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HomeBook CoverObjectivist Critique of the Virtue of Selfishness

The Virtue of Selfishness is a non-fiction book written by Ayn Rand that encapsulates the ideas of individualism that are present in her fiction work The Fountainhead and touches upon the themes of proper socio-economic policy present in Atlas Shrugged. Rand has compiled all of her ideas from her literary works and publications into a complete philosophy called Objectivism. The Virtue of Selfishness is a collection of essays written by Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden to explain why mankind needs a new set of values, what those values should be and how they lead to a proper (by Objectivism standards) life of reason, individualism, liberty and freedom.

The introduction foreshadows the extreme ideas presented inside; it begins with Ayn Rand answering a the question “Why do you use the word ‘selfishness’ to denote virtuous qualities of character, when that word antagonizes so many people to whom it does not mean the things you mean?” (Rand vii). Rand is more than aware of the hostility this word can invoke and throughout the book seeks to change the reader’s view. Not just presenting the benefits of selfishness but also by portraying the “monstrosity” that is altruism. The ideas are presented without compromise, lending consistency to the morals and values that make up her philosophy, in fact, Rand contends in chapters seven and nine of her book that to compromise, is to default on morality.

The Virtue of Selfishness begins with an essay on codes of ethics in general. The chapter titled “The Objectivist Ethics” asks the question “Why does man need a code of values?” (Rand 14). Rand gives the reason for a system of values; something she thinks past moralities dismissed and be can be avoided and overturned. The rest of the book contains essays that expand on the concept of individualism: how to live as an individual in a collectivized society, avoid counterfeit individualism and what are proper morals an individual should hold as values. The book also touches upon government’s role in society consisting of individuals and its proper function. In chapters “Isn’t Everybody Selfish?”and “The Ethics of Emergencies” The Virtue of Selfishness clears up misconception about Objectivism in no uncertain terms.

The Virtue of Selfishness is a great companion book to the Ayn Rand reader. It clarifies the points taken from her other literary works in a concise and powerful manner. Although the extreme rhetoric will alienate new readers, fans of her literary and philosophical accomplishments will enjoy the plethora of examples and uncompromising arguments presented in the neatly organized The Virtue of Selfishness.

The basis of ethics and code of morality in The Virtue of Selfishness often polarizes people. The repetition of key elements, demanding arguments without compromise and extreme viewpoints plainly stated allow people to quickly recognize which side of the line they stand on. It is the very nature of Objectivism that requires no compromise and the greatest objectivity because only the reader’s moral and reasonable conviction is considered a boon. However the author’s background and period of history the book was written in sheds light on the origins of Rand’s extreme views and flamboyant style of uncompromising arguments.

Ayn Rand was born in 1905 in St. Petersburg Russia. She lived to see her father’s pharmacy turned over to the Soviets after the Bolshevik Revolution. She was expelled from college before graduation due to her non-communist beliefs. A trip to Chicago in 1926 cemented Rand’s love for America and she vowed to never return to Russia. She became a citizen in 1931. Having experienced a communist regime and being deeply affected as a victim, Rand developed a great appreciation of capitalism and a hate of communism, socialism and collectivism in all forms. These socio-economic ideas eventually manifested into a complete philosophy that also addressed the collectivism/individualism of the soul* and her belief that man should be an end in himself, the theme of The Virtue of Selfishness.

The period in which she published her novels (1940-1970) likely influenced her writing World War II and especially The Cold War are generally attributed to having some effect on her works. During a time when she believed collectivism and communism was spreading through the world and gaining ground politically, Rand, who had no issue with extremism, took the hard stance in an effort to convince as many people as she could of her new idea of man and his moral purpose. Her audience for her writing in The Virtue of Selfishness is the world. She is trying to provide a moral basis for the types of people she admires and simultaneously attempting to gain the moral conviction of as many people as possible in the book.

As a philosophy, while controversial, her arguments in The Virtue of Selfishness are solid and prevalent today because her unwillingness to compromise, even denouncing compromise as part her ethical code, means that denouncing one part of her philosophy often means rejecting it as a whole. The extremism in The Virtue of Selfishness creates potential weaknesses in the argument for Objectivism. An oft cited weakness of Objectivism (the capitalistic portion of it) is stated below.

“‘What will be done about the poor or the handicapped in a free society?’ The altruistic-collectivist premise, implicit in that question, is that men are ‘their brother’s keepers’ and that the misfortune of some is a mortgage on others. The questioner is ignoring or evading the basic premises of Objectivist ethics and is attempting to switch the discussion onto his own collectivist base. Observe he does not ask: ‘Should anything be done?’ but: ‘What will be done?’ -as if the collectivist premise had been tacitly accepted and all that remains is a discussion of the means to implement it.” (Rand 93)

Instead of accepting criticisms as weaknesses, Rand effectively dismisses them by reducing the issue to its philosophical basis and applying her basic premise for morals. Instead of accepting the terms of the problem, Rand returns to her philosophy to first check if it is a problem to be resolved. This strategy greatly reduces possible low criticism of The Virtue of Selfishness.

Rand’s arguments are not only solid, but convincing. The essays are well set up and varied enough to keep the reader interested, without being over repetitive but consistent enough to allow the reader to grasp the new philosophical premise proposed. All the essays are superb in relating back to the thesis of rational self-interest (selfishness) as the guiding force of man’s action and man’s life as his standard of value, and make their point frequently and powerfully. Two criticisms of the essay arrangement is the second essay “Mental Health versus Mysticism and Self-Sacrifice” feels out of place after the strong opening chapter in both quality and subject matter. The book ends abruptly with no official conclusion, contrasting sharply with the distinct and purposeful opening. The writing style in these passage ways, as aforementioned is extreme and plain in message (though certainly not style). However a great irony in the book is the chapter “The Argument from Intimidation” which thoroughly repudiates and vilifies the concept, even though Rand makes frequent use of arguments of intimidation throughout The Virtue of Selfishness due to her extreme rhetoric.

The Virtue of Selfishness is my favorite non-fiction book by Ayn Rand. It summarizes and provides concretes and arguments for nearly every part of her philosophy. I was glad to learn more about Objectivism in such a concise and well written novel. The book has my moral and rational conviction of the subject and cemented and clarified what I had already gleaned from Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.

*Ayn Rand was atheist and atheism is a prerequisite for Objectivism. Soul is to be taken metaphorically.

Works Cited

Rand, Ayn.

The Virtue of Selfishness. Centennial ed. New York: New American Library, 1964. Print.

Source by Eric Hackenberger


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