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Objectivism advocates selfishness as a good thing, a value, an ideal to pursue. Isn't this the same thing as hedonism or "every man for himself," a moral license to behave any way you want and to step all over others in the process? If not, how does the Objectivist notion of selfishness differ?

asked Sep 16 '10 at 17:00

rationaljenn's gravatar image

rationaljenn ♦


Richard Bach wrote, "Hedonism is no fun." Hedonism ultimately offers no guidance at all, and does not lead to one's rational self-interest.

To the extent that you're a Hedonist, but choose a long-range, full-context pursuit of pleasure ... which means, not just momentary pleasure, but long-term joy, and ultimately life-long happiness, then you'll find you have to drop Hedonism and adopt Objectivism!

(Sep 18 '10 at 13:52) Robert Nasir ♦ Robert%20Nasir's gravatar image

This is really asking two different questions. On the one hand, it's asking about the relationship between the Objectivist ethics and hedonism, and on the other hand it's asking about whether sacrificing others is consistent with the Objectivist ethics. The two are not totally unrelated, but they are distinct. And since each deserves an entire post, I'll focus on the first part.

Hedonism is the view that pleasure is the standard of morality. You should do what makes you feel good or feel happy. Hedonism makes your feelings the standard of morality. In practice, it is completely empty. By counseling you to do whatever makes you feel good, regardless of the source of those feelings, hedonism says, in effect: value whatever you happen to value.

Objectivism's ethics is diametrically opposed to that approach. It is a morality of reason, and it is concerned with identifying the factual requirements of human life. According to Objectivism, you should do what you rationally conclude is objectively beneficial to your life long range.

That's not to say Objectivism is anti-pleasure. On the contrary, Objectivism holds that you should fill your life with as much pleasure as possible. But to do that, you need define and pursue a code of consistent, achievable, rational values. Hedonism actually undermines the pursuit of pleasure because for human beings, life's greatest pleasures come from having long range, conceptual level values, such as your career, or a deep, passionate, enduring romantic relationship. This requires having a conception of your life as a whole, which is made possible only by a rational (as opposed to emotion-based) moral code. For hedonism, values end up being short range, perceptual level. The good life is a succession of nice massages, good beers, good work outs, satisfying orgasms, etc. That is not how you would characterize the life of Howard Roark.

For more, see here: http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/hedonism.html

answered Sep 17 '10 at 09:17

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Publius ♦

The Objectivist notion of self-interest is one of rational self-interest. That may just sound like a buzz word thrown in, but it is an important distinction. I have heard Yaron Brook discuss this broad ethical question in a way I wish Rand had, because I think it is so beautifully clear. If we divide all actions into selfish and selfless, than we are provided a rather unfair package deal (as Rand would call it). Clearly, we cannot consider some "hedonistic" actions selfess (such as doing hard drugs or killing people for money), but then we are forced to consider them selfish, and then draw a distinction between those actions and productive, positive self-interested actions like operating an honest, profitable business. Implied in the question posed is the understanding that certain "selfish" actions are hedonistic and harmful, and others aren't.

That is why I like Dr. Brook's categorization of actions as self-interested, selfless, and self-destructive. Actions that are normally considered hedonistic are self-destructive. Doing hard drugs may feel good in the moment, but no one would argue that one's long-term interests are served by getting hooked on meth. The same goes for those actions that harm others. They, too, are self-destructive. Try to argue that Bernie Madoff is happier and better-adjusted because he bilked investors out of over $50 billion. Sure, he had money for awhile, but did it improve his life? Doubtful.

Ultimately, the difference comes down to a subjective standard versus an objective standard. Hedonism applies a subjective standard to action (e.g. "behave any way you want"). Objectivism, as the name implies, applies an objective standard. That which is in one's rational self-interest, provable to the extent of one's ability, is good, that which is detrimental to oneself--through either self-sacrifice or self-destruction--is bad.

answered Sep 16 '10 at 20:10

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ryankrause ♦

I also like the way Rand described hedonism as being based on something other than reality - that is that it requires you to value before you have defined what values are and why you need values. My current favorite Objectivist thing is Rand's admonition to always make Reality your final arbiter.

(Nov 27 '10 at 01:39) Mary Harsha Mary%20Harsha's gravatar image

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Asked: Sep 16 '10 at 17:00

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Last updated: Nov 27 '10 at 01:39