Is Selfishness a Virtue? On Ayn Rand and the impacts of her philosophy

Having enjoyed The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, and Anthem, Ayn Rand was one of my favorite authors, that is, until I read The Age of Selfishness by Darryl Cunningham. In The Fountainhead, I found Howard Roark’s character to be endearing and refreshing as he continued to stick to his puritanical ideals of architecture and refusal to succumb to society’s stale standards of life. Selfishness, narrow mindedness, and lack of endorsement to society’s standards are great a character archetype in a novel. But the philosophy of Rand’s novels extended to her personal life too. She believed it was a battle between individualism and collectivism. The premise of a central government was her nemesis.

Objectivism and Alan Greenspan: How Rand’s philosophy influenced the Federal Reserve

Rand’s coined philosophy of objectivism, which puts the individual above all, gathered a cult-like following, included none other than Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve for 19 years (1987 – 2006).

Alan Greenspan and Ayn Rand were close friends for over 30 years, having written books together and co-hosted lectures at the NBI, the institute founded to promote objectivism by one of Rand’s followers. In 1966 Greenspan wrote 3 essays for Rand’s anthology, in which he equated government regulation with a breakdown of society’s morals. In his view, there was no need for the securities and exchange commission, or the food and drug administration. He argued all the regulations which protect the public from business scams are unnecessary, as the damage of a reputation is enough to keep business legitimate. This is the crux of the issue. Greenspan’s libertarian ideals and failure to regulate the banking system as the chairman of the Federal Reserve led us straight into the financial crash of 2008.

It is a ruse to believe an unregulated financial system will naturally channel money to its best uses, or that bankers’ concern for their reputation will prevent them from partaking in fraudulent business. Free markets don’t lead us to personal freedom, but to corporate freedom, which has proven over the past thirty years to pollute the environment, steal from honest people, and oppress the less fortunate.

Rand’s personal life and cult-like followers

Besides Rand’s ludicrous philosophy of objectivism (which one could make a case was a major impetus to the financial crash of 2008), she was not a good person. Shocking, I know right. Although her philosophy was fervently supported by her cult-like followers, anyone who argued against her ideas was immediately exiled from the group.

She also began an affair with one of her students, despite both of them being married, despite her being 25 years his senior. Having developed a business and founded the NBI together, Rand discovered her student Branden was having another affair and refused her proposal to be together, she exiled him from the group, publicly slandered him, and ended all their businesses together. Doesn’t sound like a person I’d want to do business with, be friends with, or even admire as a writer or philosopher.

Greenspan’s apology before the House Committee

It’s worth noting that Greenspan apologized for his ill-advised actions before a 2008 House Committee hearing. In it he said, “I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically of banks and others, were such that they were capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms.” Too little too late.

An appeal for objectivism to stay in fiction

Although Rand’s books and style of writing are entertaining for fiction, there’s no place for her philosophy in reality. Taxation is the price we pay for civilization. Selfishness isn’t a virtue. Altruism is a noble cause.

What do you think of objectivism? Do you think selfishness is a virtue? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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11 thoughts on “Is Selfishness a Virtue? On Ayn Rand and the impacts of her philosophy

      1. Milton Friedman was always very up front about the fact that libertarianism and “free market” economics have no place for morality, equality or fairness. That’s why he supported the abolition of all controls on drugs. If people want to kill themselves, let them, in his view. I mention him because he was very much the economist version of Rand.

  1. I can’t agree that selfishness is a virtue but I do agree that sometimes it is healthier to look after oneself first as an act of survival. Life is just that more pleasant when we are compassionate to the vulnerable members of society. I moved to the US (my place of birth) 18 years ago but still can’t get used to society’s desire for wealth for it’s own sake. How can we be the richest country in the world and still have mentally ill homeless people? Very thought provoking post – bravo!

  2. I don’t have any comments, really, other than to say I found this interesting, as I’ve heard about Howard Roarke for years from someone that’s close to me. I’ve never read The Fountainhead myself, although I’ve heard enough to know the main characters all by name. So, it’s Interesting to read about another side of Ayn Rand. Thank you for sharing this.

  3. Powerful review…. And now I’m borrowing your copy of the book🌞🌞
    Thank you for your insightful comments.

  4. It is very difficult to imagine a motivation for any activity that isn’t fundamentally selfish. Sacrificing for others because it makes you feel good about yourself is selfish too.

  5. In my opinion, Fred nailed it. If selfishness is coupled with awareness and honesty, it is quite virtuous. What we do to or for others is inflicted on ourselves.

  6. By definition selfishness will never be a virtue, however being self centered can be. In the case of the former one lacks consideration for others, in the case of the latter, one simply lacks concern. As a personal philosophy among the masses, I think the world would be OK with a bunch of self centered people unconcerned with the business of others, but not lacking consideration. We can already see what the world is like with a bunch of selfish people lacking consideration or concern for others.

  7. Much food for thought. Whenever I give something to others, time it a tangible object passed from me to them, I try to have no expectation of receiving anything in return. As others have already commented, this is nigh on impossible, if one includes the desire to feel good for one’s actions is included as a benefit received. Altruism *is* a noble cause, and I’ve that might take a lifetime of moving towards to never quite achieve.

    Thank you for sharing, and providing much to chew on.

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