In order to appreciate Ayn Rand’s ‘The Virtue of Selfishness’ one needs to accept three premises. Firstly: the Supremacy of Reason; the use of one’s mental faculties (which are reliable) and good judgment to gain an objectively reliable understanding of reality. Secondly: the absolute sovereignty of the individual. Thirdly: selfishness is not meant in the toxic ordinary way, the way of the ‘irrational brute’. Rand’s ethic, Objectivism, is built on these three things, and simply put, is the belief that the Individual should act in his or her own rational-self-interest, and by guided by their own values, reached and applied through Reason.
Rand’s (and Nathaniel Branden’s) individualist philosophy formulates in opposition to the “sacrificial” and “altruist” ethics that have dominated history. These ethics, be they Christianity, monarchy, or socialism, all prescribe that something exists beyond the individual, something more power and something of greater worth, a “greater good” as it were. In Christianity this is of course God; the monarch in monarchy; or the state or ‘society’ in socialism. Objectivism does not value these things: Objectivism grants rights only to individuals, and not to the “irrationalities” – to a supernatural being, or traditionalist sentimentality.
Rand’s style is frank. She unashamedly condemns all forms of collectivism: Nazism, Communism, Racism, Welfare-state-ism, all of which are branded as perverse and corrupting in so far as they reduce the Individual’s rights. The individual ceases to be an individual. Things other than individual rights matter, and so individual rights are sacrificed.
Rand advocated Laissez-Faire capitalism, the belief that the State had little to no role to play in a free market. This philosophy is virtually extinct in the Western world, and is quite an extreme position, but a logical development of her core tenets: the individual is sovereign and, so long as he is governed by reason, will survive; the individual’s interest should not be sacrificed; that which is rational is good.
Rand made sure to distinguish her work from that of nihilists such as Nietzsche and other subjectivists. Whilst there may be room for overlaps in what the nihilist and the objectivist consider ‘moral’, their process and their judgment of the morality of that process are quite different. The nihilist may advocate that action X is in one’s ‘interest’ because they feel it, without much, if any, rational justification. The objectivist relies solely on Reason to justify his or her action. Morality by ‘whims’ or ‘feelings’ or ‘mysticism’ are simply what compels the ‘irrational brute’.
Furthermore, in opposing the irrational ethics and collectivist/sacrificial ethics which Rand damns as the cause of the world’s ills, Rand extols virtues which so often have been considered morally neutral, or vices. In particular Rand values Pride: the feeling one gets from being true to one’s values. A life dedicated to the Supremacy of Reason leads to: honesty (not presenting reality falsely); Integrity (staying true to one’s values); Pride and Self-Esteem (knowing that one is right, and is virtuous through reason).
Rand’s work is controversial, very different to the ethics that dominate the world. The Supremacy of Reason and the Sovereignty of the Individual is certainly a philosophy to treasure.
“Just as there is no such thing as a collective or racial mind, so there is no such thing as a collective or racial achievement. There are only individual minds and individual achievements” – Ayn Rand
“An individualist is, first and foremost, a man of reason. It is upon the ability to think, upon his rational faculty, that man’s life depends; rationality is the precondition of independence and self-reliance” – Nathaniel Branden (contributor to the book)