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Why “Selfishness” Doesn’t Properly Mean Being Shortsighted and Harmful to Others

Posted by $ rockymountainpirate 5 years, 4 months ago to Philosophy
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Everyone must learn how to be properly selfish: it is not automatic. Indeed, a great many people never learn it, and spend many years slowly destroying themselves through irresponsibility and vice.
SOURCE URL: https://objectivismforintellectuals.wordpress.com/2015/06/12/why-selfishness-doesnt-properly-mean-being-shortsighted-and-harmful-to-others/


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  • Posted by Sword_of_Apollo 5 years, 4 months ago
    Thanks for posting my essay. I worked pretty hard on it and hopefully the analogy I use in the beginning will help many people, especially non-Objectivists, understand the issue more clearly.
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    • Posted by nsnelson 5 years, 4 months ago
      I appreciate your article! And I am very happy to be acquainted with this Objectivism For Intellectuals.

      I found the opening analogy a little strange, but I understood what you were saying. One thing I've noticed about Ayn Rand is that she often writes in a very extreme way. Sometimes I think this is on purpose, to illustrate the extreme black/white nature of the issue. Sometimes I think it is just a writer's technique to get the reader's attention.

      But from the beginning I noticed that she uses words differently than we, or at least I, commonly do (did). This includes value, virtue, morality, and of course, selfishness, I suspect even altruism. Probably others. I think this is probably what causes even many otherwise sympathetic readers to misunderstand and dismiss her. Unfortunately.
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      • Posted by Zenphamy 5 years, 4 months ago
        Words have meanings, and generally those are concise and their history is well known. But since sometime in the 20's, there has been a concerted effort to confuse language through conflation and outright deception to allow just the type of causes you describe in your last sentence and to add confusion.

        It is important to understand the statement that there are no contradictions. If you find such in language and understandings of the definitions of words, it's critical to check and determine for yourself what a word means versus what some common usage says.

        I think AR used the words she chose to purposely eliminate misinterpretation in her philosophy and the logic that underlies it for those that can understand and grasp it. And while it's true that many won't be able to comprehend due to their lack of ability to understand the definition of a lot of words and concepts, it also leads to greater clarity and makes it more difficult to misstate the concepts and ideas, though many try.
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        • Posted by XenokRoy 5 years, 4 months ago
          I think the celerity of definition of words to be one of the key points Rand did to make her philosophy work. So often words are vague in meaning and use. The specific pin point clarity of Rand is something I found refreshing and helps a great deal in understanding Objectivism and the world around us.

          Would it not be wonderful if all people used the same clarity of meaning with all vocabulary?
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        • Posted by nsnelson 5 years, 4 months ago
          True. Words have specific meanings; some people try to distort meanings; when confronted with a contradiction we ought to check our premises (including terminology); and AR was generally clear and careful in her use of language.

          But she wasn't always so careful. The first thing I read by her was Atlas Shrugged (and I've read it and studied it several times now). I still remember the first time going through the process you described ("wait a minute, that can't be what she means; she must be using the term differently"). Her definitions became clearer as the story progressed, and even more so when I've read other of her more academic books. I strive to be a critical thinker, and I found it confusing at first; many people will not be reading as carefully as I do.

          For example, I typically thought of ‘value’ as, generally, a custom which we typically classify as good or bad (e.g., family values); Rand means a technical ethical sense: a ‘value’ is that which one acts to gain and keep. We typically think of ‘virtue’ as moral goodness (e.g., a virtuous man has morally good values); Rand says, “‘Virtue’ is the action by which one gains and keeps” (926; P3C7) one’s values. We typically think of ‘morality’ as ethics or the study of right and wrong; Rand says morality is simply means the system of values one chooses. Unfortunately, though she defines some terms differently than I normally use them, sometimes she does use them the way we are used to. For example with the term "moral," (I don't have page numbers off hand), I recall this occurring to me as I read AS (and re-read it). I recall thinking, "No wait a minute, she defined it differently back here, but now she is using it commonly."

          I agree that she is generally precise and clear. My point is that, even though she defines them (eventually), she uses several terms differently (usually) than most of her readers do. For someone like myself who is disposed to understand her, that's fine. Even for those who misunderstand her, we can point to where they misrepresent her, and we can do this just because she has defined her terms. All I'm saying is that the casual reader (and many people who pick up a novel are just that, casual readers) may be "derailed" just because of this.
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          • Posted by ewv 5 years, 4 months ago
            Where do you think she was not careful? Ethics is a branch of philosophy. Many different positions have been taken in many different ethical theories, and all kinds of eclectic beliefs have been uncritically absorbed by all kinds of people as "ethics" or "morality". Ayn Rand explained her position on a proper ethics. Whether she is referring to her own ethics or ethics in general is shown by the context.
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            • Posted by nsnelson 5 years, 4 months ago
              You are probably right about the context. Next time I read AS, I'll make note of where she seems to be using terms in different ways. I think it was things like, she would use 'morality' one way when describing her philosophy, but use it the common way when critiquing altruist looters. Sometimes, but not always. I recall kind of having to read in between the lines with a mind inclined to understand her, since, in the middle of the story she did not always stop to say, "And here I am using the term 'this' way." Of course I believe this is legitimate. It is the duty of a good reader to always seek the most charitable interpretation, that which makes the author most consistent and is most likely the author's original intent. But most readers will not do this, and especially those inclined to disagree with her anyway. We agree that those readers are at fault for this.
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      • Posted by ewv 5 years, 4 months ago
        Ayn Rand was a clear writer who thought and communicated in terms of clearly defined concepts based on essentials, not "extremism" to "get attention". She did not pander to "common use" of words used for invalid concepts in 'package deals' and other fallacies, which are hopeless for rational cognition and communication.' You cannot describe or defend a rational philosophy by adopting the fallacious terminology of its opposite.

        In the Introduction to her book The Virtue of Selfishness Ayn Rand wrote:

        "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.'

        "But there are others, who would not ask that question, sensing the moral cowardice it implies, yet who are unable to formulate my actual reason or to identify the profound moral issue involved. It is to them that I will give a more explicit answer.

        "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).
        ...

        "Yet that is the meaning of altruism, implicit in such examples as the equation of an industrialist with a robber. 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; 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')
        .
        "If it is true that what I mean by 'selfishness' is not what is meant conventionally, then this is one of the worst indictments of altruism: it means that altruism permits no concept of a self-respecting, self-supporting man—a man who supports his life by his own effort and neither sacrifices himself nor others. It means that altruism permits no view of men except as sacrificial animals and profiteers-on-sacrifice, as victims and parasites—that it permits no concept of a benevolent co-existence among men—that it permits no concept of justice.
        ...

        "To rebel against so devastating an evil, one has to rebel against its basic premise. To redeem both man and morality, it is the concept of 'selfishness' that one has to redeem."
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        • Posted by nsnelson 5 years, 4 months ago
          We don't disagree over Ayn Rand. We just disagree over me. Ha. I'm almost finished reading her Virtue of Selfishness, and I started with the intro, so I understand and agree with your point.

          I believe a good writer needs to be clear and consistent. Rand is pretty good at that. But also a good reader ought to understand what the writer is saying (hopefully before rejecting the writer). Most readers are not good at that.

          Her Objectivist oath is an example of her writing in an extreme manner: “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine." I affirm this. I understand this. But it is extreme. There are senses in which we do "live" (or share the fruit of our lives) with others. Recall her lecture on Emergencies.

          Or this: "Miss Taggart, we have no laws [really, NO laws?] in this valley, no rules [really?], no formal organization of any kind [....]. We come here because we want to rest. But we have certain customs [which are not organized?], which we all observe, because they pertain to the things we need to rest from. So I'll warn you now that there is one word which is forbidden in this valley: the word 'give.'"

          Okay, I understand what she is saying. You understand what she is saying. They don't have laws like we do. (But they would say it violates moral law to initiate violence, right?) And when they "give," it is because it helps them achieve their rational values. But don't tell me she does not write in "extreme" ways to get the reader's attention. I actually found it to be very effective. But others, who are disposed to disagree with her for one reason or another, find it as an easy excuse to reject her. In my opinion.
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          • Posted by ewv 5 years, 4 months ago
            Ayn Rand chose her words to express what she meant, not to "get the reader's attention" with "extremism". When you finish reading VOS read Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, particularly in this context the essay "'Extremism', Or The Art Of Smearing".

            She was a very clear writer who is seldom debated on the basis of what she said by those trying to bury her ideas. Those looking for an excuse to reject ideas will find a way to do that without having to confront her philosophy for what it is.
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            • Posted by nsnelson 5 years, 4 months ago
              Did she really mean Galt's Gulch had no laws? No rules? Then in the next breath she says it is "forbidden" to say give? "Forbidden," but not a law or a rule, just a custom but not in any formally organized way? What about "customs" like do not initiate violence? That would be enforced like a law. She is not being consistent; I think she was trying to sound extreme, to show as much a contrast with Code of Death society as possible. It's a novel, not a strict philosophical treatise, after all. I think she was taking some liberties as a writer, a story teller, and a very good one at that.

              We agree that those who disagree with her over this are alone to blame. She is clear where she needs to be. The reader ought to understand her before disagreeing with her. I've said this already. My point is very simple: some of these extremisms and inconsistencies cause people to reject her superficially. We agree that these people are without excuse for this. I don't understand why this is controversial.
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  • Posted by mdant 5 years, 4 months ago
    Very good explanation of some of the problems with common language and perception. There is one flaw in this that I would like to be addressed though. That is the idea that your own self interest are always served by being good/fair to others. I am nearly 50 years old and one if the things I have grudgingly had to accept after many years of trying to deny it is that that most of the people that are very successful in this world are very selfish (in the traditionally destructive meaning)...but they are very good at making most people think they are great people. If you want proof the easiest thing is to look at the field of politics...but less obvious examples are everywhere. People that are recognized by the masses as destructive do destroy themselves, but the good ones can be incredibly destructive but convince the majority that they are wonderful loving people!

    That being the case, I am a little lost with this whole selfishness is OK argument because while you can certainly be a good person while predominately looking out for your own self interest...it is not necessary. In fact, if you have the social tools you will be more successful by being destructive to others. So I seriously want to know how you can argue for selfishness unless you somehow condition it with the understanding that you will not be destructive to others regardless of whether or not it is in your long term interest. This is where the Libertarian philosophy seems clearer...there seems to be more of an understanding that you are free to do as you wish but only if it does not force others (I would consider deceptive destruction a type of force).

    ???
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    • Posted by ewv 5 years, 4 months ago
      It is not in your self interest to live in a world of dishonest, destructive social manipulation. Ayn Rand's philosophy does not say "selfishness is OK"; it is the basis of human choice in accordance with ethical standards based on the requirements of human existence requiring the use of the mind. Her ethics shows what is and is not in fact in your self interest, which is not the conventional altruist 'good person'. 'Anything goes but don't use force' is not a philosophy at all ; it's an arbitrary assertion by a-philosophical libertarian subjectivists that cannot be justified.
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      • Posted by mdant 5 years, 4 months ago
        I agree it is not in your self interest to live in a world of dishonest, destructive social manipulation. However, since you are not given a choice but to live in that world, it is in your best interest to be that manipulative person if you have the skills to pull it off. There is my problem...you can not act on self interest and be a good person if you do not recognize there is a more important moral imperative than your self interest. But I also generally agree with the id that altruism is destructive rather than helpful.

        Your last sentence seems to be putting Libertarianism down. I hope not. I would certainly disagree with your thought that they do not have a philosophy. They are just as philosophy based as objectivism (though I certainly did not state it well in my original reply). I would say they are brothers.
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    • Posted by $ jlc 5 years, 4 months ago
      I do think that Sword-of-Apollo (SoA) clearly defines appropriate "selfishness" as 'selfishness-minus-destruction'. But I think that you, mdant, have made the point that also occurred to me in reading his excellent essay: The 'range' of our perception of 'harm to others' is constrained by knowledge, advertency (for those folks who like neat words), and wisdom. (In spite of our self-name, Homo sapiens isn't really.)

      If you draw a straight line between 'my self interest which has no intent to harm others' and my 'goal', and you lack perceptive qualities, then you will often end up running over other peoples' toes.

      Jan
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  • Posted by $ Temlakos 5 years, 4 months ago
    I agree. Failure to take The Long View blinds you to things that, if you set them moving, will harm you. And because trade depends on relationships, it pays to sow the seeds of good relationships with honorable prospective trading partners.
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  • Posted by handyman 5 years, 4 months ago
    Rocky, thank you for posting this. I was not aware of this website until you did. SoA, great essay.

    I have engaged many conversations on Rand's ethics and find that many people are put off by the word "selfish." Those that engage in some basic thinking finally get it.

    I think part of the problem is that there isn't a word that captures the concept precisely enough that Rand wanted to denote. It seems that "selfish" will have to do and we will have to continue looking for better ways to explain its use - what it integrates and what it does not.

    This whole discussion reminds me of a quote: "If you don't have the word, you can't think the thought." Not sure who said this - George Orwell, perhaps. There is another quote that nearly captures the same idea: "If you do not know the words, you can hardly know the thing" - Henry Hazlitt.
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  • Posted by jpellone 5 years, 4 months ago
    Great article!!! It made me think of a few things as I was reading it.
    First it reminded me of a LED light system I designed for Halloween lighting. You can use 200 of my LED lights for the same amount of power as 1-100W flood light. I sold them on eBay and I did not MAKE anyone buy them. It didn't hurt anyone and I didn't take advantage of anyone.
    The other was when Ted Kennedy died and the Democrat Congress suspended the inheritance tax.
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  • Posted by InfamousEric 5 years, 4 months ago
    I liken the "selfish" issue to First Responder Training.

    As a 1st responder you are trained to stop and make sure that the situation is safe for you to enter, else the 2nd responder is rescuing 2 victims.

    It is rational self interest at it's finest.
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  • Posted by $ Olduglycarl 5 years, 4 months ago
    I put it this way: Every cell in our bodies are solely responsible for their own survival. Once those conditions are met, the value (the necessities of life in the blood stream) is passed on; I call it: 'Celfish'. That is not just how the body works or how each living entity should live, (love thyself), this process defines how Free Market Capitalism works. I have observed that we as Conscious Human Beings, 'automatically' share what we might have in abundance with others that are deserving. Not just capital as an investment but things as simple as food, time, knowledge, clothing, etc, etc, etc.
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  • Posted by Herb7734 5 years, 4 months ago
    To an astute, open-minded person, your definition of selfishness says it all. You go on to clarify every aspect of the incorrect use of the term, thus saving the time the intelligent reader needs to understand how use the word properly. An excellent expository essay.
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  • Posted by SaltyDog 5 years, 4 months ago
    The Nash Equilibrium states more or less the same thing. In non-cooperative endeavors, each of us acting in our own best interest (keeping in mind what is best for the others' self interest) IS what's best for the group.

    I wonder why you've got to get to college before this is taught?
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    • Posted by Sword_of_Apollo 5 years, 4 months ago
      Okay, but there are problems with using game theory to prove things about real human behavior outside of games.

      1) Game theory tends to assume zero-sum and that the goal of people's behavior is "winning," rather than getting the most benefit for themselves, even if others get as much or more.

      2) Experiments in game theory artificially restrict people's options, such that their behavior is not an accurate reflection of what it would be in the real world, with it's wide open options.
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      • Posted by SaltyDog 5 years, 4 months ago
        True enough...not everyone thinks clearly enough to realize what's in their own best interest. But that's also true of Objectivism and any other metric one brings to the table when human beings are involved.
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    • Posted by jdg 5 years, 4 months ago
      Nash's Equillibrium says nothing about what's best for any group. It merely describes a situation in games that has become stable because both (or all) sides know that they have nothing to gain by changing the outcome.

      To the extent our political situation looks like a Nash Equillibrium, it is an illusion. A few hundred powerful players have reached a near-equillibrium fighting each other, and they try to convince everyone else that it isn't worthwhile to fight the status quo. But the rest of us are screwed if we buy the lie.
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