A. Bernstein, Ayn Rand on the value of selfishness

It is eminently possible to benefit both oneself and others. But it is logically impossible to both fulfill and sacrifice oneself, to both pursue and surrender important values, to gain happiness and selflessly relinquish the personal values upon which happiness depends.

To be true to the self is to be true to one’s values… To sacrifice is to give up a higher value for a lesser value or a non-value. It is not a sacrifice if a man gives up something of little or no importance to him, in order to gain something more valuable…

Ayn Rand, in effect, dramatizes the meaning of Polonius’s famous words to Laertes in Hamlet: “To thine own self be true.” For when a man is true, in action, to his supreme values, it is his self that he honors above all. This is selfishness in Ayn Rand’s sense of the term.

In real life, a loving parent will save money for his child’s education, possibly forgoing a new car or some other Luxury. A young married couple, living in their first apartment, might scrimp on vacations or recreation in order to gain the money necessary for a down payment on a house of their own. A serious college student will study for long hours and possibly hold a job, thereby curtailing elements of his social life, because he is working toward a future career of great significance to him.

All of these persons and thousands more, are true to their values. None of them are willing to undermine or betray that which is of utmost importance to them. All of them are, in Ayn Rand’s sense, properly selfish…

Contrary to popular belief, it is not necessary to sell one’s soul for practical success. Indeed, it is not possible. Morality and practicality, in fact, stand in direct-not inverse-proportion to each other…

The selfish man is one who meets two criteria: 1. he holds principles and forms values that will, in fact, lead to his long-term wellbeing-he is not selfdestructive; and 2. he remains consistently true to his life-promoting ideas in practice. This-nothing else and nothing less-is loyalty to the self.

The selfless man is one who either never does such thinking to form personal values–or who betrays the ideals, convictions, and commitments he does hold. Such a person is selfless in a literal sense-he lacks a self, i.e., in some form he surrenders the independent judgment, the rational thinking, that enables men to form actual values. In some manner, he then permits his life to be dominated by others.


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