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Sunday, March 20, 2005

The Virtues of Selfishness

Ayn Rand was not afraid of turning conventional wisdom on its head. For millennia, one of the few ethical principles that prevailed across cultures was the value of altruism, i.e. , giving up your life for the benefit of others. Rubbish, writes Rand in The Virtue of Selfishness.

Rand was as anti-community and pro-individual as anyone I have ever read. Adamantly opposed to coercive state and religious power, she built a philosophy, Objectivism, on rational thinking and reason. She became too dogmatic and rigid for my taste in later years; nevertheless, she has some very interesting things to say.

"Every human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others and therefore, man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself." I find this statement profound in its implications; if it were to be adopted everywhere, wars would cease. It's only because we have bought into the principle of sacrificing oneself for the greater good that armies can survive, yet the reason is so others can accumulate or obtain what you should be able to.

In her philosophy, the happiness of the individual is paramount. Religious types will find her philosophy more than unsettling, because as an atheist, she values the present and current life above everything else. Whether you like her or not, several of the essays are well worth the time to read, particularly "Collectivized Rights" and "Man's Rights." One's gut response is to say that she has rejected charity and helping others. Not at all. It's just that helping others should not be at one's own expense, e.g., spending a fortune to cure one's wife of a disease because the wife is important to oneself would fit nicely into her worldview. Love is entirely selfish.

An important book no matter where you stand.
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