The Virtue of Selfishness (Signet)

The Virtue of Selfishness (Signet) - Ayn Rand Ayn Rand was once asked if she could present the essence of her philosophy while standing on one foot. She answered: Metaphysics: Objective Reality; Epistemology: Reason; Ethics: Self-interest; Politics: Capitalism. I first encountered Ayn Rand through her works of fiction as a young woman barely out of my teens. Back then I was already an atheist, one with a great belief in science and reason. There was nothing in her "metaphysics" or "epistemology" that I found the least bit surprising or controversial--indeed in essentials I already agreed with her. Her ethics and her politics were a different story. I remember reading Atlas Shrugged and thinking "you crazy bitch." But she did touch off a revolution in my thinking, changing me from a liberal to a libertarian. Do I agree with everything within these pages? Well, let's say there is still much of it where I have doubts, and where I feel uneasy about her tone if nothing else. She wrote in the book: I hear once in a while: 'Why do you use the word selfishness to denote virtuous qualities of character, when that word antagonizes so many people to whom it does not mean the things you mean'? To those who ask it, my answer is: 'For the reason that makes you afraid of it' That's rather a slap at the reader and her opponents. Yet having read her books, even without her elaborating, I knew what she meant. Or thought I did. That people do fear selfishness as an ideal. Make no mistake--this is a demanding ethic. It requires integrity, to never fake reality. To never let your weakness stand as a plea for the unearned. It doesn't allow you to cover up a lack of self-worth by being subsumed by being part of a "greater" whole. At the same time--and this is more a matter of tone than substance--I do think Rand undervalues benevolence, kindness, generosity. I found I liked better Spinoza's formulation of the question of ethics. Spinoza, like Aristotle (and Rand), emphasizes that ethics is about human flourishing and happiness. But what I like about Spinoza is his emphasis on reciprocity and empathy--in other words, the Golden Rule that has been a near universal in moral thinking from Confucius to Jesus: “Every man should desire for others the good which he seeks for himself.” Spinoza recognizing humans flourish best with other humans argues it’s in a person’s self-interest, and makes a person happiest, when consequently people “are just, faithful, and honourable in their conduct.” I like that squaring of the circle of selfishness and altruism--which I think Rand too easily dismisses. But you know, were it not for Rand bringing philosophy alive to me and convincing me it's important I would never have read Aristotle--or Spinoza.