Isn’t Everyone Selfish? by Nathaniel Branden

Some variety of this question is often raised as an objection to those who advocate an ethics of rational self-interest. For example, it is sometimes claimed: “Everyone does what he really wants to do—otherwise, he wouldn’t do it.” Or: “No one ever really sacrifices himself. Since every purposeful action is motivated by some value or goal that the actor desires, one always acts selfishly, whether one knows it or not.”

To untangle the intellectual confusion involved in this viewpoint, let us consider what facts of reality give rise to such an issue as selfishness versus self-sacrifice, or egoism versus altruism, and what the concept of “selfishness” means and entails.The issue of selfishness versus self-sacrifice arises in an ethical context. Ethics is a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions—the choices and actions that determine the purpose and course of his life. In choosing his actions and goals, man faces constant alternatives. In order to choose, he requires a standard of value—a purpose which his actions are to serve or at which they are to aim. “ ‘Value’ presupposes an answer to the question: of value to whom and for what?” (Atlas Shrugged.) What is to be the goal or purpose of a man’s actions? Who is to be the intended beneficiary of his actions? Is he to hold, as his primary moral purpose, the achievement of his own life and happiness—or should his primary moral purpose be to serve the wishes and needs of others?

The clash between egoism and altruism lies in their conflicting answers to these questions. Egoism holds that man is an end in himself; altruism holds that man is a means to the ends of others. Egoism holds that, morally, the beneficiary of an action should be the person who acts; altruism holds that, morally, the beneficiary of an action should be someone other than the person who acts.
To be selfish is to be motivated by concern for one’s self-interest. This requires that one consider what constitutes one’s self-interest and how to achieve it—what values and goals to pursue, what principles and policies to adopt. If a man were not concerned with this question, he could not be said objectively to be concerned with or to desire his self-interest; one cannot be concerned with or desire that of which one has no knowledge.
Selfishness entails: (a) a hierarchy of values set by the standard of one’s self-interest, and (b) the refusal to sacrifice a higher value to a lower one or to a non value.

A genuinely selfish man knows that only reason can determine what is, in fact, to his self-interest, that to pursue contradictions or attempt to act in defiance of the facts of reality is self-destructive—and self-destruction is not to his self-interest. “To think, is to man’s self-interest; to suspend his consciousness, is not. To choose his goals in the full context of his knowledge, his values and his life, is to man’s self-interest; to act on the impulse of the moment, without regard for his long-range context, is not. To exist as a productive being, is to man’s self-interest; to attempt to exist as a parasite, is not. To seek the life proper to his nature, is to man’s self-interest; to seek to live as an animal, is not. Because a genuinely selfish man chooses his goals by the guidance of reason—and because the interests of rational men do not clash—other men may often benefit from his actions. But the benefit of other men is not his primary purpose or goal; his own benefit is his primary purpose and the conscious goal directing his actions.
T
o make this principle fully clear, let us consider an extreme example of an action which, in fact, is selfish, but which conventionally might be called self-sacrificial: a man’s willingness to die to save the life of the woman he loves. In what way would such a man be the beneficiary of his action? The answer is given in Atlas Shrugged—in the scene when Galt, knowing he is about to be arrested, tells Dagny: “If they get the slightest suspicion of what we are to each other, they will have you on a torture rack—I mean, physical torture—before my eyes, in less than a week. I am not going to wait for that. At the first mention of a threat to you, I will kill myself and stop them right there. I don’t have to tell you that if I do it, it won’t be an act of self-sacrifice. I do not care to live on their terms. I do not care to obey them and I do not care to see you enduring a drawn-out murder. There will be no values for me to seek after that—and I do not care to exist without values.”

If a man loves a woman so much that he does not wish to survive her death, if life can have nothing more to offer him at that price, then his dying to save her is not a sacrifice. The same principle applies to a man, caught in a dictatorship, who willingly risks death to achieve freedom. To call his act a “self-sacrifice,” one would have to assume that he preferred to live as a slave. The selfishness of a man who is willing to die, if necessary, fighting for his freedom, lies in the fact that he is unwilling to go on living in a world where
he is no longer able to act on his own judgment—that is, a world where human conditions of existence are no longer possible to him.

The selfishness or unselfishness of an action is to be determined objectively: it is not determined by the feelings of the person who acts. Just as feelings are not a tool of cognition, so they are not a criterion in ethics. Obviously, in order to act, one has to be moved by some personal motive; one has to “want,” in some sense, to perform the action. The issue of an action’s selfishness or unselfishness depends, not on whether or not one wants to perform it, but on why one wants to perform it. By what standard was the action chosen? To achieve what goal? If a man proclaimed that he felt he would best benefit others by robbing and murdering them, men would not be willing to grant that his actions were altruistic. By the same logic and for the same reasons, if a man pursues a course of blind self-destruction, his feeling that he has something to gain by it does not establish his actions as selfish.

If, motivated solely by a sense of charity, compassion, duty or altruism, a person renounces a value, desire or goal in favor of the pleasure, wishes or needs of another person whom he values less than the thing he renounced— that is an act of self-sacrifice. The fact that a person may feel that he “wants” to do it, does not make his action selfish or establish objectively that he is its beneficiary. Suppose, for example, that a son chooses the career he wants by rational standards, but then renounces it in order to please his mother who prefers that he pursue a different career, one that will have more prestige in the eyes of the neighbors. The boy accedes to his mother’s wish because he has accepted that such is his moral duty: he believes that his duty as a son consists of placing his mother’s happiness above his own, even if he knows that his mother’s demand is irrational and even if he knows that he is sentencing himself to a life of misery and frustration. It is absurd for the advocates of the “everyone is selfish” doctrine to assert that since the boy is motivated by the desire to be “virtuous” or to avoid guilt, no self-sacrifice is involved and his action is really selfish. What is evaded is the question of why the boy feels and desires as he does. Emotions and desires are not causeless, irreducible primaries: they are the product of the premises one has accepted. The boy “wants” to renounce his career only because he has accepted the ethics of altruism; he believes that it is immoral to act for his self-interest. That is the principle directing his actions.

Advocates of the “everyone is selfish” doctrine do not deny that, under the pressure of the altruist ethics, men can knowingly act against their own long-range happiness. They merely assert that in some higher, un definable sense such men are still acting “selfishly.” A definition of “selfishness” that includes or permits the possibility of knowingly acting against one’s long range happiness, is a contradiction in terms. It is only the legacy of mysticism that permits men to imagine that they are still speaking meaningfully when they declare that one can seek one’s happiness in the renunciation of one’s happiness.

The basic fallacy in the “everyone is selfish” argument consists of an extraordinarily crude equivocation. It is a psychological truism a tautology that all purposeful behavior is motivated. But to equate “motivated behavior” with “selfish behavior” is to blank out the distinction between an elementary fact of human psychology and the phenomenon of ethical choice. It is to evade the central problem of ethics, namely: by what is man to be motivated?

A genuine selfishness that is: a genuine concern with discovering what is to one’s self-interest, an acceptance of the responsibility of achieving it, a refusal ever to betray it by acting on the blind whim, mood, impulse or feeling of the moment, an uncompromising loyalty to one’s judgment, convictions and values represents a profound moral achievement. Those who assert that “everyone is selfish” commonly intend their statement as an expression of cynicism and contempt. But the truth is that their statement pays mankind a compliment it does not deserve.

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