Virtue of Selfishness

What does Ayn Rand mean when she describes selfishness as a virtue?

Answer by J. Raibley

Ayn Rand rejects altruism, the view that self-sacrifice is the moral ideal. She argues that the ultimate moral value, for each human individual, is his or her own well-being. Since selfishness (as she understands it) is serious, rational, principled concern with one’s own well-being, it turns out to be a prerequisite for the attainment of the ultimate moral value. For this reason, Rand believes that selfishness is a virtue.

This is something I have pondered deeply over the past few years. I have believed that the hats I wore were the roles required of me by my life – husband, father, son, brother etc. And I also believed that in wearing them I was putting other people before myself constantly. Of course there is satisfaction in being good in those roles but when you are living them it is difficult if not impossible to be able to step back and actually consider what motivates you in those roles.

I have been criticized for not being the person I thought I had been in each and every role that I have had. Perhaps with some justification, perhaps not. At the end of the day those who you are required to relate to in those roles are the ones who make a judgment about whether you have been successful or not.

I do believe that I did my best. I also believe that at times that best was probably pretty ordinary. The midlife journey has allowed me to evaluate and accept that there were times when I failed and that is my cross to bear, no one elses.

There were times when my selfishness intervened in the lives of other people – when I wasn’t there for people when I was needed, when I ran from conflict or failed to give in fully to the needs of others. I don’t yet fully understand whether that makes me a lesser person or maybe just normal. There were times, are times now, and probably will be times in the future when selfishness will be important to me. But does that necessarily mean that it is detrimental to the welfare of everyone else? I don’t believe it does, because the act of giving oneself for the benefit of oneself, whilst selfish in one context, has the end result of being good for other people too.

Pursuing interests may well be selfish but if that makes a person feel good about themselves surely that has more potential to be positive for other people than negative. If a person is satisfied with life because they feel good about themselves or the things they do, are they not more likely to be a better person to be with?

Rick Gaber wrote that we need to distinguish good selfishness from bad selfishness –

You’ve heard of the “bait-and-switch” con? Well, guess what? This is the “scare-and-switch” con: “Selfish” has two entirely different meanings. One is: “taking advantage of people against their will.” The other is: “taking care of yourself and your family first and foremost and to whatever degree YOU deem appropriate.” Obviously, the latter is a virtue, and the former is a vice. But if you fail to distinguish between the meanings you’re prey to being suckered by con artists of either the deliberate variety* or of the more common unwitting, unthinking “disease carrier” kind.

If we accept the notion that selfishness can be a virtue we should not be concerned when people choose to do things that make them feel good, provided of course that there is no harm done to anyone else in the process.

There is a book by Rachael Heller called “Healthy Selfishness – Getting the Life you deserve without the guilt” in which she says –

“To be Healthfully Selfish to is know your limits and to accept and respect them; to rest when you are tired, provide yourself with nourishing, appealing food when you are hungry, to go to the bathroom you feel the urge, to get emotional and physical nurturing without feeling that you must earn it and, in all things to accept (and even appreciate!) that you are not perfect.

“Healthy Selfishness brings with it a zest for living that is astounding, a joy that comes from truly experiencing – deep within yourself – your accomplishments, and a pride in your ability to determine how you will be treated by those around you – no matter how important they are in your life.”

I have not yet gotten to the stage where I am totally guilt free in doing things that others may look upon as selfish. It is not an easy concept to learn and very easy to get caught up in lessons of the past, where others expectations of what role you are supposed to play intervene and impose guilt upon you.

It is no coincidence that the onset of a midlife episode often comes with a person having major issues with self esteem and self purpose. It should not therefore come as a surprise that the word self features so highly when people begin that voyage of self discovery that is midlife. And it should therefore not come as a surprise that in overcoming issues of self esteem and in determining a self purpose that selfishness is needed.

I truly feel that I will be a better person if I can learn that lesson, where I can be more content with who I truly am, and not having to second guess what other people expect of me. The trick is to let other people see that in being selfish and doing things for me that any relationships I have with others will also be healthier. At least I hope that is the case.


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