The Objectivist Club at Stanford is pretty active, and so this seemed like an appropriate first entry in our “Reasonable Answers to Honest Questions” category.
Ayn Rand’s ethical theory is of the type known as “ethical egoism,” which means that we should always choose to do things that benefit ourselves (we also call this selfishness). A short way to summarize Ayn Rand’s ethical theory would be “selfishness is a virtue.” That’s not a completely fair summary: she argues for a very specific type of selfishness: an enlightened self-interest which recognizes that sometimes acting for the good of others actually benefits oneself. Here’s a more detailed description written by one of her fans:
The Objectivist ethics rebuilds morality from the ground up. “You cannot say ‘I love you’ if you cannot say the ‘I’,” wrote Ayn Rand. According to Objectivism, a person’s own life and happiness is the ultimate good. To achieve happiness requires a morality of rational selfishness, one that does not give undeserved rewards to others and that does not ask them for oneself. (source
“AYN RAND’S ETHICAL EGOISM (OBJECTIVISM)
- Rand’s ethical views presuppose a naturalistic fallacy; that is,
it moves from the descriptive (that we are naturally selfish) to the
prescriptive (that we ought to look out for Number One). But there is
nothing logically compelling about making this jump.
- What happens if there is a conflict of interests? How do we adjudicate between conflicting egos?
- If the rules of morality are really rules of expediency, then they
will be obligatory only so long as they are expedient.
- The pursuit of selfish pleasures/goals eventually leads to anarchy,
in which everyone does what is right in his own eyes.
- What happens when an ethical egoist turns into a dictator? It seems
morally counter-intuitive to suggest that acting egoistically is legitimate
- The ethical egoistal view is arbitrary. Why should I opt for my own
good as opposed to society’s good (or the good of some other grouping)?
It seems that the egoist can give no real reasons for why his view is to be
- Egoism presumes a universal relevance (i.e., the egoist presumes
a willingness to see others should embrace this view and act on it, but if
the egoist does not, then it seems to be a deficient moral view). However,
if the egoistic ethic is universalized, then it seems that this would go
against the egoist’s own selfish ends. That is, the egoist wouldn’t
want his ethic universalized.
- The ethical egoist can’t be trusted when offering moral advice
to others since it will be to his own advantage rather than to that of the
one seeking his advice.
- Furthermore, even if pursing selfish ends is legitimate, it seems
hard to believe that this is the only moral virtue. That is, one’s good may
be an object to pursue, but it need not be the only one.
There is a fuller defense of an objective, divinely-rooted ethic in the book, True for You, But Not for Me; this can be ordered through RZIM’s order line at 800–448-6766.”
If this topic is of more interest to you, Copan (author of the above critique) also recommends that you read The Ethics of Ayn Rand: Appreciation and Critique by John Piper. Piper takes more space to elaborate on Rand’s theory and points out several elements of it he agrees with.