The Virtue of Selfishness is a short book, so this will be a relatively short review of it. To introduce it, suffice it to say that I was a bit uncomfortable when I first picked it up, namely because of the title and its implications. I’m a Christian, selfishness is supposed to be bad, right? Well, as Christians mean it, yes. As Ayn Rand means it in The Virtue of Selfishness, perhaps not, for the reasons you’ll see in this review of The Virtue of Selfishness. Rand, when she says selfishness, is not talking about envy or encouraging sleazy business behavior, which is what I was thinking. Instead, she’s discussing something far different.
So, don’t be dissuaded from reading just because of the title. There’s no denying that Ayn Rand’s views were controversial. I’m certainly not denying that. But, I think she makes good points, most of which can be reconciled with Christian theology. But still, the title is, I think, a bit much and I understand any concern about it.
All of us who have read Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, or Anthem are used to Rand’s defenses of profits and laissez-faire business above all else, along with her attacks on the welfare state. But, a book about selfishness seemed a bit too much, even for me.
Fortunately, I was able to overcome my initial skepticism of the book and crack it open. What I read and will now review didn’t disappoint, it was a surprisingly well-defended and well-thought-out book. I was impressed and recommend that you order a copy for yourself. Don’t be too worried by the title. It’s just a title. The content of the book is what matters, and it is about what is right and good, not what is a sin. Selfishness to Rand is not what most of us think of when we hear “selfishness.”
Summary of The Virtue of Selfishness
At times, Ayn Rand and her hardcore Objectivist supporters can be hard to agree with. Looking at the title, The Virtue of Selfishness, I first thought that this entire book might be that way. Rand, prescient as always, was able to convince me otherwise with her introduction, as I hope I convinced you to keep reading in my introduction of The Virtue of Selfishness. It’s a good book, you just have to get past your initial revulsion.
To start off The Virtue of Selfishness, Rand defines what she means by “selfishness.” She doesn’t mean what Christians would imagine, which is an overwhelmingly toxic lack of concern for anybody else and envy. But that’s not what Rand means by selfishness.
Instead, she defines selfishness as meaning the values required for both man’s survival and human survival. Think long-term, rational self-interest. So, yes, you’re focused on yourself, but more in the way that a responsible CEO is focused on his or her company. Making the best decisions for the company involves treating customers and shareholders well and with honor. Similarly, making the best decision for yourself means treating those around you well and not behaving in a dishonorable manner. That definition of selfishness is not what I was expecting, but it does make sense and is, I think, a better definition of selfishness than what we usually think of.
Additionally, Rand later adds that selfishness is crucial for survival because it forces one to act based on reason rather than emotion or societal pressure, such as virtue signaling. It’s being true to yourself and your mind rather than mindlessly following the diktats of a hive-minded society.
After discussing what she actually means by selfishness, Rand uses a series of passages written for the Objectivist magazine to defend her thesis. In those passages, she uses quotations from Atlas Shrugged, especially John Galt quotes, her own experiences with communism and its evils, and philosophical arguments to create a narrative about why communism is evil and why individualism and her version of selfishness are instead the more moral way for society to function.
Note: If you want to get more out of those passages and see how they relate to other works of hers, such as Atlas Shrugged, as part of a larger economic philosophy, read Free Market Revolution by Don Watkins and Yaron Brook.
Additionally, with it barely breaking 150 pages, she made it much easier for the average person to complete than Atlas Shrugged. However, for those that want to understand both it and Atlas Shrugged, I suggest reading Free Market Revolution. Seeing how the ideas in both interact with each other is a great way to further understand objectivism.
Throughout those passages, the main point that she and the other author, Nathaniel Branden, make is that no one other than you has a claim to your time, wealth, or life. You are the only one that decides how those are spent. Yes, you have to make decisions and decide whether to spend it well or fritter it away, but you do ultimately have the decision of what to do and no one has a claim over those precious resources.
So, selfishness to Rand isn’t a complete withdrawal for civil society, but rather the recognition that you should only spend your time and money, and certainly only risk your life, in accordance with your values. Not the values of others. In that respect, it’s a lot like Atlas Shrugged.
The reason that The Virtue of Selfishness is so similar to Atlas Shrugged, in my opinion, is that it’s a summary and defense of the philosophical ideas found in Atlas Shrugged. The ideas are generally the same, but in The Virtue of Selfishness, they are much more clearly defended.
Analysis of The Virtue of Selfishness
I am quite glad that I was able to overcome my initial repulsion and read The Virtue of Selfishness. As a Christian, the idea seemed morally wrong. And, of course, I don’t think it’s wise to give liberals ammunition with which they can call capitalism the ideology of greed.
But, Rand’s ideas were excellent as always and much better defended than usual. Also, her brevity was refreshing. It made the book much less of a slog. Instead of focusing on making progress through a thousand-page novel, I could instead focus on the philosophical arguments in a concise book.
Plus, those arguments in The Virtue of Selfishness are convincing. Despite my initial opposition to the idea of their being virtue in being selfish, I found myself agreeing with Rand and seeing her point as to why rational selfishness is beneficial. Far from pulling you away from those you love, it allows you to spend your time with those you love and in a way befitting of the ideals you believe in.
It just means you have no excuse for spending it with those you don’t want to see or in ways that don’t agree with your moral compass. Who could be against that other than the tyrants among us or those that want to make everyone except the privileged few equally poor or locked up in a gulag?
Even if you’re initially hesitant to read The Virtue of Selfishness because of the title, as I was, you need to summon the will to read it. Listening to all viewpoints and perspectives. That’s why I forced myself to read a book I knew I would disagree with when I read The Affluent Society. But, frankly, even if you’re a Christian, The Virtue of Selfishness is not really a book you should disagree with if you believe in free-market capitalism and limited government.
It’s not some glorification of greed or envy. Instead, much like The Road to Serfdom and Capitalism and Freedom, it’s an explanation of why the capitalist system of consent (also called the trader principle) is far more moral than the socialist system of compulsion, as Francisco D’Anconia notes in his famous money speech.
In Rand’s view, which is presented in the Virtue of Selfishness and is now my view, rational selfishness isn’t being greedy or withdrawn. Instead, it’s choosing to focus your time in ways that align with your values. And, it gives you more time to spend with loved ones who you have a “selfish” reason for wanting to be with. I thought that sounded great.
How better could you imagine spending your life than with those you love and care about? Work is just work, obligations are just obligations. They don’t have claim over you. Read The Virtue of Selfishness and spend your life the way that you think that it should be spent. You have no excuse not to.
By: Gen Z Conservative