Excerpt from In Defense of Selfishness (Chapter 9)
The philosophy of egoism . . . sees the world as harmonious with man’s aspirations—as a place where values are attainable and happiness is achievable, where man can live in accord with the demands of nature, where the interests of rational individuals do not conflict, where interactions between people result in gains for all, where disappointment and pain arise but are surmountable by thinking human beings, where life does not consist of endless emergencies and where man’s central purpose is not to avert disaster but to seek joy.
The ethics of self-interest is an ethics of idealism. It regards man as noble—as both able and worthy to live, provided he chooses to live by reason. If he acts by the judgment of his own mind and by the standard of his own life, man can live successfully and ethically. He does not have to take a cynical view of principles, as something to be publicly espoused and privately scorned. He can fully embrace morality because the moral, in this code, is the practical.
Authentic egoism is characterized not by a crude materialism, but by the integration of material and spiritual values, fueled by the knowledge that one’s material values are the product and the expression of the virtues created in one’s own character. The selfish individual regards material goods, not as something to be gotten by any means, but as something to be earned, by means of honest, productive action.
Egoism is morally demanding, and morally rewarding. It requires you to regard yourself not as congenitally incompetent or congenitally corrupt, but as someone who can make himself both capable and worthy of living. Egoism enables you to experience self-esteem, because it views the self as morally good. It allows you to take pride in what you’ve made of your life. It tells you to live, not as a mendicant—not by sacrificially “casting your bread upon the waters” and then waiting in turn to receive the sacrifices made by others—but as a self-reliant, self-confident individual who seeks what he deserves, no less and no more. . . .
Don’t describe your dedication to personally beneficial values as a sacrifice. Your willingness to forgo immediate gratification, in anticipation of greater long-term rewards, is an act of selfishness. When you trade something you value less for something you value more—when, for instance, you give up your nights and weekends in order to acquire the skills for a new career—you are profiting, not sacrificing. Similarly, when you feed and clothe your children, you are not sacrificing. You’ve chosen to value them because they are your children. If you were to keep them hungry and naked so that you could feed and clothe needy children elsewhere—that would be a sacrifice.
Don’t apologize for being selfish. Be proud of it.
Don’t describe the irrational as selfish. A crook is not pursuing his long-range interests. Neither is a drug addict or a compulsive gambler or a continually mooching relative. They are all evading the requirements of human living and are acting in contradiction to their genuine self-interest.
Don’t describe love or friendship as self-sacrificial. It is the opposite: a discriminating relationship you choose to enter into with someone who is of particular, personal value to you.
Don’t describe benevolence as equivalent to altruism. Altruism does not mean giving a starving man some food, but having a duty to do so, in disdain for your own well-being. It means that his need creates a moral claim against you. Choosing to help someone who is in distress through no fault of his own, if you can afford to do so, is an act of good will, based on a bond of shared (actual or potential) values. Altruism, however, insists that you surrender your values—that it is more desirable to give to a stranger than to a friend, to an enemy than to a stranger, to the guilty than to the innocent, to the undeserving than to the deserving. Altruism is the demand that you be indentured to the misery of others. But a servant who provides for his master’s needs is not engaging in an act of benevolence.
Above all, don’t try to appease the apostles of altruism. Don’t try to justify your actions by declaring that they benefit society. Every rational value you produce does indeed benefit others, but such benefit is not the standard by which your actions should be judged. Your life is an end in itself, and its justification does not lie in any service you provide to others. The composer of a symphony enhances the lives of many people, from music publishers to the ushers who will find employment in a concert hall that performs his work. But they are not the purpose, or the moral validation, of his efforts. He does not tailor his music to their needs; he does not, for example, tack on an extra movement so that ushers can work additional hours. The composer acts for his own gain, and so do you—and you should not hesitate to say so.
Don’t apologize for being selfish. Be proud of it. Be proud of the fact that you refuse to surrender the inestimable value that is your life and the inviolate purpose that is your happiness. Be proud of the fact that you have chosen to live—not as a self-effacing, life-renouncing serf, but as a self-respecting, life-affirming human being.
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