Selfishness, Egoism and Altruistic Libertarianism

D.A. Ridgely on Aug 24th 2008

It is a cliché among many psychologists and economists that human beings behave self-interestedly. Moreover, since Adam Smith’s somewhat theological, somewhat anthropomorphic “invisible hand” metaphor, it has been almost an article of faith within the latter discipline that the collective, societal result of individual self-interested behavior is ironically salubrious.

It is a faith to which I also ascribe, although like all but the most zealous of religious fanatics I season that faith with the occasional heresy here and there. Crucially, however, it needs to be noted at the outset that not just any sort of self-interested behavior contributes to the common wealth and greater good. Specialization and trade, voluntary association, bargained-for exchanges, common rules and some sort of enforcement mechanism to address rule breaking are all necessary elements for human society to flourish economically, for the invisible hand to prove, as it were, optimally dexterous.

Most importantly, “self-interested” is not synonymous with “selfish.”

Discussions about selfishness elsewhere on this blog got me thinking about these things. I am no Ayn Rand scholar, nor do I purport to be an Objectivist. Undoubtedly, however, Rand’s followers constitute a significant and vocal segment of the libertarian community. (It’s a non-gated community, after all, noted for its lack of zoning regulations, restrictive covenants or entrance requirements.) Anyway, given that Rand published a collection of essays entitled The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism, it should be clear just from the title’s use of the word “egoism” that she or Nathanial Brandon, as the case may be, intended to give the word “selfishness” a special, technical meaning in the overall context of Rand’s worldview.

But selfishness and egoism are two separate things, a fact I assume Rand understood perfectly well when she deliberately invoked the apparent contradiction of selfishness as a virtue for its rhetorical impact. Whatever Rand’s standing as an intellectual and participant in the history of political philosophy, she was also certainly a polemicist with a particular political agenda in opposition to what she correctly perceived as the 20th century’s greatest threat to humankind; namely, the threat of collectivism. You simply cannot read Rand fairly without bearing that in mind.

The important point is that selfishness is a common language concept, not a technical term. Anyone fluent in English knows what it means and knows, more importantly, that it entails a negative moral judgment. Selfishness is by definition a bad thing. It’s using up all the hot water in the shower when others are waiting, eating up all the cookies instead of sharing them with friends or family, and so forth. (Except, perhaps, at the Ayn Rand School for Tots, although Ms. Sinclair couldn’t have really been much of an Objectivist since the first thing she did was violate Maggie’s pacifier property rights.)

Selfishness moreover logically entails and presupposes that there is some preexisting community to which the individual belongs and some moral commitment to that specific community. I, for example, live with my family in a household where there is a finite supply of hot water and cookies. If I stand in the shower for an hour shoving one increasingly soggy chocolate chip cookie after another into my mouth until both supplies are exhausted, I am acting selfishly relative to my family. It is less clear that I am being selfish when I buy the last package of cookies at the store, thus depriving the next cookie junkie from his or her fix, or when I purchase the big, heavy-duty water heater for my house. It is less clear, still, that it is properly called selfishness to eat any of those cookies or use any of that hot water knowing that many millions of people across the globe have neither cookies to eat nor any hot water to shower with.

To be sure, there are those who claim that the last is selfish, although the overwhelming majority don’t really believe it based on how they, themselves, actually live. The notion that we as individuals have moral obligations to humanity at large is, to put it mildly, very problematic. The point, in any case, is that we wouldn’t be inclined to call all sorts of behavior like eating a cookie selfish simply because every cookie eaten is, necessarily, a cookie no one else can eat. The morality of sharing does not require splitting my cookie into several billion pieces so everyone can have some.

Egoism, by contrast, is not an ordinary language word or concept. Mothers don’t scold their children for being egoists when they selfishly eat the last cookie. Indeed, if you peruse its Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry you will discover that there is not even a single technical sense of the term.

We pause now while I grind a philosophical axe for a moment. There is a critical difference between, on the one hand, the theory of psychological egoism, the theory that claims it is simply a fact that human beings always and under all circumstances behave self-interestedly and, on the other, ethical or rational egoism. These theories contend that morally right behavior or rational behavior, respectively, simply is self-interested behavior.

These latter may be right or wrong and are certainly subject to criticism, but at least they both admit of the possibility of unethical or irrational behavior. That is to say, the ethical egoist acknowledges that people are capable of behaving other than self-interestedly, she simply argues that they shouldn’t. So, too, the rational egoist doesn’t claim that we always act rationally, i.e., self-interestedly, but only that we should or that it is only when we do that our actions deserve the appellation “rational.”

Psychological egoism, by contrast, obliterates the normative force of self-interested behavior, whether for good or bad. Indeed, it obliterates normative considerations in the same way all strong forms of determinism do: if “ought” implies “can” but one cannot act differently than one does then it is absurd to claim that one ought to have acted differently. Moreover, if all behavior is, by definition, self-interested, then it is a fair question to ask of this non-falsifiable metaphysical theory what sort of substantive claim, if any, it really is making.

Axe grinding concluded, I’m reasonably confident that Rand was an egoist in both the ethical and rational egoism senses. In retrospect, however, it is perhaps unfortunate that she chose to use “selfishness” as a rhetorical device to describe her egoism because it opens both Objectivism in particular and libertarianism in general to the sort of prejudicial criticisms Mr. Hanley recently bemoaned.

In fact, Rand aside, there is nothing at all incompatible about libertarianism and altruism. Not, at least, if altruism is understood not as Rand technically used the term but simply as the opposite of mere selfishness. It is hardly altruistic, in the ordinary sense of the term, to coerce other people to behave in supposedly selfless ways in order to achieve your personal vision of the greater collective good even if that greater good is thereby realized. But it is unarguably immoral to coerce others using that rationale when, in fact, it becomes painfully obvious that the exact opposite results.

Indeed, if we’re looking for a single lesson from the history of the 20th century, we could do much worse than conclude that, no matter how noble their advocates’ intentions may have been, collectivist social and economic orders yield disastrous results. Obviously, therefore, noble intentions are no guarantee of success. Libertarianism has never claimed that in a libertarian world order everyone will win and “all must have prizes.” In fact, as far as I know, only utopian collectivists and Lewis Carroll’s Dodo have made that claim.

But then Carroll, of course, knew he was talking nonsense.

Filed in The Barracks, The Basement, The Bench, The Boardroom, The Bookshelf, The Bureau

11 Responses to “Selfishness, Egoism and Altruistic Libertarianism”

  1. Steve Horwitzon 24 Aug 2008 at 12:55 pm

    This is excellent DA. Might I point you and other PL readers to a recent paper of mine that covers much of this same ground?

    “Two Worlds at Once: Rand, Hayek, and the Ethics of the Micro and Macro-cosmos,” Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, 6 (2), Spring 2005, pp. 375-403

    It can be found here:

    Here’s a brief sense of the paper from the intro:

    I wish to explore how both thinkers’ ethical theories get
    played out in their understanding of social interaction. To set the
    stage in broad terms, I want to argue that when it came to the ethics
    of the anonymous world of the market and social interaction writ
    large, Rand and Hayek were in significant agreement about what sort
    of behavior was ethically necessary and what was not. Where they
    differed is in what ethic was appropriate to the more intimate and
    personal world of what Hayek called the “micro-cosmos” or the
    “overlapping sub-orders” noted in the quote that opened this paper.
    For Rand, ethical principles were not dependent on the institutional
    context, whereas for Hayek they were. In what follows, I will expand
    on these differences and explore them further. It is not clear that
    Randian self-interest can serve as the ethical foundation for appropriate
    behavior in the micro-cosmos, as we shall see by application to the
    institution of the family. In this respect, Rand’s ethics is reductionist
    in that it reduces all contexts to that of the trader; Hayek’s work
    suggests that the worlds of the micro-cosmos are contexts that
    demand different ethical principles. This sets up an interesting
    contrast: the Randian is likely to see Hayek’s “two worlds at once” as
    a rationalization for ethical inconsistency, which would trouble the
    Randian greatly, while the Hayekian is likely to see Rand’s insistence
    on a universal ethic as a refusal to recognize the importance of
    context and the social consequences of adopting particular ethical
    codes, which are charges not normally applicable to Randians. Central
    to the argument that follows is an attempt to show why what appears
    to be an inconsistency is, in fact, a consistent view of our ethical
    obligations given Hayek’s view of the nature of the social world.

  2. Mark Wickenson 24 Aug 2008 at 1:46 pm

    In her introduction to the book, Rand addresses the reason for her use of the word “selfish”:

    “The title of this book may evoke the kind of question that I hear once in a while: ‘Why do you use the word ’selfishness’ to denote virtuous qualities of character, when that word antagonizes so many people to whom it does not mean the things you mean?’ To those who ask it, my answer is: ‘For the reason that makes you afraid of it.’ [....]

    “It is not a mere semantic issue nor a matter of arbitrary choice. 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. This concept does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us whether concern with one’s own interests is good or evil; nor does it tell us what constitutes man’s actual interests. It is the task of ethics to answer such questions.

    “The ethics of altruism has created the image of the brute, as its answer, in order to make men accept two inhuman tenets: (a) that any concern with one’s own interests is evil, regardless of what these interests might be, and (b) that the brute’s activities are in fact to one’s own interest (which altruism enjoins man to renounce for the sake of his neighbors).?

  3. dhexon 24 Aug 2008 at 2:28 pm

    that’s a *very* complicated way of saying “because i like to antagonize y’all bitches, motherfucker!”

  4. James Hanleyon 24 Aug 2008 at 2:38 pm

    Several comments:

    First, I have a post coming on tomorrow in which I also talk about altruism. In it I use the biologists’ definition, and I just want to point out that post is already written, and so my discussion of altruism in it should not be taken as any sort of rebuttal to D.A.’s post here.

    Second, Steve Horwitz’ comment succinctly explains why I prefer Hayek to Rand.

    Third, Mark Wickens’ comment helps explain why I object to Rand’s intellectual approach in general. By purposefully using “selfishness” in a way opposed to its common meaning she was not just trying to further elucidate the concept, but to destroy the concept. But it’s a useful concept. To extend D.A.’s example, let’s say I am well-fed, and while driving across the desert I spot a pack of cookies. Simultaneously a lost and starving hiker spots the cookies. Being nearer, and faster, I take the cookies and eat them.

    I have not killed the starving hiker. I don’t know that he will die. And I have not taken the cookies out of his hands after he first captured them. In Rand’s approach, we have no good concept remaining to analyze my behavior. We can’t discuss the greater need of the hiker, because she has explicitly eliminated need-based rewards as incipient collectivism. The consequence, whether Rand intended it or not, is to eliminate from our vocabularly a means of criticizing my behavior normatively.

    I think there is room within libertarianism for normative criticism of my behavior in this hypothetical example, but I don’t think there is within objectivism.

  5. D.A. Ridgelyon 24 Aug 2008 at 4:05 pm

    First, I take dhex’s comment to refer to Rand’s introductory comments, not to the rest of us.

    Second, thank you, Mr. Horwitz!

    Third, as Mr. Hanley noted, there is something problematic with trying to control ordinary language in the manner Rand appears to be doing in in those introductory remarks of hers. As I’ve said before, I’m no Rand scholar (hell, I’m no scholar, as far as that goes) but I do know a little bit about philosophy and I have found Rand’s philosophy of language and epistemology to be simplistic and naive. But even if that were not the case, I repeat that I think what Rand was up to here was to score rhetorically even in that explanation. *shrug* Maybe not. Perhaps it was all the same to her. I couldn’t say.

    Fourth, to expand on Mr. Hanley’s concern that his post tomorrow not be seen as a rebuttal of my comments, let me make clear once again how I differ somewhat from the other bloggers here. (Aside from being a bear of very little brain, that is.)

    Unlike, say, Mr. Rowe, I’m not in the slightest bit interested in whether the Founding Fathers were Christians, Druids or Zoroastrians. I know other people are, I know that some of them have axes to grind on the topic and I’m glad that someone like Mr. Rowe is trying to pursue some objectivity and truth about the matter. Sometimes I agree with him (Jefferson surely was no theist and Washington almost certainly wasn’t either) and other times I don’t (deism and Christianity are absolutely incompatible). But whether I agree or not, the fact is that I don’t really give a damn.

    So, too, I’m glad there are people who defend or attack Rand, Hayek, etc., but I equally don’t give a damn what Rand’s “real position” on altruism or Hayek’s “real position” on the occasional government welfare program was. Similarly, but to shift to ground I know a little better, I don’t care what Hume’s “real position” was on causation or induction or the is-ought problem. What I want to know is what is the strongest argument one can extract from Hume or Rand or Hayek or whomever’s writings about these things and then what legitimate criticisms there may be of those arguments. That Hume or Hayek agrees or disagrees with me is a matter of absolutely no concern to me.

    Thus, let me make clear in advance that I don’t care whether taking the cookies from the starving hiker in the desert is susceptible of disapprobation in Mr. Hanley’s theoretical understanding of libertarianism but not Objectivism. Again, I don’t mean to slight his work in the slightest, it’s just that I’m just an intellectual dilettante with a very short attention span and intellectual biography doesn’t make my event horizon.

    Penultimately, let me say his extension of my hypothetical example led me immediately to think of Blade Runner and Leon being asked about the turtle on its back in the desert. Sorry, that’s how my mind works.

    Finally, I’m highly impressed that Mr. Hanley actually writes things down in advance (and for all I know even thinks about them and edits them before posting them!) instead of just winging it like I do around here. Thank Gawd someone around here has some standards!

  6. MichaelMon 24 Aug 2008 at 6:24 pm

    “I am no Ayn Rand scholar, …” This would have been a great title! Not to worry, you are in abundant company. Rushing to be the first to name the flaws in Rand’s oeuvre without first bothering to grasp it is endemic to the blogosphere.

    DA, you said: “The important point is that selfishness is a common language concept”

    Yes, just like the now common language concept “with she and I.” Language is perpetually under the assault of linguistic barbarians. Sometimes it leads to permanent changes, sometimes the next generation corrects the error. But when it does change them, the changes are in the words, not in the meanings in their proper contexts. Words are a mere medium to communicate concepts. And the concepts currently symbolized by “self interest”, egoism, and (Rand’s dictionary version of) “selfishness” will exist in the same relationship to man and each other as long as human beings exist, regardless of what changes may occur in the symbols used to represent them in our language or any other.

    You also said “Selfishness moreover logically entails and presupposes that there is some preexisting community to which the individual belongs and some moral commitment to that specific community.”

    The only preexisting community that is pertinent to the ethical status of “selfishness” is the human community. Definitions and validations of ethical principles must be based on our fundamental nature — that which is identical for all men who ever were, are, or ever will be.

    You and James commit the same sin of trying to draw ethical conclusions from single concrete examples without reference to the principles that govern them. Rand’s principles are derived by a systematic chain of logical conclusions from grasping that existence exists to the factual nature of man. Her ethics is grounded on the fact of our being living entities whose most fundamental purpose is to live — to survive and flourish as what we are (in accordance with our nature).

    That means that in all of the choices of the actions that constitute living, we must evaluate them in respect to their potential contribution to or denigration of our life. If our life is to be our standard of value, then the simple unavoidable ethical mandate is: never give up a higher value in exchange for a lower value. That is the meaning of egoism and selfishness *in principle*, and there is no human choice to which that principle cannot be applied.

    You have freely chosen responsibilities to your family that would prevent you from justifying your use of all the hot water as selfishness. James fails to consider the depth of the value and potential value of other human beings to our lives. If the other person is ostensibly honest and innocent and in need, and you are equally fit or apparently more healthy than he is and etc. etc.. sharing the cookies could be a rationally selfish act. The problem you face in making such choices is due to the fact that you do not have an objectively defined standard and a consistent system of values to refer to.

    Objectivism demands no more than for you to exert your best effort to evaluate your alternatives in respect to your life and act for that life. But remember as well that “life” means your whole life, not life for the next 5 minutes or just for today. Implicit in demanding that independence because you are human is the requirement to grant same to all other humans. That is the logical base for political freedom.

    Libertarians need to grasp that politics is the extension of ethics in the context of an individual’s life into the context of his life in a society. An inability to justify rational selfishness as a human ethical mandate will leave them with no moral justification for demanding freedom in a society of other men. If you persist in trying to demand it for pragmatic reasons, the totalitarians will eat you for lunch.


    And James said: “… in which I also talk about altruism. In it I use the biologists’ definition,…”

    Altruism is an ethical concept about which biology has nothing to say. Philosophy and the applied sciences both define what we are, but from distinctly different aspects in wholly separate contexts.

  7. Steve Horwitzon 24 Aug 2008 at 7:29 pm

    MichaelM said:

    “Libertarians need to grasp that politics is the extension of ethics in the context of an individual’s life into the context of his life in a society. An inability to justify rational selfishness as a human ethical mandate will leave them with no moral justification for demanding freedom in a society of other men. If you persist in trying to demand it for pragmatic reasons, the totalitarians will eat you for lunch.”

    Yes, well the Objectivists have had SO much more success with the totalitarians by contrast.

    It seems to me that when those who oppose freedom oppose it because they think freedom leads to disastrous consequences that only the state can ameliorate, it is incumbent upon us to defeat the very arguments they put forward. Continually saying that you can deduce man’s rights from his nature and that any infringement of said rights is akin to totalitarianism is a recipe for frustration, irrelevance, and an utter lack of success in persuading your interlocutors.

    It is precisely why I gave up on it 25 years ago. My head felt a lot better when I stopped banging it against that wall.

  8. D.A. Ridgelyon 24 Aug 2008 at 9:32 pm

    MichaelM, thanks for the comments.

    That said, it probably won’t surprise you that I disagree with many of them. (Not, however with your disapproval of people who do not know their objective case from their nominative case pronouns! Shall we rage next over careless misuse of the subjunctive mood?)

    More to the point, as my subsequent comments should have made more clear, I don’t really care what, in particular, Rand believed and I was not attempting to critique Objectivism, per se, let alone “[r]ushing to be the first to name the flaws in Rand’s oeuvre.” My focus was and remains on whether selfishness as the concept is commonly understood is inherent in and therefore a flaw of libertarianism, properly understood.

    It would be tedious and, I suspect, pointless to go into some of my other disagreement with what you wrote. Briefly, however, the notion that there are immutable concepts independent of language is not merely false, it is profoundly false and deeply misleading.

    Then there is the matter of my ethical reasoning “sins.” Silly me, I thought I was talking in general terms about common experiences and understanding, not laying the groundwork for a neo-Spinozian Principia Ethica.

    Finally, I am confident you would not find, if you bothered to read my oeuvre (trust me, it’s short, decidedly less apodictic and melodramatic and, thus, relatively painless compared to Rand’s), that I have ever argued that ethics (or, by extension, political philosophy) is or should be or can only be supported on purely consequentialist grounds. If anything, I have been arguing for over thirty years that neither a purely consequentialist nor a purely deontological ethics suffices.

    But, hey, not to worry, you are in abundant company.

  9. James Hanleyon 25 Aug 2008 at 8:25 am


    Frankly, the reason I am not a Rand scholar is the same reason I am not a Marx scholar; I read enough to be unimpressed, and I’ve yet to see anything that compels me to go back and read more.

    You say I make an error in trying to draw an ethical conclusion from a single concrete example without reference to the governing principle, but in fact I was pointing out the problematic conclusion of those principles in a particular case. Just waving your hands and wishing away the “single concrete example” won’t work, because those concrete examples are what ethicists use to analyze ethical principles.

    Finally you say: “Altruism is an ethical concept about which biology has nothing to say.”

    That is not just wrong, but arrogantly wrong. To start, biologists do talk about altruism. Second, they have a technical definition which focuses on providing a benefit to another at a cost to oneself. Third, they use that carefully defined definition to explore the puzzle of why any animal would do so.

    Given that Rand, if I understand correctly, was staunchly materialistic, I’d think what the biologists have discovered–and what they have yet to discover–would be relevant to a Randian. Granted that you can’t get an ought from an is, but we can come to better understanding of why people are/are not/in what cases they are altruistic. Ethics totally divorced from biological reality is of little interest to me.

  10. Jenniferon 26 Aug 2008 at 10:38 am

    Some aspects of “mind your own business” libertarianism are the exact opposite of selfishness. When I see something offensive on TV or hear it on the radio, for example, I change the station rather than selfishly demand the station change its programming to accommodate my tastes.

  11. D.A. Ridgelyon 26 Aug 2008 at 10:57 am

    Jennifer, precisely. It is almost quintessentially selfish to attempt to speak to the needs or desires of humankind or to act without express permission on its behalf. The greatest kindness I can do to and for most people is to leave them to their own devices and desires even or especially when I would rather they did or wanted something else.

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