What if the central idea we’re all taught about morality is wrong?
Virtually everyone regards self-sacrifice as a moral virtue. From childhood on, we are told that serving the needs of others, rather than our own, is the essence of morality and is the means of achieving social harmony. To be ethical—it is believed—is to be altruistic. Even questioning this premise is, to most people, equivalent to entertaining the notion that the earth is flat.
My book questions this premise.
* * * * * *
In Defense of Selfishness is a cultural analysis of a deeply ingrained idea, one that influences our most important personal and political choices. The book makes the case—a sober, meticulous case—against the tenets of altruism. It shows that what altruism demands is not, as many superficially believe, that you respect the rights of your neighbor and refrain from acting like Attila the Hun, but that you subordinate yourself to others. Altruism entails not benevolence and cooperation, but servitude. Whether you are told to sacrifice by liberals in order to provide for the medically uninsured or by conservatives in order to preserve your community’s traditions, the code of altruism insists that the needs of others take precedence over your own interests. It declares that you have a duty to sacrifice for their sake.
The book asks why the fact that someone needs your money makes him morally entitled to it, while the fact that you’ve earned it, doesn’t. It explains why altruism leads to the opposite of social harmony: continual conflict. It scrupulously demonstrates, in theory and in nuts-and-bolts practice, the injustice and the destructiveness of self-sacrifice. And it offers a rational, non-predatory alternative.
People generally view the alternative—“selfishness”—as personified by conniving, murderous brutes, who embrace a do-whatever-you-feel-like-doing philosophy. People believe that our only choice is: sacrifice ourselves to others by being altruistic or sacrifice others to ourselves by being “selfish.” In Defense of Selfishness rejects this false alternative. It rejects the entire premise of sacrifice, under which one person’s gain comes only at the price of another’s loss. Instead, it proposes a true alternative to altruism, whereby people deal with one another not by sacrificing but by offering value for value, to mutual benefit, and by refusing to seek the unearned. This is an alternative, based on Ayn Rand’s ethics of rational self-interest, under which individuals live honest, self-respecting, productive lives. Because the truly selfish person lives by the guidance of reason, not by mindless impulses, he repudiates the unthinking, short-range mentality of the crook, the fly-by-nighter, the drug addict, the playboy, the drifter—all of whom are acting in contradiction to their self- interest.
Replete with real-life examples, the book vividly illustrates the iniquity of requiring one man to serve the needs of another. It forcefully challenges readers to question the basic standard by which they decide that something is morally right or morally wrong.♦♦
EXCERPTS FROM REVIEWS
From John Tamny (Forbes.com): While everyone reads a different book, and surely reads the same book differently at different times in life, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is timeless. It may be one of the few novels that always reads in the moment, that always seems to be describing the exact time in which the reader is living…
[T]o me Rand’s philosophy has always been intensely logical. As someone who strongly believes it’s the “vital few” who carry the world on their backs, I’ve always loved the philosophy’s muscular elevation of achievement. Of greater importance, I like its essential elevation of selfishness as a virtue.
That’s why Peter Schwartz’s new book, In Defense of Selfishness, is such an important read for people of any philosophy. Those who read it will quickly understand that Schwartz is merely defending personal happiness. As he explains it, “the term ‘selfishness’ means only a concern with one’s own interests. To be selfish is simply to care about one’s own life.” . . .
From Booklist: This thoughtful and well-reasoned essay will, for sure, evoke many spirited arguments on the altruism-versus-selfishness debate. A true scholar and avid proponent of Ayn Rand’s ethics of rational self-interest (and author of The Foreign Policy of Self-Interest; Libertarianism), Schwartz declares that the traditional negative view of selfishness is not only outmoded but also denigrating the very principles on which the U.S. was founded: the right of individuals to live honest, self-respecting, productive lives. Case after case and news story upon news story he dissects with great care and logic.
From Melissa Alexandria (YouTube video): Fascinating and thought-provoking. . . . It challenged a lot of the things we’re taught to believe by society.
–“Maggie”: The information in this fascinating book is so at odds with what I’ve been taught over the course of my life…but it makes so much sense that it has my head spinning. Could it really be that my own “selfish needs” and motivations regarding my hard-earned resources are not a moral weakness but a necessary strength?!? I must confess that Schwartz’s arguments ring true somewhere deep inside my soul. While I am not yet ready to take a stand one way or the other, I found this to be an enlightening and thought-provoking read that encouraged me to consider an alternative approach to a topic that I didn’t even know needed considering. It is written simply and clearly with numerous illustrations and examples, making it easily understandable and enjoyable for any reader. While it is a book on philosophy, I found it to be as entertaining as any piece of best-selling fiction. . . .
He argues that altruism is indeed an impediment and that the cause of society’s problems can be attributed not to the absence of altruism but to its overwhelming presence. If this sounds abominable to you, then you MUST read this book. Schwartz explains his premises much more effectively than I am able to relate them.
–”Cathy”: A very thought-provoking book on the battle between selfishness and altruism. I closed the book with the goal to be more selfish—it’s ok to be selfish, we all should be! I definitely would recommend this book.
–”Steve”: Schwartz is primarily concerned with getting clarity on exactly what selfishness and altruism really are. . . . If a swindler seems obviously selfish to you, then you’ll want to read Mr. Schwartz’s book. It will be an eye-opener.
–“David W. Johnson”: [I]t provides extensive, very illuminating concrete examples illustrating the influence of altruist morality in daily living and governmental policies. . . . Some may wonder if the book’s view of altruism is an exaggeration, but the book’s extensive concrete examples and historical background demonstrate otherwise. . . . I also found the book to be highly readable, flowing almost like an exciting detective story, with each major section and chapter leading naturally into the next in a progression that often makes the reader tantalizingly unable to resist continuing to read to find out what comes next. The suspense builds steadily, finally leading to a climax in the full identification of man’s power of choice in morality.
–”chuckbutler”: In clear, concise prose, he shows how supposedly “selfless” (and therefore supposedly “virtuous”) actions damage both the altruist and his supposed beneficiary. In short, Schwartz shows that altruism is lose-lose, while egoism, properly understood, is win-win.
I recognize that this turnabout will be difficult for many readers to swallow, and so does Mr. Schwartz. What most impressed me about this book—and the reason that I regard it as a triumph—is that it articulates and applies Ayn Rand’s moral theory in a way that is accessible to general readers. It contains no complex philosophical arguments, no strained thought experiments, no digressions into technicalities. The presentation is brief, straightforward, and to the point, yet Schwartz makes his case thoroughly and effectively.
–”Harry Mullin”: I’m left after reading the book (and listening to the recording—a wonderful companion, by the way), with the question “why wasn’t this obvious to everyone before.” Pondering the value of the book as I write this, I’m seeing Mr. Schwartz’s discussion providing a road map to living a guiltless life. An instruction manual on avoiding the errors of self-destructive behavior.
–”Feilongshi”: Absolutely excellent. . . . If you’re interested in learning both the fundamentals of Ayn Rand’s ethical theory, as well as how they apply to the world in which we live, this is a must read. I enjoyed every chapter of it.
–”C. Braman”: I already have a deep understanding of Ayn Rand’s ideas concerning altruism, and yet through the years I have been an eager listener of Peter Schwartz’s lectures on the subject because I always learn something new and valuable. In this succinct and clearly written book, he has collected and organized all of his profound insights, presented them in a logical structure, and illustrated them with many contemporary examples. . . . I would particularly recommend the book to any readers of The Fountainhead who might wish to deepen their understanding of the ideas presented in that novel and explore their application to contemporary culture.
–”Amesh Adalja”: One of the biggest values of the book, to me, [is] the myriad concrete examples Mr. Schwartz uses to concretize the points he makes. From blind people demanding to be seated in emergency exit rows to a pathological organ donor to a great quote from President Pierce, the book, in my view, makes it very clear that cultural deterioration is unequivocally occurring because of altruism. I really hope it finds a huge audience.
–”Paul Tognetti”: As I perused the dust jacket I quickly realized that the author was challenging much of what I believe in. As a lifelong practicing, orthodox Catholic, I was taught from a very early age that self-sacrifice and putting the needs others first was the right way to live. I could not resist. This was going to be a very interesting read indeed. . . . Peter Schwartz openly admits that he is a disciple of Ayn Rand and that he has precious little use for religion and for liberal thinking. He methodically dismantles the argument that some people have the right to demand that government compel others to sacrifice for them. . . . Peter Schwartz challenges the beliefs of a large number of Americans in this book. . . . [It] is a thought-provoking and well-written book that is well worth your time and consideration. While I certainly do not completely subscribe to his point of view he does make a number of very valid points.♦♦
A PRIMER ON SELFISHNESS AND ALTRUISM
(Taken from a version written for QuickAndDirtyTips.com, on Sept. 16, 2015.)
Did you ever stop to think about the meaning of the word “selfish”? We’re all taught that selfishness is the epitome of evil. But is that true? Or is selfishness—rational selfishness—actually something good?
In weighing this concept, here are three questions to ask yourself:
1. What Does “Selfish” Really Represent?
The typical answer is that it stands for the kind of amoral, predatory behavior of Bernie Madoff and Attila the Hun—that is, of someone who lies, steals and kills in order to gratify his own whims.
But let’s pause for a moment to challenge that view.
After all, selfishness means a concern with your own interests. To be selfish is to care about your own life and well-being. If so, what if you support your life and advance your interests without victimizing others? A college student who resolutely spends time studying rather than partying, an industrious entrepreneur who devotes his life to developing an iPad and an iPhone rather than ministering to the destitute, an artist who intransigently maintains his own standards rather than defer to the opinions and wishes of others—these are all examples of genuine, rational selfishness.
Such people do not benefit at the expense of others. They seek their self-interest not by looting, but by earning what they get. They are self-responsible, self-supporting, self-respecting individuals who succeed by their own efforts. They don’t sacrifice themselves—their money, their convictions, their happiness—to others, nor others to themselves. Shouldn’t this type of behavior represent the true meaning of selfishness? And shouldn’t we want to emulate it?
2. What Does the Alternative of Altruism, or Self-Sacrifice, Really Mean?
Well, it’s commonly interpreted as a call to respect the rights of others and to deal with people cooperatively rather than exploitatively. But consider what the code of altruism actually demands.
It declares that your own desires should be less important to you than someone else’s. It tells you to subordinate yourself to others. Thus, no matter how diligently you may have worked to earn your money, whenever you spend it on yourself rather than on the fulfillment of someone else’s needs, you are acting immorally. To comply with the tenets of altruism, you must be willing to sacrifice—to harm yourself—in order to serve the needs of others.
But if you ask the simple question “Why?,” there is no logical answer. It’s perfectly reasonable to give charity out of genuine benevolence to innocent victims of misfortune. But why should someone’s need create a moral claim against you? Why should you have a duty to live as a servant to others?
3. Can Moral Principles Be Reconciled with Rational Selfishness?
Certainly. Take honesty, for instance. Honesty is the principle that you should seek your values within the real world, not attempt to enter a counterfeit domain outside it. It’s the principle that you should live with and by the facts, because trying to achieve your goals through faking reality is self-defeating in the long term. Honesty is not a command to sacrifice yourself, but the opposite: a prescription for attaining your self-interest. It is the recognition that if you place yourself in conflict with reality, by living in a world of lies, you are engaging in a war you must ultimately lose.
The same is true for principles such as justice or integrity. They are our indispensable tools for acknowledging facts of reality, which means: for successfully achieving our goals.
So, the next time you pursue some ambition, and refuse to sacrifice it, be proud to say you are acting selfishly.♦♦
“CHOOSING TO LIVE” (excerpt from 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 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, disdainful of 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.♦♦
Since I had nothing to do with the design of my book’s cover, I feel free to extol its virtues. Palgrave Macmillan’s designer did a superb job of creating a cover appropriate to the book’s title. I’ve never communicated with the designer, so I can’t be sure that his interpretation of the cover is identical to mine. But here is what I get from the design (particularly from the “life-sized” version):
It’s a man who is attaching himself—his ego, his “I”—to the idea of selfishness. He is serious. His stylized figure suggests not a desire for some mindless pleasure, but a quest for an ideal. He is looking up and reaching out. His motion is simultaneously an aspiration and an affirmation—an aspiration to achieve something he profoundly values and an affirmation that it is right.♦♦
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. The Shackles
The essence of altruism: you must subordinate yourself to the needs of others.
2. The Straw Man
Altruism appeals to people by misrepresenting selfishness as the predatory act of sacrificing others to oneself.
3. Moral Principles—and Their Enemy
Self-interest requires firm moral principles, including honesty and integrity—which altruism urges us to surrender for the sake of the needy.
4. The Myth of the “Public Interest”
The concept of the “public interest” has no objective meaning, and is designed to make self-sacrifice seem “practical.”
5. Altruism vs Rights
If you have a moral duty to serve others, you can have no inalienable rights.
6. The Collectivist Straitjacket
Altruism, if consistently followed, calls for the sacrifice of the individual to an all-powerful state.
7. The Black Hole of Selflessness
The selfless person gives up not only material values, but intellectual ones as well.
8. The Goal of Self-Sacrifice
The code of altruism demands that we sacrifice, not as a means of actually benefiting others, but as an end in itself.
9. Choosing to Live
The basic alternative we each face: life-affirmation or life-renunciation.♦♦
POSITIVE vs NEGATIVE
Here is an interesting email I received from a prospective reader of IN DEFENSE OF SELFISHNESS:
“I am considering buying the book, but I am on the fence. Looking at the table of contents, it appears it may be more focused on defeating a negative than upholding a positive. For example, the section headings seem to indicate that debunking altruism is discussed more than showing what selfishness is and why it is good. But from the title I expected a book more on the side of upholding a positive. Can you comment on whether the book indeed focuses on defending selfishness as opposed to just debunking altruism? Thanks.”
To which I answered:
That’s an astute question. My original title for the book was The Tyranny of Need, reflecting my intent to offer a cultural analysis. And since our culture’s direction is increasingly toward altruism, the book does focus heavily on the ramifications of an ethics of self-sacrifice.
However, there is no logical way to attack the false without also validating the true. So the book features extensive material on both the virtue of selfishness and the vice of altruism. For example, the first chapter is devoted to the true meaning of altruism, while the second is devoted to the true meaning of selfishness. Most of the other chapters—such as the ones on moral principles, on rights and on the structure of government—cover both elements comprehensively.
It is probably true that the total number of words criticizing altruism is greater than the number defending egoism. Nonetheless, the book clearly presents the nature of, the justification for and the various consequences of a code of rational self-interest.
I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.♦♦
In these two videos (3 minutes and 9 minutes, respectively), I explain the basic message of my book:
AYN RAND’S THE VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS
I’m often asked about the difference between In Defense of Selfishness (IDS) and Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness (VOS). People wonder whether there is any reason to read the former if they have already read the latter.
To which my answer is: definitely yes. Her book presents, in the opening chapter, the philosophic validation for a code of rational egoism. Most of the following chapters deal with other, albeit narrower, principles in ethics—e.g., the nature of compromise, the so-called conflict of men’s interests, the ethics of emergencies, collectivized ethics, etc.
My book, however, is more of a cultural analysis. Building on Ayn Rand’s theoretical foundation, IDS is a meticulous examination of the ways in which the crippling force of altruism pervades our culture. The book shows: how altruism shapes virtually everyone’s important decisions, why people are so accepting of a code that offers no justification for its demands, what the moral, psychological and political consequences are—and how an ethics of egoism offers a rational alternative.
IDS fleshes out the ramifications of altruism. From the man who was ready to give away his vital organs, to the couple who declared their love for the person who had savagely raped and murdered their daughter, to the hundreds of people at Jonestown who docilely followed orders to commit suicide, the book demonstrates, in concrete detail, the full injustice and destructiveness of altruism in today’s society. And in showing readers the results of their mistaken conception of selfishness, and of altruism, my book helps them understand the power of philosophy in human life.
In addition, there are theoretical points that will be new even to Objectivists. For example: altruism’s distorted interpretation of the meaning of “need”; why altruism is incompatible with moral principles as such; what defines a “public interest” (or: why you are considered part of the public when you visit Yellowstone Park, but part of the non-public when you visit Disney World); and why a welfare state must simultaneously be a regulatory state.
So to the readers of VOS who believe they already know everything in IDS, I hope this is enough to persuade you otherwise.♦♦
WEBINAR ON IN DEFENSE OF SELFISHNESS
I conducted a webinar in 2015 exclusively for those who had placed a pre-publication order for my book. It was a 61-minute Q&A (audio) on all aspects of the book. This webinar is now available to all. Just click on the Play button below.♦♦