Rational egoism is a particular brand of ethical egoism that claims the promotion of one’s own interest is always in accordance with reason. Rational egoism, also called rational selfishness, is the principle that an action is rational if and only if it maximizes one’s self-interest. One of the most well-known proponents of rational egoism is the contemporary philosopher Ayn Rand (1905-1982).
Thirty years after her death, her book sales still number in the hundreds of thousands annually — having tripled since the 2008 economic meltdown. Among her devotees are highly influential celebrities, such as Brad Pitt and Eva Mendes, politicos, such as current Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Ted Cruz.
The core of Rand’s philosophy — which also constitutes the overarching theme of her novels — is that unfettered self-interest is good and altruism is destructive. This, she believed, is the ultimate expression of human nature, the guiding principle by which one ought to live one’s life. In “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal,” Rand put it this way:
Collectivism is the tribal premise of primordial savages who, unable to conceive of individual rights, believed that the tribe is a supreme, omnipotent ruler, that it owns the lives of its members and may sacrifice them whenever it pleases. By this logic, religious and political controls that hinder individuals from pursuing self-interest should be removed.
Rand’s philosophy is an ethics of choice, guided by reason, with human survival as its goal. This is diametrically opposed to altruism. Altruism, according to Rand, is a morality of the past. It is irrational to expect people to be motivated to act in whole or in part for the sake on another’s interest(s). According to Rand, humans must choose their own values, goals, and actions in order to maintain their lives. Without the ability to choose, there could be no morality because morality deals only with issues open to man’s choice (i.e., to his free will).
In Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism, rationality is conceived of as man’s basic virtue, the source of all other virtues. The virtue of rationality means the recognition and acceptance of reason as one’s only source of knowledge, one’s only judge of values and one’s only guide to action. It means a commitment to the reality of one’s existence, i.e., to the principles that all of one’s goals, values, and actions take place in reality and, therefore, that one must never place any value or consideration whatsoever above one’s “perception of reality.”
It is popular today to link Rand’s philosophy with the basic tenets of capitalism. She describes the capitalist system as the essence of individualism with a laissez-faire attitude in which the function of government is solely to protect individual rights, including property rights. The idea is for the government to have a hands-off approach and let each individual act in their rational self-interest and somehow this will lead to the ultimate best interests of society. Thus, Rand had a vision of capitalism as a moral ideal. Of course, this is a controversial issue today as many critics talk about the evils of capitalism and the unequal distribution of resources and wealth born out of a pursuit of self-interest mentality of corporations and well-heeled individuals.
Writing a column for the Public Broadcasting System, Denise Cummins examines why Rand’s popularity among young adults continues to grow. They seem to be drawn to Rand’s philosophy of unfettered self-interest. When questioned about their beliefs, some have said it taught them to rely on no one but themselves. Others believe it to be an idealized version of core American ideals: freedom from tyranny, hard work and individualism.
I’m not surprised that college students ascribe to the view that Rand’s philosophy promises a better world if people are simply allowed to pursue their own self-interest without regard to the impact of their actions on others. After all, students believe, others are simply pursuing their own self-interest as well.
Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on February 15, 2018. Dr. Mintz is a Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Visit his website and sign up for his Winter 2018 newsletter.