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A Reason for Faith: 6 Fatal Misconceptions

6) Selfishness Is Bad

In our culture, selfishness gets a bum rap. We hurl the word in spite, and receive it defensively. We have been taught from a young age that the fundamental difference between heroes and villains is that the former live for others while the latter think only of themselves.

In her non-fiction follow-up to Atlas Shrugged provocatively titled The Virtue of Selfishness, Ayn Rand reclaimed the word to advocate egoism. She explained:

The meaning ascribed in popular usage to the word “selfishness” is not merely wrong: it represents a devastating intellectual “package-deal,” which is responsible, more than any other single factor, for the arrested moral development of mankind.

In popular usage, the word “selfishness” is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment.

Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word “selfishness” is: concern with one’s own interests.

Rand expounded upon the importance of applying reason to the question of what is in one’s own interest:

There is a fundamental moral difference between a man who sees his self-interest in production and a man who sees it in robbery. The evil of a robber does not lie in the fact that he pursues his own interests, but in what he regards as his own interest; not in the fact that he pursues his values, but in what he chose to value; not in the fact that he wants to live, but in the fact that he wants to live on a subhuman level (see “The Objectivist Ethics”).

An example frequently touted by advocates of Objectivism is the graft of Bernie Madoff. His crimes are conventionally thought of as selfish, since he sought profit by victimizing others. However, a rational assessment of Madoff’s scheme concludes that it was not in his rational long-term self-interest. Look at his life today. Where is he? What is his reputation? Who loves him? On what can he rest any sense of pride? His crimes were not in service of a rational ego.

Even so, an entrepreneur like Steve Jobs who has stolen nothing from anyone is nonetheless regarded as selfish for not being as charitable as Bill Gates. Yet Jobs’ pursuit of his rational long-term self-interest provided a higher quality of life for billions of people living today and yet unborn. While Gates’ pursuit of his own interest has also benefited billions of people, his willingness to give his money away has earned him far more accolades.

Selfishness, concern with one’s one interests, is the well-spring of life on Earth. If we never acted selfishly, if we never concerned ourselves with our own interests, we would surely die.