The Virtue of Selfishness
By Ayn Rand
Blackstone Audiobooks, 2003
An Unabridged Audio Recording on CD
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - January 18, 2010
There are nineteen articles in this volume, fourteen by Rand and five by Nathaniel Branden. The longest is "The Objectivist Ethics," in which Rand explains her philosophy of "Rational Self Interest." The remaining articles are examples of the application of this philosophy.
Rand contends that "that which furthers (a living being's) life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil." Thus the basic human value is "rational selfishness…the value required for man's survival."
How do people determine if something is "good or evil"? If the person experiences pleasure, it is a signal that the experience is "good" and that the person is acting properly. If the individual has pain, the feeling shows that the experience is "bad."
People understand these sensations by using their intelligence, by thinking. Since people are not born with intelligence, they must study about the world and how to think well so that they can live properly.
There are two essentials for survival: thinking and productive work. A person who tries to survive without thinking is no better than an animal. Productive work is the way people sustain themselves, getting food, adequate comfort, and time for study and self improvement. The work should be "the fullest and most purposeful use of the mind." Living by her agenda results in a feeling of pride, the realization that one has achieved the best that one can achieve.
This achievement is selfish. The individual is interested in himself, his own life, and not the life of another or of society.
The individual deals with others only when he wants to do so, without constraints or directives, unforced, in an exchange that "benefits both parties by their own independent judgment."
Society is good when it gives individuals the two things necessary for human existence: knowledge and trade. "The only proper, moral purpose of a government is to protect man's rights."
Since a person's life is the top value, how should a person act in the following examples?
There are three problems with this volume. First, it is very repetitious. Rand's philosophy is contained in the first chapter and the book presents nothing new after it. It only rehashes the message and applies it to various situations.
Second, Rand bases her philosophy on ethics, an amorphous subject that many scholars correctly feel is very subjective. She would have done much better to base her ideas upon reality, upon what is "true and false," upon the nature of people and the laws of nature. The result is the same, but the presentation would be clearer.
Third, many philosophers would agree that the basic human nature, that which distinguishes them from animals and inanimate objects is their intelligence, and that, as Rand contends, being altruistic is not an inherent part of a human being. Yet, as Aristotle pointed out, man is a social animal, he must live with and interact with people to survive. Thus helping others is necessary, at least to some extent. Rand ignores this when she insists that altruism is evil.
Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of fifteen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Rabbi Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides, the latest being Maimonides: Reason Above All, published by Gefen Publishing House, www.gefenpublishing.com. The Orthodox Union (OU) publishes daily samples of the Targum books on www.ouradio.org.