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I read the virtue of selfishness and also AR's piece stating why she picked the title. In essence it was to jar people and to surprise them. When asked why she used the term selfish, Ayn Rand replied, 'For the very reason you are afraid of it.' It strikes me that she really enjoyed this kind of cut and thrust as do many intellectual types in history ranging from Seneca to Jonathan Swift to Shaw to countless others. The intellectuals liked surprising the pants off people and causing them to question basic assumptions. OK. I understand this in the context of a deep, philosophical discussion in a smoky room with a Meerschaum pipe and cognac in hand :-) but what about these words when it comes to the "real world"?

Do words like "selfishness" and "egoism" really help in spreading the wisdom of Objectivism? It is clear that most of us would hate to be around "selfish" people in the way that 99.99% of the population understands the word (i.e. a thoughtless person concerned only with his own pleasures and interests, others' rights be damned or a childish brat who throws tantrums when she doesn't get what she wants). We really would despise an "egoist" in the way that 99.99% of the population see this word (i.e. a swaggering brute like Hugo Chavez in love with his own image, running his own TV show for his own glorification). So why still fight this battle of words?

As a clever inside joke, I can certainly see the point of clever double-meanings but if the point is to reach out, educate, enlighten and make our own lives better, isn't it time to re-think the inflammatory aspects of these words and come up with better, clearer and more accurate language? I am tired of the number of people that would claim that Ayn Rand is the philosophy that says you should let someone die on your doorstep and never render help 9selfishness) or it is the philosophy of a racist, egoist Uberman (egoism) that is above everyone a la Nietzsche or it is the philosophy of "take, take, take and rob from anyone" (selfishness). I know all of these are gross mischaracterizations but the problem is that the language that Objectivists use is unclear and sometimes deliberately so. Is this because Objectivists want to have an "insider's club" or because no one dare question Ayn Rand's choices of words or something I don't yet understand?

asked Jan 20 '12 at 10:28

Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image



Well, what if we used other words, rather than selfishness and egoism (and capitalism, which means to "99.99%" of the population "exploitation of the proletariat" or some equivalent, and reason, which means "cold", anti-spiritual materialism, and, and, and.....)? Wait for the first smart critic to come along and point out that what we are in fact advocating is selfishness, and egoism, and, and, and. And we don't have a defense - we can't say he is wrong, because he is not, and we can't say he is right, because we have condemned those concepts and would have to contradict our own philosophy.

(Jan 20 '12 at 11:36) FCH FCH's gravatar image

I get the point but there is a chronology here. AR "redefined" words that had had a certain clear meaning for perhaps hundreds of years. By contrast, capitalism is a word that was created recently (? only since the industrial revolution). By contrast with "selfishness" a word that only ever meant something negative, "capitalism" has had its defenders and opposers. I understand the desire to move the word "self" and/org "ego" to a more exalted place, I just wondered if there was a better approach given that overcoming long entrenched meanings takes huge effort and argument.

(Jan 20 '12 at 15:51) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

Here's the thing. Words represent concepts, and concepts are objective. There is no valid way of saying "(rationally) self-interested" but NOT selfish. Again, we would open ourselves to the altruist saying "Your so-called 'rational self-interest', we have a word for that--selfishness", and self-righteously resting his case. How would we respond? No? It's not selfishness? Selfishness is bad, but this isn't it? Then just what the heck is selfishness? One way or the other, we have to defend the CONCEPT of selfishness. Let's not make it harder on ourselves by playing hide-and-seek with words.

(Jan 21 '12 at 09:52) FCH FCH's gravatar image

As for the word "capitalism"... Looking at its history, it seems it was first used in the sense of a political system by socialists, so if that's our criterion...

(Jan 21 '12 at 09:55) FCH FCH's gravatar image

OK. I get it. I think @Rick says it well below as well.

(Jan 22 '12 at 11:01) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image
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Words represent concepts. Concept stealers have prevented man from reaching his true potential. The way to defeat concept stealers is by demonstrating moral courage and defend the meaning of words and thereby concepts and their roots.

answered Jan 20 '12 at 12:28

Humbug's gravatar image


+1. Nicely said.

(Jan 20 '12 at 18:50) Rick ♦ Rick's gravatar image

Part of the strategy of the Left is to distort language; to make words mean what they want them to mean; to remove words from use that represent ideas they don't agree with. If you look, you can see it everywhere.

We need language to communicate our ideas. We therefore need to engage in the fight to retain the true meanings of words.

Having said that, personally I've found that fighting the language battle is a poor place to start when talking with others about Objectivist issues. For example, I will usually start a discussion with terms like "rational self interest" at first, and then later, after reaching an initial level of understanding and acceptance, introduce "selfish" as meaning the same thing.

answered Jan 20 '12 at 19:14

Rick's gravatar image

Rick ♦

I do not think that Rand used the words merely for shock value. In addition to the fact that words have objective meanings, as other commentators have rightly pointed out, I think that she would consider not using them a moral outrage. What does she mean by "the reason you are afraid of" using the terms? I think she means that people are afraid to use the terms because they know that most other people are adamantly against egoism, and therefore will have negative associations with the terms. But Rand is adamantly opposed to altruism. How can one combat a moral theory if one is afraid of saying anything that upsets adherents to that theory? If the simple connotation of the word "selfish" is going to bother an altruist, what do you think a full-blown argument against their theory is going to do, make them feel all warm and fuzzy? Rand knew that her entire philosophy was going to rub altruists the wrong way. By embracing the correct meaning of the terms, Rand is not only being epistemologically hygienic, she is essentially drawing a line in the sand. She is saying that altruism is wrong, and she is not going to be shy or apologetic about In combating altruism, if one were to choose terms based on what is emotionally congenial to altruists, then one would be essentially ceding to them a victory they do not deserve. It would allow them to control the debate.

There is nothing wrong with the words in themselves--the negative connotation only comes because people have, explicitly or implicitly, accepted altruism. For those who look beyond connotations to meaning and argument, this is no barrier. For those who refuse to look at meaning and argument and instead simply follow what sounds good, they would not accept Rand's message anyway.

answered Jan 21 '12 at 17:11

ericmaughan43's gravatar image

ericmaughan43 ♦

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Asked: Jan 20 '12 at 10:28

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Last updated: Jan 22 '12 at 11:01