, I wasn’t suggesting so much government, but a society where crime is rampant.

A: But I guess I wouldn’t see reason why, well, crime is rampant around here, okay, so I’m going to just help myself, too, and infringe on others’ rights.

Q: Well, okay, my understanding of respecting rights was cultivating a society that did respect rights, and that’s how, even if it . . .

A: And trying to have a government that is going to, you know, enforce, people’s rights, and, you know, and not just “oh, let’s talk to you about that rights violation”—no, sorry, you ripped her off and you violate her rights, you pick her pocket, you rape her or something. We’re not going to allow . . . We’ll try to make you understand, too. First thing to do is make them respect the rights.

Q: Okay, thanks.

A: Okay, we can try to talk more later and I’ll try to get at more what you have in mind.

Q: In my copy of The Fountainhead there’s a preface where Ayn Rand writes that she noticed in the editing process, somewhere near the end of the book, she had in some way misused the term ‘egotism’ when she should have written ‘egoism,’ but because of the context she decided to leave it in. And I’ve never quite had a clear understanding what the distinction would be between egoism and egotism.

A: And I’m sorry to say I can’t help you here. I have only a dim recollection of her saying that, and I . . . but I mean, a dim recollection, I must have read it many, many years ago. And I don’t have a view on that. I mean, I do know that I get irritated when people mistakenly speak of egotism as if it’s the same thing as egoism, but “egotism,” at least to my ear, has a ring of this kind of oblivious self-centeredness, just oblivious to other people, and their reality and their context and so on, a non-objective absorption, self-absorption or solipsism that is not, again, in any way, a part of, or necessary for self-interest. Being, you know, an adult, rational self-interested sucker. But, so, now again, I may be idiosyncratic in terms of my take on egotism. But I would only . . . you know, don’t put any great stock in that. That really is simply, that’s my take on it. You might talk to other people, and there may be other people who really understand or who are more familiar, and have given more thought to exactly what Ayn Rand meant and what she was saying there. I don’t know.

Thank you.

Q: Hi. In a society or country of multiple selves, each with their own sense of what’s valuable to them in their life, is it possible to objectively conclude what is in the interests of that society when there is no self representing that society?

A: Well, I mean, in a society you want what it makes sense to try to have is, in a way this goes back to the question about rights a few minutes ago, the kinds of conditions that are necessary for all human selves, all human beings, to live and prosper together, right? I mean, just as I was saying, you know, you have to . . . The case for egoism is in a way simple. You should be self-interested because you have got to be self-interested. But if we are to prosper as a society in community with other people, right? If we’re going to have the kind of community in which we as individuals, because there is no self . . . you know, there’s just the self, the individual self, but if we want to live in a society in which we can prosper as individuals, and we think, or individually you think: “Man, I can prosper a lot better living with a lot of other people,” right? Then we want . . . then it makes sense to have the only kind of society that can ensure those preconditions that are necessary . . . so thinking about it philosophically in fundamental terms: yes, we can identify what those preconditions are: respect for individuals, freedom, rights, that’s still compatible with different selves, different individuals, having lots of differences in their optional interests, and compatible with respecting the rights of others, pursuing all sorts of, you know, leisure activities and wasting their time on this kind of movie or that kind of humor or whatever it might be, so there’s room for a lot of variety in a proper society, but there’s not room for people who violate others’ rights, or break those conditions down under which individuals can prosper.

Thank you.

Q: So we’ve seen from your talk a lot about making decisions and planning for the future, that kind of thing, this question is about posterity, and sort of planning for the end. Remember, I think it was in the Phil Donahue interview with Ayn Rand and Ayn Rand quoted an unnamed source: “The day I die is the day the universe ends.” And I’ve had discussions with my parents about their will; they tell me: you’re in my will and I tell them: “Blow every penny of it. Spend the last penny right before you take your last breath, I don’t want any of your money.” But, you know, is there a concept of “posterity,” a sort of exchanging while you’re alive with a future after you’re gone.

A: Oh boy, that’s a hard question. It’s a good, you know, it’s a fine, fair question. I mean, yeah, I mean, I think it makes sense to care about what’s going to . . . I think it makes sense to care about what’s going to happen after I’m gone, after you’re gone, right? I think it also makes sense to care, you know, most about your own experience, while you’re alive. And that’s something nice in the spirit of you’re saying to your parents, you know, if you feel that way about your parents: “Have the best time you can while you can.” All right? I mean, and that again is to say, the long-term . . .you know, enjoy . . . that’s what’s it all for. And I think in that spirit Ayn Rand was, in a sense, the world does die when I die. The world for me, the only world I’ve ever known or can know, right, and I mean there’s a sense in which you all are just extras in my movie about me. Alright? No, so even that, now . . . But I have to understand, the world wasn’t made for me, but my universe is yeah, like, my life is enriched by you guys. But, let me go back to . . . Caring about the future. In a certain . . . There are some affinities between this issue and the very first question we had this morning about risking your life for the sake of certain things. Now, again, I’m not here by any means advocating “sacrifice your life or your happiness for the sake of what might happen you know, a few hundred years down the road,” okay, but consonant with the rational pursuit of your best life in your finite number of years on this earth: if there are people you really care about, causes, values you really care about, I think it can make sense to contribute to those causes in whatever way, you know? To the well-being of certain family members who you really about a lot, again, to other causes: political causes, cultural causes, philosophical causes—because you, as a kind of statement of the value of life, the value of . . . how much you value this thing: “Yep, I’ve had my finite share of it. And that’s not going to go on forever.” But you can have that, too, you know, this child that I love, or this nephew that I love, or even these anonymous, like “Wow, you guys, who I don’t even know, you know, anonymous future Objectivists, anonymous future people.” You can have this, too, you can have this great life: “Oh this great . . .” if I can do things to help that along, that, I think, is perfectly self-interested. Because we do enjoy and benefit from, and draw sustenance from living in a world of the right kinds of values—of our own values. So I think . . . Thank you for letting me think about that issue. It’s a nice issue to think about. I mean in one sense you might think it’s a morbid issue, but it’s great.

Anu: Tara, can you take two more? Quickly?

Q: Well, I’d like to advance for your comment then, the distinction as I understand it between egoism and selfishness—and altruism and self-sacrifice, as was mentioned in the earlier questions, just to the best of my understanding: egoism is the philosophy of selfishness, the code of selfishness. Whereas selfishness can describe individual behaviors, you can loosely say that the behavior is egoistic but what you really mean is that it’s motivated by the code of egoism. And in reverse, you would say that a behavior is self-sacrificial, but altruism is the code of self-sacrifice. And I think in connection with someone was saying earlier about how altruism is taken to mean “benevolence,” it’s important to remember the distinction because we have to take these concepts consistently, and by their essentials. Would you agree with that, or do you think there is something I’m missing?

A: Well, on . . . I definitely agree with the latter portion about: we have to take these concepts seriously and benevolence . . . and have to be clear about what they mean and don’t mean, and altruism and benevolence and so on. I don’t, I don’t see much value in the earlier distinction that you made, that one is the code. I mean, you can describe a person as egoistic. It’s more natural, maybe, in the way we speak most often, to describe a person as selfish. And it’s true that egoism is a thought-out code. I mean it’s the philosophy that Ayn Rand is prescribing, so I think there’s a sense in which that can be helpful. The larger thing I would just, again, caution against is, it’s not a matter of language. It’s . . . not a matter of language games or thinking that language can do our thinking for us. So even when we are, and sometimes should be clarifying how terms are being used in conversation with other people, you want to keep your eye on the heart of the issue, the substantive issues about who should “come first,” and even that’s not the best way of putting it, but you know, what should you be acting for? What should be the ends of your objects? So I don’t think there’s anything highly objectionable in what you were saying about the altruism, egoism, and their relationships to the other terms, and so on, but nor do I find it particularly all that helpful, but if it’s helpful in a given conversation, sure, as long as you really get to the heart, the meat of the matter.

Thank you.

 [Harry Binswanger] Q: Hi. I wanted to suggest that you had the answer to the question about long-range pleasure and short-range pleasure in what you said that “pleasure is not the standard.” Now, if you imagine someone’s saying, “Well, I’m Howard Roark and I’m offered a chance to do the bank if I make some compromises, and if I don’t, I’m broke, and if I don’t take this I may have to get a day-laborer’s job,” how are you going to use the standard of long-range pleasure versus short-range pleasure? How are you going to apply that to make that decision. Don’t you think that you answered it already in saying “Pleasure can’t be a standard”?

A: Yes. I mean I think so. If I get you now. I think so. That pleasure is just not going to be able to really tell you what it is you need to be thinking about to be able to make that kind of decision.

 [Harry Binswanger]: Yeah, in order to know whether you’re going to get the long-range pleasure, you have to have a theory of human nature and of values.

A: Pleasures . . . there’s a way in which pleasure is similar to emotions and being reactive, and that’s going to depend on . . . I mean, you’ll get certain kinds of pleasures depending on what the pre-existing ends and values are. So yeah, yeah. That is helpful.

[Harry Binswanger]: It’s just epistemologically vacuous to use that as the standard.

A: Good. Thank you.

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