In popular usage, the
word "selfishness" is a synonym of evil. yet the exact meaning and dictionary
definition of the word "selfishness" is concern with one's own interests.
Altruism declares that that any action taken for the benefits of others is good, and any action taken for one's own benefit is evil. Thus the beneficiary of an action is the only criterion of moral value - and so long as that beneficiary is anybody other than oneself, anything goes. An industrialist who produces a fortune, and a gangster who robs a bank are regarded as equally immoral, since they both sought wealth for their own "selfish" benefit. A dictator is regarded as moral, since the unspeakable atrocities he committed were intended to benefit "the people" not himself.
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 to his own interest.
The Objectivist Ethics holds that the actor must always be the beneficiary of his action and that man must always act for his own rational self-interest. It is not a license "to do as he pleases". Just as the satisfaction of the irrational desires of others is not a criterion of moral value, neither is the satisfaction of one's own irrational desires. Morality is not a contest of whims.
The moral cannibalism of all hedonist and altruist doctrines lies in the premise that the happiness of one man necessitates the injury of another.
Since nature does not provide man with an automatic form of survival, since he has to support his life by his own effort, the doctrine that concern with one's own interests is evil means that man's desire to live is evil - that man's life, as such, is evil. No doctrine could be more evil than that.
There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe : existence or nonexistence - and it pertains to a single class of entities - to living organisms. Matter is indestructible, it changes in form, but it cannot cease to exist. It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative : the issue of life or death. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action.
Consciousness - for those living organisms which possess it - is the basic means of survival. The simpler organisms, such as plants, can survive by means of their automatic physical functions. A plant has no choice of actions; the goals it pursues are automatic and innate determined by its nature. The range of actions required for the survival of the higher organisms is wider : it is proportionate to the range of their consciousness.
Since everything man needs has to be discovered by his own mind and produced by his own effort, the two essentials of the method of survival proper to a rational being are : thinking and productive work.
The ethical purpose of every individual man is his own life.
The basic social principle of the Objectivist ethics is that just as life is an end in itself, so every living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others.
Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one's values. Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy - a joy without penalty or guilt, a joy that does not clash with any of your values and does not work for your own destruction.
The maintenance of
life and the pursuit of happiness are not two separate issues. To hold
one's life as one's ultimate value, and one's own happiness as one's highest
purpose are two aspects of the same achievement.
Happiness is the purpose of ethics, but not the standard.
The principle of trade
is the only rational ethical principle of all human relationships, personal
and social, private and public, spiritual and material. It is the principle
A trader is a man who earns what he gets and does not give or take the undeserved. He does not treat men as masters or slaves, but as independent equals. He deals with men by means of a free, voluntary, unforced, uncoerced exchange - an exchange which benefits both parties by their own independent judgment. A trader does not expect to be paid for his defaults, only for his achievements. he does not swicth to others the burden of his failures, and he does not mortgage his life into bondage to the failures of others.
Love, friendship, respect, admiration are the emotional response of one man to the virtues of another. A trader is a man who does not seek to be loved for his weaknesses or his flaws, only for his virtues. To love is to value.
The two great values
to be gained from social existence are : knowledge and trade. Man is the
only species that can transmit knowledge and expan his store of knowledge
from generation to generation; the knowledge potentially available to man
is greater than any one man could begin to acquire in his own lifespan;
every man gains an incalculable benefit from the knowledge discovered by
The second great benefit is the division of labour: it enables a man to devote his effort to a particular field of work and to trade with others who specialize in other fields. This form of cooperation allows all men who take part in it to achieve a greater knowledge, skill and productive return on their effort than they could achieve if each had to produce everything he needs, on a desert island or an a self-sustaining farm.
The basic political principle of the Objectivist ethics is : no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The only proper, moral purpose of a government is to protect man's rights, which means : to protect him from physical violence - to protect his right to his own life, to his own liberty, to his own property and to the pursuit of his own happiness.
When I say Capitalism, I mean a full, pure uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire capitalism - with a separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.
It is not men's immorality that is responsible for the collapse now threatening to destroy the civilized world, but the kinds of moralities men have been asked to practice.
To be selfish is to be motivated by concern for one's self-interest. This requires that one consider what constitutes one's self-interest and how to achieve it. Selfishness entails a hierarchy of values set by the standard of one's self-interest, and the refusal to sacrifice a higher value to a lower one.
Consider a man caught in a dictatorship, who willingly risks death to achieve freedom. To call his act a self-sacrifice onw would have to assume that he preferred to live as a slave.
Art projects an implicit view of existence - and it is one's one view of existence that determines the art one will respond to. The soul of a man whose favourite play is 'Cyrano de Bergerac' is radically different from the sould of the man whose favourite play is 'Waiting for Godot'.
Of the various pleasure that man can offer himself, the greatest is pride - the pleasure he takes in his own achievements and in the creation of his own character. The pleasure he takes in the character and achievements of another being is that of admiration. The highest expression of these two responses - pride and admiration - is romantic love. Its celebration is sex.
It is in this sphere
above all - in a man's romantic-sexual responses - that his view of himself
and of existence stands eloquently revealed. A man falls in love with an
sexually desires the person who reflects his own deepest values.
There are two crucial respects in which a man's romantic sexual responses are psychologically revealing : in his choice of partner - and in the meaning, to him, of the sexual act.
Love and friendship
are profoundly personal, selfish values. Love is an expression and assertion
of self-esteem, a response to one's own values in the person of another.
One gains a profoundly personal, selfish joy from the mere existence of
the person one loves. It is one's own happiness that one seeks, earns and
derives from love.
A selfless love is a contradiction in terms : it means the one is indifferent to that which one values. Concern for the welfare of those one loves is a rational part of one's selfish interest.
If a man who is passionately
in love with his wife spends a fortune to cure her of a dangerous illness,
it would be absurd to claim that he does it as a sacrifice for her sake,
not his own, and that it makes no difference to him, personally and selfishly,
whether she lives or dies.
Any action that a man undertakes for the benefit of those he loves is not a sacrifice if, in the hierarchy of his values, in the total context of the choices open to him, it achives that which is of greater personal importance to him.
But suppose he let her die in order to spend his money on saving the lives of ten other women, none of whom meant anything to him - as the ethics of altruism would require. That would be a sacrifice.
What then, should one
properly grant to strangers? The generalized respect and good will which
one should grant to a human being in the name of the potential value he
represents - until and unless he forfeits it. Other men are of value because
they are of the same species as myself. In revering living entities, we
are revering our own life.
Since men are born tabula rasa, morally, a rational man regards strangers as innocent until proven guilty, and grants them that initial good will in the name of their human potential. After that, he judges them according to the moral character they have actualized.
It is on the ground
of that generalized good will and respect for the value of human life that
one helps strangers in an emergency - and only in an emergency. An emergency
is an unchosen, unexpected event, limited in time, that creates conditions
under which human survival is impossible - such as a flood, an earthquake,
a fire, a shpwreck.
It is only in emergency situations that one should volunteer to help strangers, if its is in one's power. For instance, a man who values human life and is caught in a shipwreck, should help to save his fellow passengers (though not at the expense of his own life). But this does not mean that after they all reach shore, he should devote his efforts to saving his fellow passengers from poverty, ignorance, neurosis or whatever other troubles they might have. Nor does it mean that he should spend his life sailing the seven seas in search of shipwreck victims to save.
The moral purpose of a man's life is the achievement of his own happiness. This does not mean that he is indifferent to all men, that human life is of no value to him and that he has no reason to help others in an emergency. But it does mean that he does not subordinate his life to the welfare of others, that he does not sacrifice himself to their needs, that any help he gives is an exception, not a rule, an act of generosity, not of moral duty.
A right does not include
the material implementation of that right by other men; it includes only
the freedom to earn that implementation by one's own efforts.
Observe, in this context, the intellectual prescision of the Founding Fathers: they spoke of the right to the pursuit of happiness - not of the right to happiness. It means that a man has the right to take the actions he deems necessary to achieve his happiness; it does not mean that others must make him happy.
The right to life means that a man has the right to support his life by his own work (on any economic level, as high as his ability will carry him); it does not mean that others must provide him with the necessities of life.
Criminals are a small minority in any age or country. And the harm they have done to mankind is infinitesimal when compared to the horrors - the bloodshed, the wars, the persecutions, the confiscations, the famines, the enslavements, the wholesale destructions - perpetrated by mankind's governments. Potentially, a government is the most dangerous threat to man's rights : it holds a legal monopoly on the use of physical force against legally disarmed victims. When unlimited and unrestricted by individual rights, a government is men's deadliest enemy.
Censorship is a term pertaining only to governmental action. No private action is censorship. No private individual or agency can silence a man or suppress a publication : only the government can do so. The freedom of speech of private individuals includes the right not to agree, not to listen, and not to finance one's own antagonists.
The source of the government's authority is "the consent to be governed." This means that the government is not the ruler, but the servant or agent of the citizens; it means that the government as such has no rights except the rights delegated to it by citizens for a specific purpose.
The proper functions of a government fall into three broad categories, all of them involving the issues of physical force and the protection of men's rights: the police, to protect men from criminals - the armed services, to protect men from foreign invaders - the law courts, to settle disputes among men according to objective laws.
Today, when a concerted effort is made to obliterate this point, it cannot be repeated too often that the Constitution is a limitation on the government, not on private individuals - that it does not prescribe the conduct of private individuals, only the conduct of the government - that it is not a charter for government power, but a charter of the citizens' protection against the government.
Individual rights are not subject to a public vote: a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority. The political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities : and the smallest minority on earth is the individual.
It is not a free nation's duty to liberate other nations at the price of self-sacrifice, but a free nation has the right to do it, when and if it so chooses.
It is capitalism that gave mankind its first steps toward freedom and a rational way of life. It is capitalism that broke through national and racial barriers, by means of free trade. It is capitalism that abolished serfdom and slavery in all the civilized countries of the world. It is the capitalist North that destroyed the slavery of the agrarian-feudal South in the United States.
Man's need of self-esteem entails the need for a sense of control over reality - but no control is possible in a universe which, by one's own concession, contains the supernatural, the miraculous and the causeless.
Intellectual pride is not a pretense at omniscience or infallibility. On the contrary, it is precisely because man must struggle for knowledge, precisely because the pursuit of knowledge requires an effort, the men who assume this responsibility properly feel pride. Pride is one's own response to one's power to achieve one's values.
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