Reason Podcast

Is Selfishness a Virtue? A Debate With Yaron Brook and Gene Epstein.

"The Christian morality of sacrifice and altruism is wrong," says Brook, executive chairman of the Ayn Rand Institute.

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"We don't have to endorse Gordon Gekko's view that greed is good anymore than we believe that selfishness is a virtue," says Gene Epstein, former economics editor at Barron's.

"The Christian morality of sacrifice and altruism is wrong," says Yaron Brook, executive chairman of the Ayn Rand Institute.

On January 16, 2018, Brook argued the affirmative in a debate with Epstein over whether selfishness is a virtue. It was an Oxford-style contest, in which the audience votes on the proposition before and after the event, and the side that sways the most people wins. Epstein was victorious, picking up 15.38 percent of the undecideds vs. 9.89 percent for Yaron Brook. Judge Andrew Napolitano, senior judicial analyst at Fox News Channel, moderated.

The event was held by The Soho Forum, Reason Foundation's debate series in New York City. Held every month at the SubCulture Theater in the East Village, it also serves as a gathering place for New York's libertarian community, with free food and a cash bar. Epstein is also the Soho Forum's director and usually moderates.

On February 12, the Soho Forum will host a debate over whether the sex offender registry should be abolished, featuring Emily Horowitz, a sociologist at St. Francis College and author of Protecting Our Kids?: How Sex Offender Laws Are Failing Us (2015), and Marci Hamilton, CEO and academic director at CHILD USA and a resident senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. Get tickets ($18, or $10 for students) here.

Reason will also be live streaming the debate on our Facebook page, and the audience at home can both participate in the voting and submit questions to be read aloud at the event.

Video shot and edited by Kevin Alexander. Tease by Todd Krainin.

"Drum Solo For Hospital Ghost" by Lucas Perný used under a Creative Commons license.

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  1. “…sex offender registry should be abolished”.

    Its unconstitutional, so yes it should be abolished.

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      This is what I do… http://www.startonlinejob.com

  2. The question is meaningless. *Everybody* and *every* action is selfish. Even if someone holds a gun to your head to do something, you make that choice (do or die) based on what *you* want. You may frame it as what is good for yoru family, but that too comes down to what *you* think is good for your family.

    It’s a fucking pointless debate over whether angels sit on pins or pins support angels.

    1. *Everybody* and *every* action is selfish. Even if someone holds a gun to your head to do something, you make that choice (do or die) based on what *you* want.

      That’s not quite true. I can ‘want’ something that’s bad for me. Just because I want it doesn’t mean that it’s selfish.

      It’s hard to argue that the man who pushed the stranger out of the way of the bus (knowing he would get hit himself) is “selfish” unless you redefine that term to mean “what he wanted to do”. If you do, then you’ve changed every act to “selfish”, definitionally.

      1. “If you do, then you’ve changed every act to “selfish”, definitionally.”

        There’s a less than trivial possibility that every act is selfish, which makes the question irrelevant.
        My point is: Define your terms.

        1. If someone sacrifices his own well-being for the benefit of another, and nobody sees it happen, maybe that’s selflessness, but if the guy feels good about himself, then it’s still selfish.

          So perhaps the most truly selfless act is to anonymously help someone kill someone you are fond of.

          1. if the guy feels good about himself, then it’s still selfish

            What’s feeling got to do with it?

            I forgot, you’re a liberal and probably a moral relativist. For some reason, you think “feelings” are the basis of morality…

            Shockingly enough, you can “feel good” about doing something selfless.

            (You asserted the opposite so it’s your burden to prove that it must be so. Go for it.)

          2. “So perhaps the most truly selfless act is to anonymously help someone kill someone you are fond of.”

            Maybe we should admit that we all act in our self interest, and try to find a system where we can use that for our advancement.
            Maybe we could each do what we’re good at and trade the product of that to another guy who’s good at doing something we need, and I think we could call it ‘a market’.
            That way proggies could quit lying that they are doing something ‘to help the people’, proggy.

  3. We cannot do anything without a pay-off, real or imagined, immediate or delayed. That’s the selfish gene at work.

    1. That in a nutshell is the key to understanding all behavior: humans and animals alike tend to repeat behaviors that “pay off” in a more or less predictable way over time. Behavior that doesn’t “pay off” is discarded. You can call that “selfish”, or you can recognize that it is simply a key to survival.

  4. We use language to convey not only a denotative meaning, but also emotion and value/moral judgment. Many terms come to be understood to inherently convey emotion and/or value/moral judgment”selfishness.” Rand’s argument is an attempt to invert the judgment such that selfishness should be seen not as a vice, but rather, as high virtue.

    But her argument excludes precisely the defining aspects by which people differentiate instances of “selfishness.” Whether a behavior is judged to be selfish or not hinges on whether or not another person’s legitimate interests or rights have been violated. In everyday social interactions the legitimation typically is tacit rather than explicit, depending on the prevailing norms?central to an individual’s socialization into the society. Many are learned in kindergarten, especially on the playground. Though they are contextual, and vary in specifics across societies, cheating and unfairness in its various forms (from not taking turns or not reciprocating to hoarding, refusing to share, unfairness, shrugging duty, “free-riding”, taking unearned credit, bullying…) are defining aspects central to judgment of whether or not the behavior counts as selfish. To disregard this, as Rand has, is to idiosyncratically ignore the heart of the meaning of the term for one’s rhetorical purposes. Ad hoc redefinition of terms to suit one’s purposes is a common rhetorical move in arguments, especially for ideologues. Her argument fails.

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