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Is it a contradiction to allow others their rational self-interest if it conflicted with yours: would this require a level of altruism?

I found this objection on a website. Here is the releveant piece:

But what is  so terribly wrong with Rand's notion of "rational self interest?" To begin, the notion is inherently irrational. It claims that in my seeking of my own selfish best interests, I need to (unselfishly!) allow other to do the same. Hence, to be "rationally selfish" I need to be unselfish. That, gentle reader, is nothing more and nothing less than a contradiction.  [Source: Link]

asked Dec 18 '11 at 15:30

Adeikov's gravatar image


edited Dec 18 '11 at 18:44

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦

As best as I can tells what underlies this argument (if one can call it that) is the assumption that the interests of rational men collide. This is not, in fact, true, and it is quite irrational to believe that men can only flourish at each other's expense. To start with, one would have to ignore everything one knows about the numbers of men and the amount of flourishing throughout history (especially more recent history).

(Dec 18 '11 at 19:21) FCH FCH's gravatar image

In addition to the other answers, I'd like to point out that if one accepts that rational men are self-interested, then one's wishes on the matter are irrelevant.

To wish that a man provide the values of a rational man, without possessing the attributes of a rational man, is what would be irrational and contradictory.

(Dec 18 '11 at 21:01) anthony anthony's gravatar image

The author of the anti-Rand cite is obviously confused about what rational self interest means. He assumes that it is in man's self interest to keep others from seeking their self interest. If one doesn't sacrifice others, the cite argues, then one must be acting unselfishly. It is the zero-sum fallacy--if one wins, another must lose, if I let you live, I cannot. This is completely false. We can both seek our interest--our objective, rational interest--simultaneously without sacrificing.

answered Dec 18 '11 at 18:07

ericmaughan43's gravatar image

ericmaughan43 ♦

The argument presented assumes that it is not in my self-interest for others to pursue their self-interest. In other words, it assumes that the interests of rational men conflict with each other, such that one man pursuing his interests necessarily harms the interests of others. The contradiction follows from the assumption.

Objectivism obviously rejects the view that there is a necessary conflict of interests between rational men. If the critic wishes to drive home his attack, he cannot merely assume that interests conflict -- he has to back that claim up with evidence, not just assert it as is done in the quote.

The question usually left unanalyzed in this line of attack is "what does a man's interest consist of, and how does he know?" Modern culture often equates a man's interests with the satisfaction of his desires, and views that as self-evident. Since desires do conflict, this leads directly to the rejection of the harmony of interests principle and to an understanding of morality as a social system for equitably distributing sacrifices. The equating of desire with interest is the premise that needs to be checked.

A moment of thought turns up many ordinary cases in which desire and interest are not the same. Anybody who has been on a diet knows about wanting something while knowing it isn't good for you. Anybody who has been to the dentist knows about not wanting something while knowing it is good for you. Similar cases can be multiplied endlessly.

So, if desire and interest are not the same, what is in a person's self-interest and how do we determine it? This is a long and complex question, the brief answer to which is "what sustains the life of the actor over the long run, determined by principles". The long answer starts in Rand's essay "The Objectivist Ethics" and continues in greater depth in Tara Smith's book Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist.

answered Dec 19 '11 at 14:23

Kyle%20Haight's gravatar image

Kyle Haight ♦

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Asked: Dec 18 '11 at 15:30

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Last updated: Dec 19 '11 at 14:23