Many moons ago I encountered Ayn Rand’s ideas, and one of her more contentious ones dealt with selfishness. Rand believed that one ought to be selfish. Now, this seems an odd notion for a serious person to hold, and Rand was nothing if not serious. Say selfish and people think “cruel,” “thoughtless,” “mean,” “uncaring,” and so forth. Why would anyone defend selfishness?
Well, to start with, the term selfish acquired much of its decidedly negative connotation from English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, who argued that the “self” of a human being is a pretty nasty thing. “Brutish, nasty, solitary” is how he characterized our lives and, by implication, us all, unless we are reshaped up by others, the state, or something foreign. By ourselves we are supposedly interested in nothing but power and, indeed, in overpowering others.
Clearly, if this is true, then the human being is indeed ignoble, lowly, and something to be restrained and reeducated. But is that really how we all are by nature?
One reason Hobbes thought we are is that he believed we simply follow the laws of physics—classical mechanics, `a la Galileo and Newton—and strive with no restraints other than the forces we find blocking us. Without such forces, we would just move ahead like particles of matter. Hobbes was a materialist; for him we are all just pieces of stuff moving forward and overpowering whatever we can.
But physical matter does not think about how to act. It does not reflect on itself or ponder issues of right and wrong. It is not free to decide whether to do one thing or another.
People, however, are free. This concept is probably difficult to fathom for those who believe that we are nothing special in nature, that we have the same status as rocks or pebbles or trees, driven by hard-wiring, with all notions about freedom and decision and choice just a myth, an ancient prejudice. But it is simply undeniable, once it is thought out. For one, we are unique in that we not only make mistakes but are often wilfully just wrong and, indeed, often do wrong. Even in considering what I write here, there will be those who dispute my words and think me silly for what I think. Why are so many people wrong, if not about this issue than about many others? (One always believes that others are wrong when one claims one is right, even if one thinks that “right” and “wrong” are silly notions. But then those who disagree are wrong.) How is all this possible?
One reason is that we choose to think differently from one another. Humans are the only animals in nature that think and are, thus, often wrong—and right, too. This is unique, and it is best explained by reference to our freedom to choose. Not only is ethics dependent on this unique human feature we have, but so is disagreement, as well as diversity, cultural or personal.
If this is anywhere near what is true about us, then why would it be so bad to be selfish? We would, of course, have to reconceive our nature. Instead of the Hobbesian idea that we just want power, we may have to consider that we choose to want one thing or another and that we aren’t hard-wired to want power. But then we no longer have a self that’s bent on mischief. It is, rather, a self that (a) can choose what to do, and (b) may well have a great capacity to excel, to be good at being human. Selfish, now, would come to imply not nastiness but creativity, productivity, industriousness, rationality, and a whole lot of very good things indeed. To be selfish might turn out to imply that a properly selfish person would be careful, prudent, and as good at being human as one possibly can.
Language is not easily malleable but it does contain some almost perpetually controversial notions—“freedom,” “democracy,” “justice,” “liberty,” and, yes, maybe even “self” and “selfish.” Just because a given understanding of such concepts has taken center stage for a good while, it does not follow that it is the best understanding. And it seems to me that, given a robust, humanistic understanding of one’s self, it could turn out to be a very fine thing, indeed, to be selfish, most of the time. It would do, to quote Nathaniel Branden, who wrote a book about this, “to honor the self.”
Tibor R. Machan teaches at the Argyros School of Business and Economics at Chapman University. He is the author of Initiative—Human Agency and Society (Hoover Institution Press, 2000).