The Misuse of Language: "Selfishness" and "Altruism"

The Misuse of Language: “Selfishness” and “Altruism”

Rob Bass


One feature of Rand’s rhetoric in ethics, but not only there, is her idiosyncratic usage of terms – especially ‘selfishness’ and ‘altruism’. In her hands, they have non-ordinary meanings. Since these are also terms that have well-known ordinary uses, she runs the risk of creating confusion. There is the temptation to substitute her meaning for one more ordinary or vice versa. Claims that might be respectable if a single consistent meaning were adhered to are transmogrified through the mixture of senses. The preposterous comes to look respectable and the reasonable preposterous.

Perhaps, despite the risk, the idiosyncrasy is warranted to make points and express distinctions not adequately marked in ordinary speech. Perhaps.

More likely, the idiosyncrasy is essential to the conclusions drawn. It fulfills no cognitive role save to facilitate the drawing of preposterous conclusions. Her equation of selfishness and self-interest neither makes any distinction nor marks any commonality not provided for in ordinary uses; instead, it elides an important and relevant distinction already embodied in the ordinary usage. Her treatment of ‘altruism’ is no better: It does not succeed even in so much as blurring a distinction made in ordinary usage. It simply invents a doctrine in which virtually no one has ever believed and affixes to it an entirely misleading label.

But let’s be more specific:

On selfishness

Selfishness does not mean “concern for oneself or what one wants or how one feels,” as one person sympathetic to Rand put it. Nor does it mean, as Rand defined it, “concern with one’s own interests.” (She said it came from a dictionary but gave no reference [VOS, vii]. For my part, I’ve never seen it defined that way in any dictionary.) The problem with these “definitions” is that they leave out an essential element (one that appears in every dictionary definition I’ve seen and is fairly plainly implicit in ordinary uses of the term): that selfishness involves excessive concern with one’s own interests or concern with one’s own interests to the exclusion or disregard of the interests of others.

You can confirm that that’s the ordinary meaning by checking standard dictionaries. (An especially impressive cite on this point comes from the OED where, in a quote illustrating correct usage, someone is referred to as concerned with his own interests but not selfish.) Or ... you can try this test: Outside the insular world of Randians (who, like many philosophers, will say anything to save a theory), try asking a few people if they consider it selfish to brush their teeth. If “selfishness” refers to any kind of action in the service of one’s interests, they should agree that tooth-brushing is selfish.

Given the ordinary meaning, the right thing for Randians to say in order to express their view is not that they are in favor of selfishness or that selfishness is really a virtue but rather that there is no such thing as selfishness. There are no excesses of self-interest; all the alleged excesses, insofar as they deserve condemnation, are really deficiencies: They involve choices, actions or attitudes that would have been different on the part of someone properly attentive to her own interests.

The fact is that “selfishness” was the wrong word for what Rand had in mind. There’s a perfectly good term for what she was thinking of, and it is a term she also used, namely, “self-interest.” She could have used it exclusively to make her case without throwing up roadblocks to comprehension by talking about absurdities like “the virtue of selfishness.” (Her case that all of morality is based on self-interest was weak in any event, but she could at least have gotten a more respectful hearing by dropping the red-flag word, “selfishness.”)

However much Rand would have liked them to, “selfish” and “unselfish,” as commonly used, don’t cover all the bases. She simply misused the terms and twisted others to fit. A selfish action exhibits an excess of self-interest; one that is unselfish, some noticeable degree of non-self-interested motivation. Part, though not all, that is omitted when the focus is only upon what is selfish and what is unselfish is action which is self-interested but not excessively so. Let’s pursue this by restricting ourselves, for the moment, to questions about motivation. In what immediately follows, I will be talking about what the agent is aiming at or trying to accomplish in an action. Then, we can usefully partition the field of possibilities into actions that are self-interested versus those that are not, and into actions that exhibit due regard for the interests (or something of value, such as rights) of others versus those that do not. That gives us a four-way division:

Due Regard

Lack of Due Regard




Not Self-interested



There doesn’t seem to be a general term for things that fall into box A, but certainly many kinds of activity and motivation meet these conditions, some, by having little or no impact on others, such as brushing one’s teeth, and some, though they may have significant impact on others, exhibiting as much regard as those others are due (e.g., declining a marriage proposal).

Items that fall into box B are what are generally called selfish. This is why phrases like “the virtue of selfishness” are, on the face of it, absurd. To call something an instance of selfishness is to say that it ought not to be done, because it would be refusing to extend to others regard that is due them; to call the very same thing virtuous is to recommend it, to say that it is the kind of thing a person of good character would do.

Under category C, we find the actions most commonly called altruistic. Their motivation is not self-interested and they exhibit a due regard for the interests of others. Note, in passing, that “not self-interested” is not equivalent to “other-interested.” Devotion to something like a project of scientific inquiry might be an example. It may be neither self-interested nor altruistic. A person might engage in it, not because he thinks it serves his interests (he may have better career opportunities available) or because he expects it to serve the interests of others, but because he thinks that knowledge or discovery or research are valuable in their own right. Still, such a project may show due regard for the interests of others by not imposing upon them against their wills, etc.

Under D, we can find various distortions such as malice and sadism, which are neither self-interested nor exhibit due regard for the interests of others.

The picture this division gives needs complication in several ways, however. One of them is that, though self-interested and non-self-interested motivation logically exhaust the possibilities, they are not mutually exclusive. One may have self-interested and other-interested motivation for the same act. The same act may benefit both yourself and one or more others, and it might be that if either motivation were absent, the other would still be sufficient to prompt the action.

Another complication is that I have been speaking, as I said, of motivations. The links between motivations and outcomes are, though frequently robust, considerably less than necessary truths. Motivation may be self-interested while the actual results of acting on the motivation may be against one’s interests or may serve the interests of others. Similarly, altruistic motivation is compatible with action that in fact does not benefit the intended beneficiaries or that serves the interests of the altruistic agent.

Still more complications emerge when we consider the relation between motivations at a time and over time. You may have some set of motivations in terms of which the best thing you can do is to take steps to alter your motivations themselves. This is why it is possible, as I have argued elsewhere, to make a case that an egoist might better serve his interests by ceasing to be an egoist.

On altruism –

Here are some short quotes from Rand about what she took “altruism” to mean. (All come from the entry on “altruism” in The Ayn Rand Lexicon.):

"The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value." (Lexicon, p. 4)

"The irreducible primary of altruism ... is self-sacrifice – ... which means: the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as a standard of the good." (Lexicon, p. 5)

"Altruism declares that any action taken for the benefit of others is good, and any action taken for one's own benefit is evil. Thus the beneficiary of an action is the only criterion of moral value – and so long as that beneficiary is anybody other than oneself, anything goes." (Lexicon, p. 5, emphasis on "any," "only" and "anything" added)

"Altruism holds death as its ultimate goal and standard of value." (Lexicon, p. 7)

Rand posited this entirely fantastic doctrine as the alternative to egoism. (Naturally, this makes egoism look good by contrast.) To be an alternative to egoism, it had of course to be an ethical theory (which is already a mistake, since the term in fact labels practices, dispositions or motivations recommended by different ethical theories as appropriate for certain kinds of occasions; it is no more an ethical theory than is courage). Continuing, though, this alleged theory is supposed to hold or imply a variety of nasty things, some of which are listed above.

Rand’s conception of altruism, however, was entirely fantastic. It is a doctrine that has never been held by any important moral thinker and, in particular, not by any of the thinkers that she castigated as proponents of altruism – not, e.g., by Kant or Marx, Mill or Spencer, Dewey or Rawls. Not one of them has maintained that the interests of the individual are of no importance, that service to others is the only justification for her existence, or that anything goes, so long as there is some beneficiary other than herself.

It is difficult not to suspect a bait-and-switch argument at work here. The thinkers she criticizes are indeed exponents of altruism in the ordinary sense of the word – that is, they believed that the interests of others matter in their own right, apart from the way they might impact upon one’s own interests, and therefore, in varying degrees (depending upon the thinker and his other commitments), that it could be appropriate, desirable or morally required, to act on some occasions on behalf of others, even at some cost to one’s own interests. Then, having identified these thinkers as altruists, in the ordinary or garden-variety sense, she charges them with being altruists in her entirely different sense. The bait-and-switch argument might go:


1.     Altruism means lots of nasty things (which Rand has detailed).

2.     These thinkers believe in altruism.

3.     Therefore, these thinkers believe in the nasty things Rand has detailed.


But this argument, such as it is, depends entirely upon equivocation. If the same sense is attached to ‘altruism’ throughout, either the first or the second premise will turn out to be false. In the garden-variety sense, ‘altruism’ does not mean the things Rand has detailed. And in the sense she detailed, Kant, Marx, Mill and the rest did not believe in altruism.






Comments? I’d love to hear.