Formally, Ayn Rand called her philosophy Objectivism but informally she called it “a philosophy for living on earth.” At the centre of her system of ideas is a new vision of morality, one that proudly advocates the virtue of selfishness .
What does she mean?
The source of good and bad, value and disvalue, benefit and harm, she argues, is the existence of living things. Is finding water good for the giraffe? Is breaking a leg bad for the cheetah? Is locating fruit in the trees a value to the monkey? Is a drought harmful to the elm? The answer is ‘yes’ in all these cases because of the impact on each living thing’s life. The organism’s life is the gauge or standard which determines what is good or bad for it, valuable or disvaluable, beneficial or harmful.
The same principle holds for human beings, though it applies in distinct ways. Giraffes and cheetahs pursue their values automatically, and the built-in gauge directing their actions is the continuance of their lives. We don’t automatically pursue values. We don’t have an in-built standard. We must each choose consciously to make our life and its prosperity our ultimate aim. We then have to figure out what wins prosperity. To help us figure this out is the job of philosophy.
The requirements of a living organism are complex and unique. The things that maximize a monkey’s ability to live are not the same as those that maximize a cheetah’s. What are the values that we need to gain in order to be pursuing life? What is good and what is evil? Fame, money, power, love, art, knowledge, beauty, friendship, sex? Rand devoted much attention to these in her fiction and non-fiction writings, offering fascinating accounts of the conditions under which, for instance, money, art and sex are life-promoting and therefore moral.
Among her central conclusions is that an individual’s prosperity demands a life of production and thought. Other animals live by snatching what is around them—plucking fruit from a tree or gulping water from a stream. We don’t. We turn barren land into orchards. We build irrigation canals. We create what has never existed before: computers, airplanes, polio vaccines. What enables us to do this? Reason: systematic and deliberate logical thought. So the image her morality holds up to us to emulate, on whatever scale of ability we can achieve, is the thinker, the creator, the producer—the Aristotle, the Hugo, and the Carnegie.
To have their kind of devotion, rational and passionate, to your own mind and self — to your life and the incredible happiness that is possible within it — is for Rand the hallmark of morality. This is what she means by the virtue of selfishness.
Many of us recoil at the term “selfish” because it conjures up the image of a person who lies, cheats, steals and even kills to get whatever he happens to want today. Rand too condemns such a person, but not as selfish. She condemns him as self-less. Such a person, she argues, far from being honestly mistaken about what is life-promoting, has never bothered to think about what values to pursue or why; he functions emotionally and in fact puts himself on a self-destructive path. He has abandoned his mind and his self.
So what does it mean to accept Rand’s new moral code? It means you embrace your own happiness as an end in itself. It means you choose to think rationally about and to seek unwaveringly all the values, of body and of mind, that your own life requires. It means you come to actually deserve the title “selfish”—and that you wear it openly and proudly.