The Linguistics of Selfishness


Imagine this: you’ve just finished reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged after reading The Fountainhead just a few months before. One of your best friends that you haven’t seen in ages is about to visit you from out of state and you’re excited to introduce them to Ayn Rand’s powerful, good ideas. Right when you bring up her name your friend’s face starts to evolve. Their eyes start to squint and an uneasy look appears. They speak up with a cautious, concerned tone, “Selfishness is not a virtue, don’t get brainwashed into that cult of objectivists. How could being greedy and screwing people over for your own benefit be good?” You then start to explain Ayn Rand’s ideas and what she meant by selfishness. Their face morphs back into the calm one that they had on before you brought up Ayn Rand, but this time there is a gaze in their eyes telling you that they learned something important. “Sorry for being so quick to draw conclusions, I’m just so used to selfishness being condemned as thoughtless, hubristic behavior that I never took the time to consider Ayn Rand could be using the word in a different way” your friend tells you. The next time you see your friend they have read both Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead and the conversation is about which one they liked better. Your friend concludes, “They’re both such amazing novels, it’s impossible to choose.”


I have found that too many people are often turned away from Ayn Rand’s novels (namely Atlas Shrugged) and philosophy (Objectivism) because of two main reasons: the condemnation of altruism, which they perceive as anti-helping other people; and the praising of selfishness, which they perceive as the endorsement of hubris and irrational greed. Although their perceptions do not match the conceptions of Rand’s work, they are important to consider regarding the exposure of Objectivism to new individuals. If we want Rand’s rational and inspiring ideas to spread like wildfire, then the clarification of her lexis and usage of the words ‘selfishness’ and ‘altruism’ must be communicated clearly to those who do not yet understand Objectivism and the meaning Rand has assigned to the term. Rand used the phrase ‘rational self-interest’ and the word ‘selfishness’ interchangeably in such a way that they were synonymous and therefore subject to Leibniz’s Law. However, plenty of people think of ‘selfishness’ as something different from ‘rational self-interest’. In my AP Economics class, back in high school I found that many of my peers were fond of the Smithian idea of acting in one’s rational self-interest, but I would suspect that if my teacher had been using the Randian phrase ‘selfishness’ the class may have been less agreeable to the idea.


I picked up a book at ISFLC this year by Russ Roberts titled How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life. In it Roberts writes:


“Smith is often caricatured as a Scottish forerunner of Ayn Rand, who in addition to Atlas Shrugged wrote a book titled The Virtue of Selfishness. Smith spends a lot of time in The Theory of Moral Sentiments talking about various virtues. Selfishness does not make the cut. What Smith does suggest in his famous book is that people are fundamentally self-interested, which is not the same thing as selfish.”

–p. 20


This section reeks of intellectual dishonesty. However, the important thing to notice is that the audience of this book happens to be one that is looking to find thinkers that they find helpful in their intellectual growth, and the author has just pointed them in the wrong direction even though overall the book points the reader in a good direction. In fact, I suspect that the author himself would like Ayn Rand’s novels if he would simply take time to read them. But what is going to make him (or anyone else) read and be influenced by an epic novel (over one thousand pages long) like Atlas Shrugged if he honestly doesn’t know that Rand’s usage of ‘selfishness’ is more like Smith’s use of ‘self-interest’ than he suspects? Perhaps Roberts is at fault for not doing his research. Regardless, I think that Rand’s usage of the word ‘selfishness’ has hindered the spreading of her ideas.


In the rest of this article I would like to discuss why Rand used the word ‘selfishness’ and how it’s helped and hurt the spreading of Objectivism. Next I will discuss the Wittgensteinian idea that ‘meaning is use’ and how it applies the Randian use of ‘selfishness’. I will conclude with an argument that Rand’s use of ‘selfishness’ could be unnecessarily deterring new readers away since it invokes a shocking pathos that can be hard to grapple with until one has actually dove in and read her work.


In the Introduction to The Virtue of Selfishness Rand writes:


“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.’”



It is clear from this opening statement that Rand’s using the word ‘selfishness’ because people are afraid of it, which may be rebellious and intriguing but also may not be the best strategy for promoting Objectivism and attracting new readers. I will say it’s true that her use of ‘selfishness’ may have been controversial and thus garnered some attention by the public that lead to readers who ended up liking Objectivism. However, I think that Rand would be gaining more attention had she solely used the phrase ‘rational self-interest’ or ‘rational selfishness’. This might not make for such a catchy book title, but it would help those unfamiliar with Rand’s ideas to become acquainted with her rational ideas without having to question whether she meant acting for yourself in a good or bad way.


Gregory Salmieri writes in A Companion to Ayn Rand:


“Rand’s crusading usage of “selfish” was a means of challenging the assumptions and attitudes that underlie the conventional usage. Far from being ‘a mere semantic attitude or a matter of arbitrary choice,’ she thought that the conventional usage was ‘wrong’ and represented an error, ‘which is responsible, more than any other factor, for the arrested moral development of mankind.’(VOS vii)”



The key thing to pay attention to is that Rand thought the conventional usage was wrong. But does Rand really get to dictate the meaning of words? Rand has something to learn from another famous philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Although Rand criticizes linguistic analysis in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, I have found some of Wittgenstein’s ideas to be helpful in my own intellectual life.


In Wittgenstein’s later work, Philosophical Investigations, he writes:


“Philosophers very often talk about investigating, analyzing, the meaning of words. But let’s not forget that a word hasn’t got a meaning given to it, as it were, by a power independent of us, so that there could be a kind of scientific investigation into what the word really means. A word has the meaning someone has given to it.”

–p.119 Major Works


Ayn Rand is the author of Atlas Shrugged, not the dictionary. Dictionaries may point us in the right direction most of the time, towards the general meaning of a word. However, each word-use must be examined on a case-by-case basis. For example, if some individual thinks that ‘selfishness’ means taking advantage of other people for one’s own benefit it may be because the way in which that word has been observed by that individual gave him the notion that this was the definition of ‘selfishness’.


In A Companion to Ayn Rand, Gregory Salmieri writes about Rand’s perception of the dictionary definition of ‘selfishness’:


“Speaking in her own voice, Rand writes that the “exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word ‘selfishness’ is concern with one’s own interest,” adding that “the concept does not include a moral evaluation” (VOS vii). Presumably when Rand speaks of the “dictionary definition” she means how dictionaries ought to define the term. Some dictionaries do define the word in (more or less) the way Rand describes, but others include evaluative content or other related elements of the popular usage to which Rand would object.”



The logical thing to do when one sees a book title like Virtue of Selfishness or hears about Ayn Rand’s endorsement of selfishness would be to Google ‘Ayn Rand selfish’ and do the research on what she really meant by it. However, it is foolish to expect every person who isn’t familiar with Rand’s connotation to automatically realize that Rand means something antithetical to the conventional meaning of the word ‘selfishness’.


Rand’s problem isn’t with her rational argumentation (logos) but with her arousal of emotions in her audience (pathos). She creates an excellent argument for her notion of selfishness not just in The Virtue of Selfishness but in all her work, both fiction and non-fiction. The problem is that she has aroused negative emotions in potential audiences before they have discovered her true notion of selfishness, which upheld man’s own life as an end in itself.


Cicero writes about his focus on appealing to emotion using pathos to persuade in How To Win An Argument:


“I carefully concentrate all of my thoughts on considering, on scenting out as keenly as I can, what their feelings, their opinions, their hopes, and their wishes are, and in what direction my speech may most easily lead them.”



Rand’s idea of using selfishness “for the reason that makes you afraid of it” doesn’t necessarily sound like she’s scenting out other people’s feelings or opinions. That is okay. It’s her style and you can’t expect her to be perfect. However, as people who wish to spread Rand’s rational ideas we need to focus on explaining to new readers three main concepts. The first concept is that what she meant by selfishness is the opposite of the conventional use of the term. The second concept is that people on Earth that we interact with will continue to use ‘selfishness’ with a negative connotation, and that doesn’t make them bad people, it just means that they need to be introduced to Objectivism! The third and final thing is to make sure we are scenting out people’s feelings and opinions so that we may more easily lead them into reading Ayn Rand’s epic novels that have changed this planet, the one Atlas is holding up.

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