For the reason that makes you afraid of it

The title of this book may evoke the kind of question that I hear once in a while: “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?”

To those who ask it, my answer is: “For the reason that makes you afraid of it.”

Ayn Rand, The virtue of selfishness, Introduction

Brett Hall has tweeted a criticism of Ayn Rand’s use of the word selfish:

Hall later writes:

So he would have preferred that Rand use the term ‘rational self interest’ instead of ‘selfishness’. Now, Rand could have used the term ‘rational self interest’. Presumably if she didn’t use it, she had a reason for not using it. She stated her reason for using the word selfishness (The Virtue of Selfishness, Introduction):

It is not a mere semantic issue nor a matter of arbitrary choice. The meaning ascribed in popular usage to the word “selfishness” is not merely wrong: it represents a devastating intellectual “package-deal,” which is responsible, more than any other single factor, for the arrested moral development of mankind.

Selfishness is used to mean that you pursue your interests by harming other people. So the only word for pursuing your own interests includes the idea that doing so requires harming other people. This assumption is deeply embedded in many of the ways people think about life. Any policy cutting back the welfare state or even slowing its growth is said to be selfish. CEOs are condemned as selfish for making lots of money. A child is condemned as selfish for having any preference that a parent finds slightly inconvenient at a given moment. Replacing the standard idea of selfishness is necessary for moral progress and skirting the issue isn’t going to help.

Now, what about using the term “rational self interest” instead of selfishness? The problem with calling Rand’s book “The virtue of rational self interest” is that many people would think they know what it’s about without reading it. There are similar terms that stand for bad ideas, like enlightened self interest, which means that if you act to help other people you will somehow benefit. You shouldn’t plan to benefit cuz that would be doing something other than helping other people. Rather, the benefit should magically pop out of nowhere despite you doing nothing to specifically bring it about. So if I sold all my stuff, gave the proceeds to the poor and lived in a cardboard box under a bridge that would somehow benefit me.

The term rational is also used in ways that are anti-rational. The definition of rational in Merriam Webster links to the definition of reasonable, which includes “not extreme or excessive” and links to the definition of moderate. So rational is often seen as not taking a position to extremes, which means you should be willing to have a position that can sometimes lead to bad stuff when you act on it. In reality, if you have a position that won’t work if your pursue it consistently, you should ditch that position because it’s wrong. So many people will read “rational self interest” as “sometimes you should act in your self interest but sometimes you shouldn’t cuz that would be unreasonable”. So if Rand called her book “The virtue of rational self interest” she would have misled many people.

UPDATE For the sake of clarity, I chose to reply to this tweet mostly because I think it expresses a common misconception about Objectivism and how to promote ideas. I didn’t write it as a reply to Brett Hall per se. To be clear I think Brett is in the group of people targeted by Rand’s sentence ‘For the reason that makes you afraid of it.’ He is afraid of advocating Rand’s good ideas clearly, so he would prefer to adopt terminology that muddies the waters. This means he can deceive lefties he is talking to and himself into thinking they agree more than they do. His tactics are doomed to fail as promotion of Rand’s ideas. People who won’t even consider an idea advocated using the word ‘selfishness’ won’t come around to Rand’s views if they are dressed up a little. In reality, the mistakes such people make are much deeper and no terminological change would fix that problem.

About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

2 Responses to For the reason that makes you afraid of it

  1. Post has some good points but i think there’s a mistake regarding how it deals with Brett. Like, did he read the book? Presumably yes. If not, his tweets were dishonest. So he should already know that the book contains an explanation of the title and he should address Rand’s arguments. He’s ignoring Rand’s published reasoning instead of replying to her. That’s not an accident, it’s evasion. But Alan gives a general impression of being respectful of Brett, thinking Brett is worth writing a blog post for, stuff like that. I don’t think Alan’s intention was to be appeasing, but it can come off that way because it doesn’t challenge Brett adequately or call out his bullshit.

    Similarly, Brett was not looking for a serious discussion and isn’t willing to participate in an attempt to find the truth, and he’s being dishonest about that, and Alan didn’t point that out, and this reply helps Brett pretend he does participate in serious discussions.

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