Ayn Rand

"Is Selfishness a Virtue?": A Reason/Soho Forum Debate, January 16

Yaron Brook of the Ayn Rand Institute takes on Gene Epstein of the Soho Forum, with Judge Andrew Napolitano as guest moderator!



Is selfishness a virtue? Ayn Rand, influential among many self-described libertarians, certainly thought so. Her novel's characters are famous for declaring that things such as: "I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man." In the introduction to The Virtue of Selfishness (1964), she declared:

"The title of this book may evoke the kind of question that I hear once in a while: 'Why do you use the world "selfishness" to denote virtuous qualities of character, when that word antagonizes so many people to whom it does not mean the things you mean?'

"To those who ask it, my answer is: 'For the reason that makes you afraid of it.'"

Yet many libertarians say that not only are Rand and her Objectivist followers wrong to valorize selfishness, they make it hard for libertarianism to appeal to a wider range of people.

Soho Forum

This divide will be debated at the next Reason-sponsored Soho Forum Debate at New York's Subculture Theater on January 16. Defending the proposition will by Yaron Brook, the executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute. Gene Epstein, the co-founder and moderator of the Soho Forum, will step into the ring himself to oppose the notion that selfishness is a virtue, or even inherently libertarian. Given the heat thrown off by the subject, we knew we needed a moderator with the wisdom of Solomon to preside. So we've got Judge Andrew Napolitano, Fox News' senior judicial analyst and the author of a string of incredible books, to run the debate.

Because it's an Oxford-style debate, audience members vote before and after the debate and get to ask questions. The winner is the debater who moved the larger percentage of people to his side. Tickets cost $18 and $10 for students and must be purchased in advance. Admission includes free food and there is a cash bar selling beer, wine, and soft drinks.

The event will also be livestreamed at Reason's Facebook page and at Reason.com; online viewers will also be able to vote and submit questions. Event details:

Is Selfishness a Virtue?
Yaron Brook of the Ayn Rand Institute vs. Gene Epstein of the Soho Forum
Moderated by Judge Andrew Napolitano of Fox News

January 16, 2018

Cash bar opens at 5:45pm
Event starts at 6:30pm
Subculture Theater, 45 Bleecker St, NY, 10012
Tickets must be purchased in advance.

For past Reason/Soho Forum debates, go here for an archive.

The debates also appear as part the Reason Podcast, a thrice-weekly podcast featuring Katherine Mangu-Ward, Matt Welch, Peter Suderman, and me arguing about the news of the week; in-depth interviews with newsmakers, authors, innovators, and politicians; and recordings of Reason events. Go here to subscribe at iTunes.

And subscribe to Reason's YouTube channel, which recently passed 100 million views, and carries video of past Soho Forum debates. Here's December 11's debate with the Center for American Progress's Neera Tanden debating Foundation for Government Accountability's Tarren Bragdon over the proposition "Resolved: 15 Million Americans Would Be Better Off Without Welfare."

NEXT: 4 Things That Pissed Us Off in 2017

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Let me guess. No one is going to bother defining selfishness. Without such a definition, this debate is meaningless. Why? Because in the broadest sense, it is impossible for a conscious entity to not be selfish. For example, do you think Mother Theresa was selfish? Of course she was. Why did she help poor people? She did because it made her happy and it gave her purpose. She did it for herself. A totally selfish life.

    So, then, what are we really talking about here?

    1. Concern with ones own interests.

      1. Wasn't Mother Teresa concerned with her own interests?

        1. I just hope they pick a definition and argue that in the actual debate.

    2. "For example, do you think Mother Theresa was selfish? Of course she was. Why did she help poor people? She did because it made her happy and it gave her purpose. She did it for herself."

      I don't think Mother Theresa's happiness was her most important motivation. It was her faith and devotion to a power higher than herself that gave her a purpose. It's bizarre to look upon her life and conclude that she was trying to make herself happy.

      "Why did she help poor people?"

      She was a Christian. That's the duty of all Christians.

      1. MT had a mystical experience when she was young and spent her entire life trying to repeat it. It's actually pretty sad.

    3. Mother Theresa was afraid of going to hell. Gaining sainthood should make her a shoo in to get into heaven.

      1. Sainthood is supposed to guarantee that that person is in heaven. So it's a green light for believer to pray for her to intercede with God. You know, like, she'll vouch for you. To become a bonafide saint means you have to perform two certified miracles. No easy feat.

    4. I just started 7 weeks ago and I've gotten 2 check for a total of $2,000...this is the best decision I made in a long time! "Thank you for giving me this extraordinary opportunity to make extra money from home.
      go to this site for more details..... http://www.startonlinejob.com

  2. The quotation offends less when fully quoted: "nor ask another man to live for mine."

  3. the term "Selfishness" is itself an attempt to steal a base before debate has even begun

    the term should be "Self Interest"

    Rand may have embraced the former term; but Rand was, admittedly, a bit of a salty cunt.

    "Self-interest" is far less value-loaded; it also is a quality we associate with mature minds, while "Selfishness" is the characteristic of children who are unable to engage in any rational measure of their own real interests. "BUT I WANT" is the only demand of the selfish; awareness of self-interest implies the ability to weigh personal costs and personal benefits and make informed decisions.

    and i think calling something a virtue is possibly also a mistake: everyone by default already has self-interests. its not some quality limited to few.

    Recognizing them, and deciding how to best serve them is perhaps a 'learned skill', but not a virtue - which implies some moral-value. Pursuit of self-interest surely *can* reflect an individual's moral qualities, but i think trying to conflate virtue with 'ability to get what you want' (which Rand does) is mixing apples+oranges.

    What is more interesting than the claimed 'virtues' of self interest is the fact that some argue the inverse: that *absence* of it is the true source of virtue. "selflessness" is the sign of goodness. I think it is easier to show this latter case to be false, than to try to turn Horatio Alger into a saint.

    1. You don't think children weigh costs and benefits? They do. I don't want to tell you what you meant, but perhaps you were trying to distinguish between high and low time preference. As in, kids can't negotiate well with their future self and everything is about immediate gratification. That is a good point, and important when talking about economic decisions. But I don't think that goes to the heart of this debate, which seems to me to be a out some concept of sacrifice.

      1. You don't think children weigh costs and benefits? They do

        Take it up with Jean Piaget, if you need to.

    2. "Self-interest" is far less value-loaded; it also is a quality we associate with mature minds, while "Selfishness" is the characteristic of children who are unable to engage in any rational measure of their own real interests."

      To me, it's even more basic than that.

      The egoists will typically claim that no one is actually behaving selflessly, that the Mother Theresas of the world are simply motivated by other forms of self-interest be it the afterlife, a sense of moral superiority, etc.

      It's as if the egoists think that nothing can be selfless if there's any way it can also be interpreted as beneficial to the person making the sacrifice.

      But do they extend the same restrictions on selfishness? Is an action never really selfish if it also in some way benefits the person making the sacrifice?

      Either extreme leads to problems.

      1. I once read about a Marine who jumped on a grenade to save his buddies--the ultimate sacrifice. Some might claim that his sacrifice was actually selfish because he cared more about his buddies than he did about himself. That would lead to one hell of a contradiction--if we're saying that someone is selfish because he cares more about other people than he does about himself. Doesn't that contract anybody's definition of selfishness?

        Meanwhile, all throughout the natural world, we see examples of altruistic behavior giving species an advantage over their competitors. Meanwhile, Adam Smith correctly showed that altruism arises naturally from the individual actions of everyday people--in the form of the invisible hand--and that government interference ruins it.

        There's a reason why Rand despised Hayek, and it was a bad one.

      2. "But do they extend the same restrictions on selfishness? Is an action never really selfish if it also in some way benefits the person [not] making the sacrifice?"


        You knew what I meant.

    3. There is a Jewish proverb that goes something like " If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am ONLY for myself, what am I?"

  4. There's no such thing as selfless. We do everything because it appeals, in some way, to us. So selfishness is a virtue, a survival instinct, and a cancer all wrapped into one.

    1. Speak of the devil, . . .

      This is what I was talking about above.

      Because something isn't 100% altruistic doesn't mean it isn't 98% altruistic.

      Because something isn't 100% selfish doens't mean it isn't 98% selfish either.

      A man throwing himself on a grenade to save his friends is not behaving selfishly because he cares more about other people than himself. Selfishness is not caring about other people more than your own life.

      In trying to cop out of the dilemma, you've basically negated the argument about the non-existence of real altruism.

      And why would you want to do that?

      The more substantive arguments about altruism come from evolutionary biology. There are numerous examples of various species putting their lives at risk to help others. If these sorts of self-sacrificial behaviors net out to a positive (a la the invisible hand of benevolence), that doens't mean they don't involve sacrifice and aren't altruistic. That sacrificial types of behavior gave those specific competitors advantages in the struggle for survival is sort of the point.

    2. Altruism is not irrational. It arises naturally as an aspect of evolution, which itself works like Adam Smith's invisible hand of benevolence*. Because altruism creates a society in which we can thrive which selfishness can't is sort of the point. Rand's problem that she associates altruism with things like forced sacrifice--which isn't really altruistic at all. The people in power forcing others to do things for the benefit of the people in power--and justifying it with altruism--is not an example of altruism at all.

      *If there were no examples of altruism in the natural world (outside of homo sapiens), that would be an excellent argument for the existence of God. Unfortunately for creationists, altruism is rife in the natural world. Dawkins has written extensively on this issue.

  5. To be clear Rand talks about "rational selfishness".

  6. Yeah, I don't believe in altruism, we do what we do because it's what we want to do given the options that are available to us. So "selfishness" is kind of a meaningless term. Giving the beggar on the corner a dollar is a selfish act when you consider that you're really buying a dollar's worth of feeling good about yourself and if the good feeling wasn't worth a dollar you wouldn't have made the trade.

  7. There's something serious to the suggestion that people wanting to pursue their own interests is fundamental to a free society. That was painfully apparent to people during the Cold War, when the evil of communism was sold on how we all need to be forced to make sacrifices for other people. The obvious stupidity of that idea was more apparent when communists were piling on dead bodies by the millions.

    However, after the fall of communism, we've seen some of our own biggest mistakes (from the Iraq War to ObamaCare), marketed as making sacrifices for other people, too. The susceptibility to terrible arguments on that basis hasn't gone away. The terrible argument hasn't gone away. They just changed the branding. "Progressive" is all about using the coercive power of government to force people to make sacrifices for what they see as the common good.

    Where Rand gets it wrong is that she conflates the natural benevolence that arises from human interactions (a la Smith's invisible hand) with the opposite of selfishness. The fact is that altruism arises in the natural world--even as an aspect of evolution and survival of the fittest. Yes, those organisms and societies that embraced altruism survived those that didn't. The difference is that when people (and other organisms) make such altruistic sacrifices willingly, the benefits to their society outweigh the negatives, but when people are forced to do this by government, it doesn't work that way.

    1. "societies that embraced altruism survived those that didn't."

      But the USSR didn't survive.

      1. 1) The USSR failed because of the authoritarianism--not because they cared about each other.

        2) The USSR is an excellent example of the opposite of altruism.

        To the latter point . . .

        If altruism is willingly making sacrifices for other people, then how can forcing others to make sacrifices be altruism?

        Like I said, they billed themselves as altruism. It was authoritarianism in sheep's clothing--Stalin didn't really care about other people. He sent them to the gulags to die by the millions. He starved them to death. The USSR's altruism was a lie--something Orwell correctly pointed out before "Animal Farm" in 1948. He clearly saw that Soviet altruism was a lie during the Spanish civil war.

        Libertarians understand that you can't care about people and also systematically violate their rights. Those two things are incompatible. Caring about people and respecting their rights isn't contradictory at all. People being free to make choices for themselves is what we're talking about when we're talking about rights, and respecting their right to make choices for themselves is what I mean by "caring about people".

  8. I.e, it isn't the sacrificing for others that's the problem. It's using the coercive power of government to force people to make sacrifices for the benefit of others (see the Iraq War, ObamaCare, AGW, or other examples of forced sacrifice). Take conscription, for example . . . having individuals in our society who are willing to volunteer for military service and put themselves in harm's way because they care more about defending the constitution, freedom, and their buddies than they do about themselves is not the problem--and the world would not be a better place if they were more selfish.

    Freely sacrificing for others is not the problem; moreover, forced sacrifice is a form of selfishness.

    The problem with the government throwing millions of people in prison for preferring certain intoxicants and taxing the hell out of everybody under threat of violence to finance it for decade after decade is not the result of benevolence. They may sell such programs as if we're making sacrifices to benefit the people they're persecuting, but that's a sick joke. Programs like that persist because not enough of us care about, for instance, the victims of the drug war. In reality, authoritarianism is incompatible with caring too much about other people. I suppose there is an argument to make that not enough people understand the consequences of authoritarian solutions, but that isn't the argument Rand is making about selfishness.

    She's identifying altruism itself as the problem.

  9. If self-interest was good then we wouldn't have government in the first place. QED.

  10. Do we have a definition of selfishness which the Randians would accept?

    Are there real-life examples of altruism - you know, selfishness's evil opposite - or will every example of apparent altruism be met with the rebuttal, "well, you know, that's actually selfishness, properly understood"?

    1. Feeding the hungry? "Makes me feel good and improves the public health and I'm a member of the public, ergo it's selfish."

      Clothing the naked? "Makes me less queasy to see people fully clothed, and the taxes paid by the clothing industry relieve my own tax burden, therefore it's selfish."

      Caring for lepers? "Shows my capacity for healing, demonstrates my power and willingness to take risks, therefore selfish!"

    2. Rand used the dictionary definition: concern with ones own interests.

  11. It's a sad commentary on the libertarian community when this kind of thing is viewed as serious philosophizing. This should have been settled in 1957 with the publication of Atlas Shrugged! Is it any wonder the movement has gotten virtually nowhere since then?

  12. *Pats Randian on the head* Yes, yes, you are the best person ever because you think about your own needs more than other people's, just like everyone else except with extra humorlessness. Go, do great things. Aren't you a cute little ?bermensch!

  13. I can't believe anyone even bothers with comments here anymore.

    the reason people left for 'the other place' wasn't as much about the magazine's editorial tilt as people think.

    it was mostly ... this shit.

    1. "other place" meaning Cato?

      1. Glibertarians. Stop by and chat at while. They'll be glad to have you--so long as you're not a troll.

        Incidentally, I see this place as different.

        The other place is more like being invited over to a family BBQ. Everybody pretty much knows and likes everybody else. They treat each other well. The other place is about the choir singing together and having some laughs.

        This place is more like outreach.

        This place is for meeting with people who maybe aren't libertarians--it's not about preaching to the choir.

        I think it's true a lot of the old people left because their friends all went over there--and they wanted to keep talking to their friends. I think that was easier to do because some of the new staff here . . . aren't part of the choir either and don't write like the old bunch did. I think some of the new staff are libertarian because it's a paying gig, and those aren't as plentiful as they used to be. If the libertarian thing didn't work out, they might have ended up writing for a website about gardening or something else.

        That's not gonna sit well with true believers in the choir.

        1. In other words, literally the stupidest thing in the history of the universe. Not even saved by the irony of its proud "fascist version of Reason" identity.

          1. literally the stupidest thing in the history of the universe

            Not pictured: Self-awareness.

          2. You need to stop calling everything fascist.

            1. What do you call it when pro-capitalist anti-handout philosophies conveniently find excuses for why they can accept Kickstarter or other donations to run their outfit?

              1. Completely normal? Certainly people voluntarily giving another isn't any definition of fascism I ever see.

                Do you really make no distinction between taxation and voluntary charity?

                1. Accepting handouts is to admit that your product can't survive an actual market, which is supposed to be the prime arbiter of value in the world. I'm hardly the first to point out the irony of how totally libertarianism (Reason, think tanks, professorships, movie versions of Atlas Shrugged) relies on charity.

                  1. Except it's not. People funding things of their own volition is an example of markets as well. If people think this is some contradiction than they have a grave misunderstanding of markets.

                    1. A billionaire funding a pet project does not exemplify the cumulative rationality that markets are supposed to be.

        2. I blame Facebook

    2. What pisses you off about this so much?

      1. -dDid i say "pissed off"?

        no, i was just depressed at how this place has turned into a sewer of stupid. its the dregs of the dregs all the time now. the signal-to-noise ratio is all noise.

        i don't think i should even need to cite 'evidence' of this when its quite literally sprinkled all around you. try and count 3 posts without stepping in an intellectual cow-pie

        1. No, pissed off was just my colloquial way to ask "what do you dislike." Did not mean to imply anything negative with that phrasing.

          And I don't think it's as bad as you say. The population is low now, but I think reasonable discussion and smart people still come to talk. The biggest loss was that it seems many of our oldest members left, which means we lost a lot of knowledge. But I don't believe that everyone left is stupid in anyway. I've had good conversations with several people just this week.

          I've noticed you do frequent here and Glibs though. What brings you back?

          1. -""What brings you back?""

            i've never left. i just read w/o bothering w/ the comment section.

            with reasonable/fascr turned on, i look down at the comments and its a sea of blanked-out entries. which means, "tony, mtrueman, buttplug, amsoc, hinh, et al" running rampant.

            1. I miss Reasonable. It's broken for me now

  14. RationalWiki really is full of good stuff:

    [Ayn Rand's] philosophy is sort of a photonegative of Leninism. If Lenin believed that capitalists exploiting the farmers and workers of the world is killing them, then Rand says that capitalists producing value is the only thing keeping the farmers and workers of the world alive. If the Communist ideal is collective ownership, then Rand is going to say that there is no such thing as society, only individuals. It's possible Ayn herself was aware of this: In an equivalent of Lenin, Galt spends an exhaustive 12 years hiding from the police and building his spy network.

    Here's the funny thing, though: In Atlas Shrugged you have a small group of men in charge of the whole economy. They are above the law, they can even kill those who stand in their way so long, as the phrase goes, the trains run on time. Which, of course, is similar to how the Soviets ran their economy. She just replaced Politburo-appointed apparatchiks with strong-jawed Captains of Industry.

    1. For a Wiki called rational...

    2. Oh, RatholeWiki, you will never be OK.

      It's funny that this comes up here, since when I first looked at that dump I was googling stuff about Rand. Obviously people who claim to be "rational" should dig her, right?

      I ended up on a page that was basically a whiny, illiterate, passive-aggressive hit piece on her, which ended with a photo of her tombstone. Ha ha, get it? What a rational argument!

      OK, so maybe this is one of those troll boards that shits on everybody equally? I looked up Marx. Of course they wrote him a blowjob.

      It's just another Atheism+ circlejerk of retarded neckbeards lying about everybody they consider "right-wing" (which is almost everybody) while fellating each other for not being creationists. Well, at least it keeps them off the streets.

      1. "Well, at least it keeps them off the streets."

        Are you sure?

      2. I'm not vouching for the whole website, so do you have anything to say about the "photonegative of Leninism" critique?

        1. You weren't vouching for the whole Web site, but you said "RationalWiki really is full of good stuff."

          So it's just a matter of looking really hard, I suppose?

          1. It's full of something, alright.

          2. It kind of depends if you're into rationality and not constantly searching for confirmations of some fringe bullshit political philosophy.

            1. Very insightful:

              "...the comments section on Reason's "Hit 'n Run" rivals Yahoo! News for being the worst hive of scum and villiany on the Internet, and provides plenty of evidence to conclude that Web 2.0 with its 'anyone can comment on anything' model perhaps isn't such a good idea."

              1. I vehemently disagree with that sentiment. The worst political comments boards on the internet are anything linked by Drudge or FOX News. This place is admirably much, much lighter on the overt racism and antisemitism.

              2. Sounds like they have a narrow breadth of Internet knowledge if this is the worst. These comments are actually pretty friendly. People will even talk to PB about apolitical stuff when it comes up. I think we're pretty good at letting bygones be bygones.

                Also, curious if that last sentence is just a snide remark or if it's a serious statement.

                1. Genuine; Reason is probably the least white supremacist right-wing comments forum going, which is why I come here. I like to debate people I don't agree with, but--and this goes conspicuously unnoticed by the outside world--pretty much the entire Trumposphere is just so depressingly ugly in the oppressive weight of the overt bigotry of its citizens. One might reasonably conclude that it's the central motivating force of their political inclinations.

              3. This place makes me proud to be American.

        2. Other than it seems to be a critique of a different book, what should I say? Would "not even wrong" cover it?

          The trouble with Marxists is that they can't read anything without filtering it through Marxist lit-crit first to find the "real" meaning, turning it to gibberish in the process, then they complain that it doesn't make any sense.

          I don't normally find that sort of thing worth engaging with, any more than feminists looking for double-secret misogynist manifestos in my videogames, or fundies telling me my D&D books and music albums are Satanic. I can't reason people out of things they were never reasoned into, and it's boring, tiresome, and unpaid.

          Speaking of which, I'd rather not argue with batshit trolls all night.

          Have a Happy New Year.

  15. Major layoffs announced in western Kentucky coal mines



    1. So, I'm no particular Trump fan. And I'm okay with energy moving to different sources as long as it's for non coercive reasons. So now, that being said. Gloating over people losing their jobs is pathetic.

      1. I am pointing out the stupidity of Trumptards who actually believed the Con Man when he claimed he would bring those "beautiful coal jobs" back.

        1. And I'm saying you do so in a tactless way that makes evident your cruelty.

          1. Trump voters foisted Trump on the rest of us, which is far crueler than making a joke on the internet, which they will never read anyway because they are too busy having sex with their close blood relatives.

            1. Tony|12.31.17 @ 6:57PM|#
              "Trump voters foisted Trump on the rest of us, which is far crueler than making a joke on the internet, which they will never read anyway because they are too busy having sex with their close blood relatives."

              From an Obo voter who was more than happy to make the rest of us suffer from that lying piece of shit.

  16. Let's finish up 2017 by gazing on some great tits!

    1. Damn, all stiff from the cold too.

    1. Media makes me believe the Magi showed up right when Jesus was born. Apparently he had a busy and traumatic time from birth to Epiphany

  17. Welfare is actually in people's self interest because it prevents the poor from rioting/revolting and killing all the rich people. Either French or Russian style or doing it "democratically" like in Venezuela

    1. In Libertopia there are no poor.

  18. The inevitable argument over definition of terms is sure to be scintillating.

  19. Ever notice how nobody ever asks whether altruism is a virtue?

    1. Yes they do, it's called progressivism.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.