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The Virtue of Selfishness, Ayn Rand (1963) - Reading Notes

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The virtue of selfishness

Ayn Rand


Selfishness is merely the concern of one’s own interests. It is neither good nor evil.

Altruism declares that any action taken for the benefit of others is good. An industrialist who produces a fortune s regarded as equally as a gangster who robs a bank. A young man who gives up on his career and spends his life as a clerk to care for his parents is seen as virtuous compared to the one who achieves his personal ambition.

Altruism permits no notion of a moral self-sustaining man. According to altruism, a man who does not sacrifice his own life for others is seen as immoral. But this is an evil concept.

As a result, most men will spend their lives feeling guilty because they dare not reject that teaching, but at the same time they will be cynical because they do not practice that teaching.


1.    The Objectivist Ethics

First, we need to ask ourselves whether ethics are just the product of our emotions, or if there is actually a rational reason behind the necessity to be good. Is ethics a whim or an objective necessity?

Aristotle said that ethics was something that gentlemen followed, but he did not suggest why. For meany years, ethics was the “will of God” and now it is “the will of society”. In other words, whatever society wants is good. But in reality, what we call society is just a small group of men pursuing their whims and the majority of other men feeling ethically obliged to let them do so and service that gang’s desires.


So we need to ask ourselves what are values and why we need them.

A “value” is something we want to gain and keep. Which means only living beings can have them. A robot would not have values. Life can only keeps in existence by a process of self-sustaining actions. So, good is what keeps you alive while bad is what kills you.

The fact that a living entity exists determines what it has to do.


How do humans learn about values, good and bad? First, through pleasure and pain. The pleasure-pain mechanism is what keeps a human alive. Kids who don’t feel pain do not survive very long.

For humans, consciousness is the main mean of survival. Unlike plants who get food from the soil or animals that hunt it, humans have to produce it.

Higher organisms have perception, i.e they can also remember sensations. Animals do not respond to separate stimuli but respond to an integrated awareness of perceptual reality.

Man has no automatic code of survival, course of action or set of values like animals. His own consciousness tells him what is good or bad. Man has to use reason, i.e the faculty to integrate the sensations and perceptions.


Ethics is therefore necessary, as man can easily stop thinking and destroy himself. Ethics is an objective necessity for man’s survival. The three cardinal values of the objectivist ethics are reason, purpose and self-esteem. They are achieved respectively through rationality, productiveness and pride.


Productive work is the purpose of a man’s life, the central value that determines the hierarchy of the other values. Reason is the source/precondition and pride is the result.



Rationality means having full, conscious awareness and maintaining a full mental focus in all situations. It also means rejecting any doctrine that preaches self-immolation as a moral virtue. The achievement of one’s own happiness (through productive work) is man’s highest purpose. Good or evil come down to happiness or suffering. Happiness is only accessible to the rational man who seeks nothing but rational goals and actions, for this joy comes without penalty or guilt.



The maintenance of life and the pursuit of happiness are the same thing.


Trade and justice

The principle of trade is the only rational ethical principle for all human relationships, personal and social, public and private, spiritual and material. It’s the principle of justice.

A trader earns what he gets and does not get anything undeserved. He treats other men as independent equals, not as masters or slaves.

Love, friendship, respect follow the same principle. They are the emotional response of one man to the virtues of another. To love is to value. Only a selfish man, a man of self-esteem, is capable of holding unbetrayable values.


Human society

Man can derive two benefits from living in society: knowledge and trade. Trade allows you to specialize in one area and do business with people who do the same. In that society, only productive members of society have value. It also means that property rights are paramount. Without them, no other rights are possible.

2.    Mental Health vs Mysticism and Self-sacrifice

Mental health is like physical health. It is destined for man’s survival and well-being. A man fully committed to reason can achieve this, and the result is self-esteem, i.e confidence in one’s efficacy and worth.

The antipodes of self-esteem are anxiety and guilt, who disintegrate thought, distort moral values and paralyze action.

Placing others' needs above one's own can lead to resentment, unfulfilled desires, and ultimately, a diminished sense of self-worth.

3.    The Ethics of Emergencies

Should you help someone drowning?

An altruistic person will have a lack of self-esteem – they do not want to live their life but to sacrifice it. Also, they disrespect others by seeing them as beggars crying for help.

Any action you take for people that you love is not a sacrifice, if it has the highest importance to you. But letting your wife die so you can spend money or other women that you don’t care about – this is sacrifice, because you traded a higher value for something of lower value.

It’s only in emergency situations that you should volunteer so help others if you can (and not at the expense of your own life). You should not help people who are not in an emergency and not go around looking for people to save.

4.    The Conflicts of Men’s Interests

There are no conflicts of interest between rational men

The fact that you desire something does not mean that it is good for you. Just because you do not get something that you desire right now does not mean that your interests have been sacrificed. The rational man acts in full context of his knowledge – he acts when he can say “I want it because I know that it is right”

The rational man accepts responsibility: if you want to be loved you must have qualities to provide. If you want wealth, you must search for the conditions and actions to take in order to provide a service to other rational people. If your kids don’t love you then you must accept that you should stop ignoring or opposing their convictions

The rational man produces effort: he knows that wealth and benefits have to be produced and knows that one man’s gain is not another one’s loss.


Competition and luck

If you are in competition with another candidate at another job interview, you either meet that competition or choose another job. In a free society, someone who does the job better will always find his skills to be appreciated by someone. Only the passive and parasitical representatives of the “humility metaphysics” would regard a competitor as a threat: they see themselves as interchangeable mediocrities ho have nothing to offer and fight for someone’s “causeless” favor in a static universe.

The rational man knows that there is no luck, breaks or favors that are irreplaceable. He knows only people are irreplaceable.



The rational man knows that love is not a static quantity to be divided, but an unlimited response to be earned. The love for one friend is not a threat for love to another. Romantic love is not about competition. If two men love one woman, what she feels for one is not the same thing she feels for the other one. She could not give the “loser” what she gives to the “winner” (or what the winner has earned).

Only emotion-motivated people and irrational people will have conflicts and rivalries for a woman

5.    Isn’t everyone selfish?

Egoism says a man’s end is himself. Altruism says a man’s is a mean to the ends of others. It says that the beneficiary of an action should be someone different than the person carrying it out.

Selfishness entails a hierarchy of values set by the standard of one’s own self-interest, and the refular to sacrifice a higher value for something of lower value.

Example: a man dies to save the life of his wife. This is not a sacrifice if he does not value life without her.

The man who dies for freedom in a dictatorship is not altruistic either. He just does not value life as a slave.

Men often act against their long-term happiness for altruistic purposes, like the son changing careers just to please his mom. But saying that the son is doing this selfishly would be a contradiction in terms.

6.    The Psychology of Pleasure

The pleasure-pain mechanism is what tells you what is beneficial to you.

There are five areas: work, relationships, recreation, art, sex.



The most important, allows you to enjoy the others. Having no goal make you feel helpless and out of control. A rational man will seek values, challenges and a way to achieve them. A neurotic man will be motivated by fear and a way to escape it.

The rational man is conscious and achieves real values, while diminishing is fear of the unknown. The neurotic one choose to evade consciousness, does not try to understand the universe or to expand his knowledge and comes home to escape in recreation. His idea of pleasure is simply a dim, murky state.



The same thing goes. The rational man will seek the company of human beings with intelligence, integrity and self-esteem. His pleasure comes from his control reality. The other man’s pleasure is escaping from reality.



The rational man indeed likes meeting new people. The neurotic man is just happy to have escaped loneliness for that evening. He will get drunk to live in a universe where one is not burdened with logic, reality or awareness.

Many people will like “boring” activities like a picnic because of its absence of anything new, unfamiliar and demanding.



A man can seek the pleasure of admiring great works and great values. Or he can read the gossip-columns of the folks next door so as not to feel as much as a stranger in a world that he never made.



A man falls in love and sexually desires a woman who reflects his own deepest values. A rational man looks for someone he can admire spiritually. Sex is an act of celebration, an act of tribute to himself and the woman he has chosen. A rational man is attracted to a woman of intelligence, confidence and strength. The neurotic one is attracted to the scatterbrained weak woman with poor judgement. Her lack of judgement allows him to fake it and he can progress free of reproach.

Paradoxically, the pleasure-chasers (who only feel the thrill) are incapable of feeling pleasure, they are just trying to escape from anxiety and boredom.


Out of all these pleasures, none will give the neurotic man a sense of pride, fulfilment or inspiration. The pursuit of all these pleasures will provide him with guilt, frustration, hopelessness, shame.

Patients in psychotherapy often say nothing has the power to give them pleasure and authentic enjoyment.

7.    Doesn’t Life Require Compromise?

There cannot be compromises on some fundamental issues. You cannot compromise between life and death or reason vs irrationality, or truth vs falsehood. When people say compromise, they often mean complete betrayal of one’s principles, like giving a robber just one piece of silverware in exchange for “peace”. But in reality, you have betrayed your principles and the robber will come back for more.


Accepting a job with a boss you hate is not a compromise. Pretending to think like him is.

Accepting changes in a manuscript to please an editor is not a compromise. Doing it to please the public is.

Integrity is not loyalty to one’s whims but loyalty to rational principles.


But you cannot encourage someone’s behavior and expect a “return an investment” on your compromise. Bend the knee once and people will expect you to bend it again more.

If you find it hard to follow your convictions, a series of betrayals will not make it easier in a later date but virtually impossible.


There can be no compromise on moral principles. The state will always want more money and more control over your life.

8.    How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society?

One must never fail to pronounce moral judgement.

Nothing is worse than moral agnosticism, i.e refusing to pass moral judgement on others and being tolerant of everything, or claiming that good comes from refusing to distinguish between good and evil.

This is a way that men have found to give moral blank checks to everyone so as to receive one themselves.


It is therefore your moral duty to speak up when you see silences around evil. If you don’t want to give a detailed response, a simple “I don’t agree with you” is enough.

Many people rationalize their absence of sanction for loved in order to avoid seeing that they might be evil. The bum “can’t help it”, the criminal “needs love”, the delinquent “does not know any better”. This is why totalitarian dictatorships pour so much money in propaganda, in order to create more slaves who have no means of protest or defense.

9.    The Cult of Moral Grayness

“There are no black and whites, only grays” -> this is the way people refuse to pass judgement. In reality, what it means is that men are unwilling to be wholly good or wholly evil. And what it means is “I am unwilling to be wholly evil, therefore I am unwilling to be wholly good”.

In political issues and at the UN, the worst are the neutralists, who claim to see no difference between two sides, who never consider the merits of one issue, and always seek a compromise, even between an invader and an aggressed country.

In TV shows, the “bad guys” are now given an equal chance and an equal number of victories. In literature, a figure that recently became popular is the anti-hero, who has no values, no virtues, no goals, no character, yet who occupies the position of a hero.

10.                   Collectivized Ethics

Some people ask what will be done for the poor and handicapped in a free society? They do not even ask if anything should be done.

A good answer is: if YOU help them, you will not be stopped.

Only individual men have the right to decide when and where they will help others. Society does not.

Nature does not guarantee automatic security, success or survival. Saying that society should help the poor also means that men’s lives belong to society, and that a socialist has the right to dispose of them and set goals of the distribution of men’s efforts.


The altruistic man who sees himself as a mean to others will also see others as a mean to him. This is how “humanitarian” projects are imposed onto men by force

Meidcare is a good example. Many claimed that the elderly should have medical care in times of illness. Out of context, the answer is yes. But this also means to accept that society will destroy medical science, disintegrate medical practice, sacrifice professional integrity, and the freedom and ambitions of doctors.

The collectivized ethics of altruism still rules by the more of prehistorical savagery. It is commonly accepted in society that the respect for individuals that we have in our private dealing completely vanishes when we enter the public arena, and then we cannot conceive a reason why the tribe would refuse to bash the skull of any individual if it so desires.


We want to clean up the slums, have planned cities, an educated public, incentivize artists. But whit is it desirable to? This will come at the cost of the American father who died of a heart attack brought by overwork, struggling to pay to send his son to college. This will come to the cost of the boy who could not afford college, to the couple who died in a car crash because they couldn’t buy a better one, or the mother who lost her child because she could not send him to the best hospital.

This is like creating equality by gouging one eye of a man to give it a blind one. Just because it’s equal does not mean it is moral

11.                   The Monument Builders

Socialism failed everywhere it as tried, either by vote or by force. The competent leave, the mediocre stay and starve. The desperate efforts they make to flee under machine-gun fire shows socialism is not motivated by benevolence or the desire to achieve man’s welfare.

Socialism is just intellectuals allying with thugs. Both have a desire for the unearned. Since the public is just a number of individuals, any gang can point a gun at others and claim that what they take is for public interest. Socialism only works by force.


Building a monument to the public is the worst use: it’s presented as a gift to the victims whose forced labor or extorted money has paid for, and is dedicated to the use and service of none. Monuments are only created to impress the eyes of the tyrant’s bootlickers.

Rome fell, bankrupted by statist controls and taxation while its emperors were building coliseums.

Louis XIV built Versailles while the people was starving, only for other monarchs to envy.

The Moscow subway and the Czarist-like receptions at the Soviet embassies took place while people lined for food rations.


America’s greatness lies in the fact that its monuments are not public. They were not built by public funds or a public “purpose”, they were built by individuals and for profit. Instead of impoverishing the people, these skyscrapers raised the people’s standards of living, including the inhabitants of the slums, who led a life of luxury compared to an Egyptian slave or a Soviet worker.

Socialism is merely democratic absolute monarchy, i.e a system of absolutism, open to seizure of power by any ruthless demagogue or thug.

There are no human rights without property rights. Whoever claims the right to redistribute is claiming the right to treat humans as chattel.

12.                   Man’s Rights

Individual rights are the means of subordinating society to moral laws.

In all of human history, most political systems was the tribe applying a moral code to the individual, while the tribe itself was outside of the moral law. The good was what was good for society and the rulers’ edicts were society’s voice on earth. Pharaohs were embodied gods, same as roman emperors, absolute monarchs in France or the welfare state of Bismarck’s Prussia.

The US was the first moral society in history as it subordinated society to moral law by considering man as an end in itself and not just a sacrificial means to the ends of others.


The right to property is the only implementation of a right to life. Without property rights, all other rights are impossible. The man who produces while others dispose of his product is a slave.

There are two violators of man’s rights: thugs and the government. The US transformed the role of the government from a ruler to a servant. The Constitution was written to protect man from the government. In it, it says the government can only use force in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use.


But the values became corrupt. In the 60s, the FDR and the Democratic Party decided to add lots of rights, like the right to a decent home for all, or the right to earn enough. But at whose expense? Who is to provide these jobs, food, clothing, education and medical care? Any right of man A that violates the rights of man B cannot be a right. No man can have the right to impose an unchosen obligation – there is no “right to enslave”. And a right does not mean that someone has to implement it for you, it means that you have the freedom to earn it.

The Founding Fathers wrote we have the right to the pursuit of happiness, not the right to happiness. It does not mean that others will provide you with the necessities of life. The right to free speech does not mean that others must provide you with a lecture hall or a radio station.

Criminals, no matter how violent, are a small minority and the harm the do is tiny compared to governments. Governments are the most dangerous threat to man’s rights: it holds a legal monopoly on the use of physical force against legally disarmed victims. The Bill of Rights was written to protect men from governmental actions, not private actions.


This is how that protection is being destroyed: they call “censorship” any private action they do not like, like a TV station refusing to invite a certain politician. But no private action can be censorship. Freedom of speech encompasses the right not to agree. Calling this censorship means that a newspaper owner must turn his pages to any young hooligan who clamors for enslavement of the press. It means one group of men acquires the “right” to unlimited license while another group I reduced to helpless irresponsibility.

Today this theft is done through subsidized art. Now any noise-composer can have the financial support that you did not give them when you did not attend their shows. The “right of free speech” is being used to guarantee the support and rewards of a popularity that they have not earned.

Freedom of speech does not mean that every man is entitled to a microphone.

There are no “individual rights”. All rights are individual. And there is no such thing as economic rights, collective rights or public-interest rights.

13.                   Collectivized “Rights”

The term “collective rights” is a contradiction in terms. It just means that the mob rules against the will have individuals. A group has no rights. A man cannot acquire or lose rights by joining a group. Any group that does not recognize this is simply legalized lynching.

When a country’s constitution places individual rights outside of the reach of public authorities, the citizens’ lives are not endangered by any majority decision, and no man holds a blank check on power over others.

The political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from the oppression of majorities, and the smallest minority is the individual.

14.                   The Nature of Government

The two great values to be gained from social existence are knowledge and trade.

The use of physical force cannot be left at the discretion of individual citizens. Peaceful coexistence is impossible if a man has to live under constant threat of force to be unleashed against him by any of his neighbors at the moment.

A government is the means of placing the retaliatory use of physical force under objective control, i.e using violence only under a specific objective code of rules. (you can’t barge into someone’s home and shoot them because you think they stole your wallet)

Therefore all laws must be objective and based on the protection of individual rights.

15.                   Government Financing in a Free Society

In a fully free society, taxes would be voluntary. Citizens would happily pay for police, armed forces and law courts. But for other things it quickly becomes more complex. There would be no redistribution, and richer people would probably have more rights than poorer

16.                   The Divine Right of Stagnation

For every living species, growth is a necessity of survival. Biologically, inactivity is death. Man’s capacity for growth is unlimited. He can spend his whole life growing, learning and producing.

Capitalism is great in that it leaves men free to think and produce, while penalizing those who remain passive.

When automation replaces workers, this actually creates more jobs on the long term. But workers have to accept to learn new skills. Problem is, many believe they have a right not to learn any.

Alone on a desert island, no man would think that nature owes him security and that yesterday’s skills will be enough for tomorrow. But this delusion appears in society when men can default and pass that responsibility on the shoulders of another man.

The doctrine of stagnation penalizes the more productive employee by paying everyone the same (or by seniority), or by retaining people in jobs that have become unnecessary.

17.                   Racism

There is no such thing as a collective or racial accomplishment. Your great grandmother’s achievements do not make you less mediocre.

Most racists are men who have no sense of personal identity, achievement or distinction, and who seek the illusion of some “tribal self-esteem” to make up for it.

Racism has always been strong when statism was. In Nazi Germany, people had to fill in questionnaires on their family tree to prove their Aryan descent. The same thing was done in Soviet Russia to prove your proletarian descent.

The antidote to racism is laissez-faire capitalism. The market only judges productive ability and penalizes all forms of irrationality, including racism. Racism was always stronger in controlled economies (Germany, Russia) and lower in free economies (UK)

I tis the capitalist North that destroyed the slavery of the agrarian-feudal South in the US. In its great era of capitalism, the US was one of the least racist countries on Earth. People of all races went there.

Today, collectivism and statism are to blame for the resurgence of racism. The welfare state brought a stop to Black people’s economic development. Today, Black leaders have stopped fighting against racial discrimination and are now fighting in its favor through quotas. Racial quotas were the worst evils of racist regimes. It used to be regarded as a victory for justice when employment questionnaires ceased to ask about an applicant’s race or religion.

Today (1963) affirmative action demands that white men be penalized for the sins of some of their ancestors… or people who just happened to have the same skin color as them. The white laborer is seen to carry collective racial guilt. This is exactly like the Southern racist who charged all Blacks with collective racial guilt for any crime committed by a Black person, and who treats them all as inferiors on the grounds that their ancestors were savages.

This being said, racists should have the freedom to speak. Fighting racism is not a legal issue but a moral one. It should be fought only through private means through boycott or social ostracism.


It is ironic that people who need the protection of individual rights the most urgently are now the first ones to destroy these rights.

18.                   Counterfeit Individualism

An individualist is a man who lives for his own sake and by his own mind. He does not sacrifice himself to others nor sacrifices others to himself.

Being rebellious or unconventional is not enough to be individualistic. An individualist declares “I believe it because I see in reason that it’s true”. Many people who call themselves individualistic are actually simply self-assertive and just struggle to fill in the void of the egos that they do not possess, like the author who refuses to use capital letters in his book for the simple sake of defiance.

19.                   The Argument from Intimidation

“Only those who are evil can hold such an idea” is a form of fallacy. It’s like the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes, where nobody dares speak up and tell the Emperor that he is naked because only morally superior people can allegedly see them.

Many teachers in classrooms will use the argument of intimidation to stifle independent thinking from students and evade questions they cannot answer – “if you had read book X, you would know that this theory has been refuted”, “you are quoting Professor X, who has been discredited”

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