Rational Egoism: Whose Idea?


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Up until a little while ago, I had only ever encountered the term "rational egoism" within Objectivist writings. I took it to refer to Ayn Rand's particular form of living selfishly, as opposed to the conventional, shallow term of selfishness, i.e., "irrational egoism." Rational egoism, then, would mean: living with the realization of personal values as one's central goal; these values, by their very nature, are based on objectively and permanently improving/maintaining quality of life; these values cannot be pursued (nor can even properly qualify as a true "value") if they violate another person's natural rights (for lack of a better term). This contrasts to Keating-esque "ir"rational egoism, which implies pursuing a goal at whatever cost, even at the price of your own self-esteem.

However, recently I discovered, much to my chagrin, that this is not the only definition of rational egoism! Apparently, rational egoism began as a movement in Russia in the 1800's. It emphasized that man not only ought to, but has to live in accordance with what is (or what he perceives to be) in his self-interest. He has to, because living egoistically is the very nature of man; he cannot act in direct contrast to what he thinks is in his self-interest. AS SUCH, (and this is the sticking point). . . man has no free will. He is not completely free, because he does not have the freedom of choosing to destroy himself. (Even suicide can be more beneficial to life than life itself, if, say, the quality of life, should it extend, is so abysmal it can't be tolerated.)

(Personally, I found this definition/restriction of free will ridiculous. Will - the action of identifying values and pursuing them - is an intrinsic part of life, not death: it is the process upon which man's survival depends. To say that free will is restricted because one can't will to utterly destroy oneself is to say: "Man cannot survive in ANY way he wants, because man cannot survive by killing himself!" [REALLY?] The key word is "survive" - free will IMPLIES life. It is not "restricted" because man cannot choose to act against will itself because that's not what free will IS; it is merely the instance of choosing between methods of life.)

(But the above was beside the point.)

The point, basically, is I need a little bit of clarification. Ayn Rand WAS referring to a different type of rational egoism, correct? If so, why did she pick that name, when it already existed?! Are there any other differences between the two concepts? And, in discussion, which is "THE" definition of rational egoism -- Rand's or these crazy Russians'?


Edited by ENonemaker
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This looks to me a bit like Hobbes, who held the doctrine that Branden takes up in "Isn't Everyone Selfish?".

One question comes to mind. Did Rand use just this phrase "rational egoism"? She used "rational self-interest" a lot, but I don't recall this one in her writings. If she did, you'd need to know Russian to answer your question fully. If the phrase is a plausible translation and if she used it, you'd still have to bring evidence that she was aware of this earlier usage. The fact that she meant something incompatible and entirely different is strong evidence that she wasn't. Maybe she just thought it expressed her meaning correctly. She wasn't the first to use "objectivism," but it's still a good name for her theories.

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One question comes to mind. Did Rand use just this phrase "rational egoism"?


Rand did only once on the CDROM—discussing what she believed keeping an open mind meant. (In her sense, I fully agree with her, but I don't agree that her meaning is what most people mean by "keeping an open mind.") "Rational egoism" is in The Ayn Rand Letter, Vol. III, No. 10, February 11, 1974, "Philosophical Detection--Part II." This essay was included in Philosophy: Who Needs It. I am giving a longer quote than necessary to provide the context.

If you keep an active mind, you will discover (assuming that you started with common-sense rationality) that every challenge you examine will strengthen your convictions, that the conscious, reasoned rejection of false theories will help you to clarify and amplify the true ones, that your ideological enemies will make you invulnerable by providing countless demonstrations of their own impotence.

No, you will not have to keep your mind eternally open to the task of examining every new variant of the same old falsehoods. You will discover that they are variants of attacks on certain philosophical essentials—and that the entire, gigantic battle of philosophy (and of human history) revolves around the upholding or the destruction of these essentials. You will learn to recognize at a glance a given theory's stand on these essentials, and to reject the attacks without lengthy consideration—because you will know (and will be able to prove) in what way any given attack, old or new, is made of contradictions and "stolen concepts."

I will list these essentials for your future reference. But do not attempt the shortcut of accepting them on faith (or as semi-grasped approximations and floating abstractions). That would be a fundamental contradiction and it would not work.

The essentials are: in metaphysics, the Law of Identity—in epistemology, the supremacy of reason—in ethics, rational egoism—in politics, individual rights (i.e., capitalism)—in esthetics, metaphysical values.

If you reach the day when these essentials become your absolutes, you will have entered Atlantis—at least, psychologically; which is a precondition of the possibility ever to enter it existentially.

It might be possible that Rand avoided the phrase until late in life because it already had a meaning to her (the movement in Russia Elizabeth mentioned).


Something that is not mentioned often in Objectivist circles is that Communism was sold to the world under the banner of reason. Nowadays, Communism is seen as an irrational system with horrible consequences, but years back, it was considered as rational, the alternative to faith. In fact, many of the same arguments made made by Rand and other Objectivists were made loudly by Communists at that time. (For instance, I have read, quoted in another book, some writings by Lenin on epistemology that almost could have been written by Rand.)

But as a rational system, reality intervened. Ultimately Communism was proven to be a secular form of faith.

In Objectivism, we have to make sure this result does not happen to us, as it will if things like constant excommunications and tribal behavior continue to be the hallmark of Objectivism. Unfortunately, this is how it works in many places.

Since Communism sprung into existence waving the banner of reason, it makes sense that in Russia around that time a movement for rational egoism would be in the air. And it makes sense to conclude that Rand would have been aware of it. I was unaware of this movement until now, but since you brought it up, I think it will be interesting to look into it. (I just now paused in writing this post to read a very interesting essay on this subject by Roger Donway, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and Ayn Rand's Moral Triad.)

Communism impacted Rand's thinking deeply. It became a lifelong target at the center of much of what she wrote. The flip side is that by being so familiar with it, she filtered some good parts out and used them.

Orthodox Objectivist turn blind, irrational and spiteful when this possibility is raised ("Are you saying Rand was Communist?" or "Are saying Rand got her ideas from Marx and Lenin?" always said daring you to knock that chip off their shoulder). Even today, they rant and rail against Chris Sciabarra because he showed how Rand used a dialectical approach (meaning to examine an issue from several perspectives to identify hidden contradictions, as in the Socratic approach) just because Marx and Hegel used the same word. The fact that Marx and Hegel used the word to mean something different (a metaphysical condition) doesn't even make a dent in the ortho-blindness and hysteria on this point. They accuse Sciabarra of trying to smear Rand and undermine Objectivism by associating Rand with her enemies.


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