Magazine article Free Inquiry

The Benefits of Selfishness. (Applied Ethics)

Magazine article Free Inquiry

The Benefits of Selfishness. (Applied Ethics)

Article excerpt

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 re-educated. 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? …

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