Do We Need a New Word for “Selfishness”?

By Peter Schwartz

[This post was published at the Harry Binswanger Letter, Feb. 26, 2018, under the thread of “Ayn Rand and the Dictionary Definition of “Selfishness.”]

Some have argued that we should surrender the term “selfish” and find a different word to denote what Objectivism means by that concept. To address their arguments, I want to explain the workings of “package-deals.”

The reasoning behind the “surrender” view amounts to the following: “If we use the term ‘selfish’ as it is customarily used—to refer to the victimizing behavior of Bernie Madoff and Attila the Hun—we can then use another term to stand for the behavior of Bill Gates and Hank Rearden. Let’s stop calling selfishness a virtue. Let’s adopt the nominal, widely-accepted meaning of the term. Let’s concede that it refers to predatory actions, which we regard as evil. By using another word we will have a concept to stand for authentic selfishness without its being distorted by a package-deal. We will have clearly separated Madoff from Gates.”

In fact the opposite is true.

Package-deals, because they seek to define things via non-essentials, always convey a falsehood. To adopt the nominal meaning of such terms is to endorse that falsehood. If we were to accept the nominal meaning of “selfish,” we would only be reinforcing the smear against rational selfishness.

A simple way to illustrate this is by considering another package-deal, “McCarthyism.” Its nominal meaning is: defamation of character through arbitrary, unsubstantiated accusations. Its actual meaning—the concept it serves to displace—is: anti-communism. Now, imagine that somebody makes the following argument: “Most people use the term ‘McCarthyism’ to identify something clearly deplorable. So instead of resisting its use, let’s embrace the term as a pejorative reference to character assassination or witch-hunting. Let’s willingly talk about the evil of ‘McCarthyism,’ as people generally understand it. And when we want to refer to actual anti-communism, we’ll simply say ‘anti-communism.’ Thus, we will have eliminated the confusion created by the package-deal and rescued the legitimate concept.”

Clearly, this would not work. Why? Because “McCarthyism” is employed to mean not simply character assassination or witch-hunting, but character assassination or witch-hunting as an essential element of anti-communism. The term was coined to refer, not to any unwarranted accusations, but specifically to accusations made against communists. Whenever the cry of “McCarthyism” was raised, it was directed against denunciations of communism or communists. It was utilized as a smear against anti-communism, to portray the campaign against communism as equivalent to a campaign against witchcraft. By making “unsubstantiated accusations” an essential characteristic, the term “McCarthyism” erased any distinction between valid and invalid accusations about communism. It ignored the fact that there are countless instances of valid accusations, and transformed the accusers into hysterical searchers for “reds under the beds.”

Since the actual referents of “McCarthyism” are not integratable through the characteristic of “baseless defamation,” the only characteristic that does in reality integrate them is anti-communism. That is the actual referent. Thus, what “McCarthyism” is designed to tar as evil is not the (alleged) false accusation but the (actual) anti-communism.

So when you go along and use “McCarthyism” as a term of censure, you are conceding that an essential connection exists between anti-communism and character assassination. And what you are censuring, therefore, is anti-communism.

The pernicious aspect of “McCarthyism” is not the existence of a needless synonym for character assassination. That would be fairly harmless. The problem with “McCarthyism” is that it seeks to integrate the non-integratable—to integrate anti-communism and baseless accusations. And there is no valid, cognitive purpose to such a concept. So it becomes an anti-concept. It surreptitiously takes the place of the legitimate concept of anti-communism. If we were to use  “McCarthyism,” to signify its nominal meaning, we would be reinforcing the notion that character assassination is indeed an essential element of anti-communism. We would be reinforcing the notion that there is no conceptual category for anti-communism—only the category of witch-hunting and groundless accusations.

The same applies to “selfishness.”

The common, package-deal meaning is “concern for one’s own interests at the expense of others.” If we were to accept and use that term as a reference to predatory behavior, we would be endorsing the underlying falsehood—the falsehood that harming others is an essential element of selfishness.

The actual referents of this package-deal are not simply victimizers, such as Madoff. To the contrary, if we look at the instances in which the disparaging label of “selfishness” is applied, we see that it is aimed at pursuers of non-predatory, rational self-interest— at Wal-Mart for not paying its workers more, at Exxon for making huge profits, at Google for “squeezing out” smaller competitors, at advocates of lower taxes, at opponents of Obamacare, at decriers of the welfare state, at the Reardens and the Roarks. These targets are all placed under the rubric of “at the expense of others.”

There is a valid cognitive purpose to a concept (such as “predation” or “victimization”) that names the act of harming others. There is no purpose, however, to a concept intended to designate an act of self-interest that harms others—any more than there is for a concept designating an act of shopping or of dancing that harms others. When confronted with the term “selfishness,” therefore, people see that the actual characteristic integrating all the actual referents is a concern for one’s interests, period. The rest is non-essential and irrelevant. But because of the confusion created by the package-deal, with its fuzzy definition, people lump everything together and regard both the Madoffs and the Roarks as indistinguishably objectionable.

Thus, if we were to concede the common, disparaging use of “selfish,” we would be disparaging the selfishness of Roark. We would be accepting the idea that harming others is a defining characteristic of self-interested behavior. We would be advancing the insidious goal of the package-deal.

And the same is true of the term “altruism,” which is as much a package-deal as is “selfishness,” with just the content reversed. People generally regard altruism as a virtue because they are told it stands for benevolence, with the result that real benevolence is melded with self-sacrifice. It could just as well be argued therefore that to counter the confusion, we should accept the nominal meaning. That is, let’s announce that we are in favor of altruism, and then use another term—say, “otherism”—to denote the subordination of one’s interests to the needs of others. So in response to accusations that we’re callously indifferent to other people, we would say, “No, we embrace altruism; it’s just ‘otherism’ that we’re against.”

Would that solve the problem created by the package-deal? No, because the term “altruism” is in fact used to refer to acts of self-sacrifice. The greatest altruists—the ones assigned the highest moral praise for their altruism—are those who sacrifice the most. The actual referent of “altruism” is the surrendering of one’s values to those in need. The nominal referent, benevolence, is an attempt to smuggle in the false notion that benevolence is an essential characteristic of self-sacrifice. It’s this false notion we would be endorsing by using “altruism” to convey something positive. Just as we would be endorsing the falsehood in the package-deal of “selfishness” by using it to convey something negative.

A package-deal’s nominal definition is always a ploy. It names a characteristic that it supposedly condemns, or praises, but its true concern is the oppositeThe pushers of “McCarthyism,” for example, ostensibly condemn baseless accusations (and support bona fide ones), but the real evil they want to denounce is anti-communism—even when the accusations are true. The pushers of the package-deal for “selfish” ostensibly condemn harming others, but the real evil they are concerned about is pursuing one’s own interests—even when there is no harm (indeed, even when there is a consequent benefit to others). Thus they denounce the swindler, not for acting “at the expense of others,” but for being selfish. To them, the essence, and the evil, of a criminal is not his victimizing others—they don’t care about that—but his desire to benefit himself. And if selfish motivation is to be execrated, irrespective of whether anyone is harmed, then selfless action—such as that exhibited by socialist regimes—is to be lauded, even when it leads to rivers of blood.

All this is what we’d be abetting by saying, “Selfishness is bad, but when it does not harm others, it’s good.”

Obviously, it is not the word “selfishness,” but the idea behind it, that engenders opposition. Finding a new term would not defuse this opposition. One suggestion, for instance, is to replace “selfishness” with “the pursuit of happiness.” We would then describe the latter as a virtue and the former as a vice. But the very same objections would arise. Isn’t Bernie Madoff pursuing his happiness by cheating people? Don’t businessmen pursue their happiness by exploiting their workers? Doesn’t one person’s happiness often come at another’s expense?

In other words, to the extent that a new term is understood to uphold selfishness and reject self-sacrifice, it will be subject to the same package-deal that now infects “selfishness.”

There is no avoiding the fact that the core of the problem remains the philosophic conflict between the code of altruism and the code of egoism. Our efforts, therefore, should be aimed at exposing the error of the package-deal by showing why “at the expense of others” is not part of a proper definition of selfishness. But using “selfish” as a negative term, to refer to the Madoff-types, is an implicit endorsement of that error. (See also “Reconceiving the Idea of Selfishness.“)

And one final point on Ayn Rand’s “dictionary definition” of selfishness:

Just as there is a generic definition to the concept “value”—“that which one acts to gain and/or keep”—which does not depend on any particular code of values, the definition of “selfishness” should also be a generic one, not requiring philosophic agreement with either the ethics of egoism or of altruism. Such a definition is simply “a concern with one’s own interests.” It is then the task of philosophy to identify what those interests actually consist of—including whether or not they entail harm to others (they don’t, according to Objectivism; they do, according to altruism).

A non-generic definition that reflected the views of Objectivism might be: “a commitment to the pursuit of rational values.” Just as a similar definition of “value” might be: “that which objectively furthers man’s life qua rational being.” But ordinarily a definition of a concept should not embrace one philosophy to the exclusion of others. Since there are two basic choices one can make in one’s actions—seeking one’s own interests or sacrificing those interests for the sake of others—we need two concepts to name these two approaches: “selfish” and “altruistic.” The question of how to evaluate each is secondary. The primary consideration must be an accurate identification of the two possibilitiesThis is what I believe Ayn Rand meant by the “dictionary definition”—as against a specialized, philosophic definition—of selfishness.♦♦

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