The Selfish Life

In a life of rational selfishness, there is no outer war with other rational people. There is also n

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When I tell people I’m selfish, they usually don’t know what to make of it. You see, I’m a nice guy. I wish others well, I use my indicator when I drive, and at work I function well on teams. If I were selfish, shouldn’t I be trying to exploit and dominate other people? Not according to Ayn Rand.

Her philosophy, Objectivism, does away with both the exploited and the exploiter. My self-interest certainly does not lie in loving my enemy and turning the other cheek. Spiritually, this is self-abnegation; materially, suicide. But my self-interest also does not lie in dominating others. Al Capone’s whim-driven and anxiety-filled life is not a model for how to achieve happiness.

The proper principle to follow in my dealings with others, Rand calls the trader principle. Whenever I seek a value from someone, I must offer a value in return. If I want a job, I had better make sure that I have skills which will enable my employer to make a profit off of me. If I want a lover, I had better make sure I bring the qualities of character to the relationship that make it pleasurable and rewarding to the other person. In the realms of matter and of spirit equally, the principle to live by is: mutual exchange to mutual benefit.

A world of genuine selfishness therefore is the opposite of a dog-eat-dog world. It’s a world of achievement, respect and goodwill. I feel respect toward others because they are potentially like me: rational individuals who can create a life of joy and happiness.

I feel goodwill, because others’ achievements are no threat to mine. On the contrary, the more they achieve, the more the possibilities of trade open up. I don’t resent but admire the wealth and success of a heart surgeon or a Tiger Woods. Their money and achievements were not taken from me, and they create the possibility that my heart ailment can now be cured and that, as a spectator, I can now enjoy a superlative demonstration of human ability and drive.

In a life of rational selfishness, there is no outer war with other rational people. There is also no inner war between my emotions and my reason.

To be selfish does not mean following whatever feeling happens to strike me, the judgment of my mind be damned. It means thinking carefully and logically, in order to understand the world around me and so be able to achieve genuine values within it. My reason is firmly in the driver’s seat. It sets both the destination and the means of getting there. But my own happiness is that destination.

Logical thought therefore is not a chore or a duty. I should be passionate about my mind and its health and use, for the simple yet profound reason that every achievement that makes us human, from language to science to technology to business to art, is a product of the rational mind.

The life to aspire to, then, is one of passionate logic and logical passions, a life of harmony both without and within, the kind of harmony the Ancient Greeks sought but could never fully realize. This is the life of Rand’s hero in The Fountainhead, Howard Roark. This is the selfish life.

Onkar Ghate is a senior fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute. He specializes in Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism and teaches philosophy in ARI’s Objectivist Academic Center. He also serves as a writer, editor and media representative for the Institute. Dr. Ghate received his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1998 from the University of Calgary.