I am a human being who values her life on this earth above all other things. The right and good is that which contributes to my life and the wrong and evil is that which destroys it. Every action I take must pass through the gates of identification before being pursued as a value which I understand will contribute to my life. Happiness is my ultimate goal.
I understand the importance of identifying, applying, pursuing, and achieving those values which will contribute to my life, not just in the immediate sense (which every child understands), but in the long-term sense (which develops with experience). This is not to say that I’m really good at always identifying, pursuing, and achieving those values, or that I remain consistent in my applications of them; merely that I had already understood that this selfishness was the key to my happiness when I was relatively young. The importance of the fact that I understood I was responsible for my own happiness can not be overemphasized here. What I didn’t realize until much later was that this idea was controversial or that it had been developed into a philosophy called Objectivism.
As all children do, at an early age I sought to achieve my own immediate happiness. This is a natural state, often as short-lived and as short-sighted as our experiences will allow and as reality dictates (i.e. how fast your parents can knock it out of you or reality gives you negative feedback). As we mature, we begin to realize that immediate gratification is more like candy than a meal: not fit for a steady diet. (How many of us have dined gleefully and exclusively on candy only to throw up later? I know I have.) Indulging childish whims is not selfishness – it is self-destructive.
It is unfortunate that the immediate gratification stage of a child is most often mistakenly identified as “selfishness”. As we begin to interact with others, and more importantly, to appreciate some people as values in and of themselves, we learn that achieving our own happiness may often include the happiness of those we hold as valuable (as in friendship and love). When I value someone, their happiness is also important to me. I want them to be happy for selfish reasons. This is in keeping with my desire to be happy rather than in conflict with it. If you can not divorce the word “selfish” from the castigations of youth, then “rational self-interest” may be used in its place. Upon being introduced to Objectivism, I preferred to redress my mistake and properly define selfishness as the key to not only life, in and of itself, but moreover, to a happy life.
With experience, we begin to broaden our identification of things that will make us happy. We pursue longer term values which are important to us - truth, knowledge, friendship, love, health, etc. – and begin to apply those values to our decision making process. This identification and application brings satisfaction, a form of happiness. Our increasing abilities to accurately assess things, proves the efficaciousness of our minds and lessens internal conflicts. A rational approach to life, that in which the application of reason and logic based upon our understanding of the way the natural world works, in turn brings happiness.
It is important to note that altruism is the antithesis to selfishness. Altruism is the “unselfish concern for the welfare of others” and is in disastrous, direct conflict with rational self-interest. This is not a definition of convenience, but the actual meaning of altruism. I reject altruism in every form.
When someone is repeated told that he must put the welfare of others before himself, he begins to develop a sense that his worth is somehow linked with his concern for others, extending as far as those unknown to them, and unidentifiable by the values they hold – as if each human being is responsible for the life of every other human being regardless of that other’s choices, values, or morality. This moral code dictates that one reject cause and effect and assume that every human being, by virtue of being a human being is worthy of his efforts in the form of his time, money, and consideration before he, or his loved-ones are worthy of his efforts.
If you care about others at your own expense, shortly, you will be depleted. The destructiveness of altruism is really that simple, and should in no way be confused with the concern of others based on your own self-interest, nor should it be confused with simple good will or benevolence.
Consistency with Reality
We’ve all heard, “You can’t fight City Hall.” In fact, no matter how complicated and messy it may seem, you can fight against any man-made system in existence. What you can’t fight are the rules of physics, chemistry, biology, geology…natural laws. We can and should try to understand those immutable laws and make them work for us, but you can’t alter the facts of reality. Objectivism, at its foundation, requires adherence to reality.
While this sounds self-evident, I was surprised to discover that not all philosophies are based on reality. Mystics base their philosophies on unknowable, unworldly magic-guy-in-the-sky morality whereas skeptics base their philosophies on the lack of absolutes – a “nothing is knowable”, “anything goes” morality. Objectivism does not lie between the two, but rather identifies through reason that we know what exists by adjusting our thinking to reality, not that reality mirrors our thinking.
There are absolutes, both good and bad. Being able to identify the good (that which contributes to human life) and the bad (that which seeks to destroy human life) is critically important.
I am not an intellectual. No one who knows me or reads this blog needs to be reminded of this fact; I just want you to know that I am painfully aware of this fact as I am writing this piece.
I do, however, know enough about myself and the importance of intellectual leadership in our culture to understand that while I am not yet a very capable person regarding the explanation of the philosophy of Objectivism, I am making efforts to become so. Understanding of philosophical systems requires tremendous effort and study. As someone who has never studied philosophy, I lack ownership of some basic philosophical terms (i.e. metaphysics, epistemology) and I can be trapped by people who are unabashed in their employment of logical fallacies (it can take me some time to recognize and refute them). This is my way of explaining that I am clearly not attempting to be an intellectual spokesperson here.
This being said, the works of Ayn Rand, who developed the philosophy, are the best source if you are interested in exploring Objectivism. I recommend that you read one or all of her works of fictions (there are only four novels and a play, and you needn’t begin with Atlas Shrugged, though it is my favorite). You should visit the Ayn Rand Institute and read her introduction to Objectivism to which I have linked. I do strongly recommend that you read her works prior to reading any applications of her ideas by others and judge for yourself.
I cannot say that identifying myself as an Objectivist has made me a happier person; I grasped the importance of selfishness when I was young, well before I had heard of Ayn Rand. However, I can say that if the promise of religion doesn’t appeal to you, if the uncertainty of skepticism leaves you feeling empty, or if you have embraced the doctrine of altruism all the way to its logical end, the destruction of self, perhaps Objectivism will make you happier. Knowing that Objectivist intellectuals exist does in some small way contribute to my hope for the rest of the world.
Everything I have read by Ayn Rand only deepens my understanding of exactly how Objectivism is an excellent philosophy based on the morality of the life and sovereignty of the individual man. There is no mysticism or skepticism in Objectivism, and unless you think that conformance with reality and living for your own sake is cultish or too extreme, then Objectivism may resonate with you too. If you choose to live for no man and would not force another man to live for you, but would rather cultivate relationships based on mutual benefit and shared values, then I urge you to read more from Ayn Rand herself.
Objectivism is a philosophy which gives a moral foundation to man’s rational pursuit of happiness – that is why I am an Objectivist.
This is just my first attempt on this much larger subject, and is not my last (nor, hopefully, best) word on the matter. I have not touched upon the politics, nor fully developed the metaphysics or epistemology of Objectivism herein, but rather limited my thoughts to the ethics of selfishness as that is what I understand best.