Ayn Rand Knew that “Virtue is the Currency of Love”

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Ayn Rand, author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, was a woman of strong, radical convictions, whose philosophy encompassed all areas of life. As with any intellectual of her stature, along with droves of fans come scores of dissenters lining up to take a swing at her ideas. But Miss Rand’s critics today remind one of that unfortunate baseball player who, the more he strikes out, the harder and the angrier he swings. Some wonder whether they remember what the ball even looks like. This writer wonders whether they ever knew in the first place.

The Atlantic’s Olga Khazan is the latest such critic to step up to the plate. Positively dripping with glee, Khazan informs us of a recent discovery of hers: Ayn Rand’s 1959 television interview with Mike Wallace. In what she presents as a “gotcha” moment, Khazan draws our attention to a question about Rand’s romantic life. Asked whether she finds any contradiction in supporting her husband Frank O’Connor financially if need be, Rand responds: “No, because you see, I am in love with him selfishly.” Sneers Khazan: “The whole thing is worth a listen—you’ll learn how, if you correct your flaws, you, too, can be worthy of love.”

By revealing Rand’s staunchly unconventional attitude towards a matter as intimately personal as romance, Khazan hopes that most readers will find this idea of a selfish love as self-evidently silly as she does. Fortunately for my own sanity, I have already explained—in my 2013 response to Seth Adam Smith’s viral blog post, “Marriage Isn’t For You”—why the alternative of a so-called “selfless love” degrades both the lover and the loved. As I wrote then:

[Suppose] Sally is a college student pursuing her dream job when she meets Paul, a lonely college dropout of the same age. Sally is motivated, hard-working, and goal-oriented. Paul lacks these qualities of character, as well as any kind of long-term motivation. If Sally were to ask “What can I give?” she would find that she has plenty to give to Paul. Her energetic attention and care will help cure his loneliness. With this in mind, Sally decides that she must try to love Paul, because he needs her love.

If selflessness is really the standard of love, then it must be Sally’s duty to love Paul. But what would happen if Paul were to ask Sally, “Why do you love me?” If she were honest, she would have to answer, “Even though you aren’t that smart or the best looking guy around, I love you because you need me to.” Imagine how insulted and degraded anyone would be to hear that kind of response!

As Rand explains in the interview: “[W]hen you are asked to love people indiscriminately, that is, to love people without any standard, to love them regardless of the fact of whether they have any value or virtue, you are asked to love nobody.” To ask Sally here to love Paul—his faults and failures notwithstanding—to love him unconditionally—is to ask her to fake the most profound feeling of heart and soul she can experience, for the sake of nothing at all.

Selfish love is the only meaningful kind of love. As I suggested in my piece, most people would praise Sally for leaving Paul if she met another man who shared her values and interests, someone who enriched and empowered her life, who made her happy—someone more like “another self,” as Aristotle once characterized the nature of one’s beloved. Most would say “good for you, Sally,” rather than urging her to live life as a selfless doormat to the needs of a hapless drifter like Paul. As I explained:

The kind of happiness to be gained in loving a person selfishly has the capacity to be fulfilling, long-lasting, and joyously enriching, because the person we love complements rather than hinders our life’s ambitions. Loved ones are like fellow-travelers on life’s journey towards further horizons. Naturally, not only do we want to get to our destination, but we want to choose a partner with whom we can enjoy that journey. Choosing the right fellow-traveler is integral to our enjoyment of life’s journey, and choosing the wrong partner can make it miserable.

As Rand says: “In love, the currency is virtue.” Sally’s love for the better man would be her expression of the highest recognition she could pay to his virtue—to his manifest value to her proper joy and treasured life.

Scoffing in response, Khazan writes: “It’s easier to understand Rand’s obsession with selfishness as a positive virtue if you consider that she included, under her umbrella of egocentrism, good deeds that make the doer happy. She wasn’t helping her husband, you see, she was helping herself have a husband who pursue his passions.”

Khazan botches a crucial point here. Rand never held that whatever happens to make one feel good thereby serves one’s self-interest—she never viewed the self as some kind of drooling, pleasure-seeking thing. In fact, she once referred to her philosophy as “the opposite of hedonism.”

To Rand, the self is much more than a mere bundle of feelings—the self is the reasoning, choosing, valuing mind, tasked properly to one’s flourishing on earth. Under this richer conception of the self, one’s life and happiness act as the barometers of a proper love. And any feelings to the contrary notwithstanding, those ends cannot be won by flirting with the pitiful, feeding the vicious, or lying with moochers.

If Khazan thinks they can, perhaps she should read The Undercurrent more. This writer would be more than happy to send her a copy, free of charge. Maybe then she’ll even see the ball before her next swing.

Creative commons-licensed image courtesy of Flickr user Wendy Nelson.

Posted by on June 25, 2015. Filed under Self-help, Summer 2015. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
  • Apollo N. Morales

    What does it mean to love somebody for their vitues, does that mean for the seven virtues Rand talked about, or unique qualities that are unique to the person you love?

    • Josh Windham

      The former, absolutely. If by the latter you mean the number of endearing idiosyncrasies a lover might have, I don’t think those can be the foundation, the basis of love. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be icing on the cake.

      • Apollo N. Morales

        What I don’t understand is how you fall in love with somebody because of their virtues, but you also can’t just fall in love with anybody with same virtues. You might find somebody with the same virtues but that you dislike. I’ve heard Leonard Peikoff say that what matters if you are in a relationship is what makes that individual person unique, so how do you reconsile the abstract virtues with the unique aspects of an individual.

        • Josh Windham

          My one-sentence answer is: we don’t love concepts, we love people. My lengthier take is as follows:

          I don’t think the point you’re attributing to Dr. Peikoff poses a problem for what I have to say here. You’ve got to think that virtues aren’t just abstractions. When I say of my lover, “she’s independent,” I’m not attributing to her a vacuous label that applies in precisely the same form to any other woman of independence. I’m identifying her particular character–the nature of her own, uniquely specific traits–as fundamentally independent.

          Virtues are particular by instance, but each instance is still an instance of the relevant virtue. If you’re familiar with Rand’s theory of concepts, you’ll recall that she thought concepts were “open-ended.” In simple terms, she just meant that when we walk into a room full of different chairs, and we identify each instance–each chair–with the concept “chair,” we leave open the possibility there there are still further objects yet to be discovered of different shapes, sizes, etc., that we might also call chairs. We can think about virtues in this way as well.

          Consider a stripped-down example: Thomas Edison was productive–but so was Steve Jobs. Will a woman who admires productivity, and loves Steve Jobs the founder of Apple, necessarily also love Thomas Edison the inventor? No, not necessarily. They’re different people with different interests, passions, goals, dreams, and they’re productive in different ways. No love is possible in the absence of virtues–but from there it doesn’t follow that every person possessing them is equal to every other person possessing them.

          The point is that while across the human experience virtues foster flourishing in the same fundamental way, we all live different lives, have different experiences, meet different people, smell, taste, hear, see, feel different things, and thus make concretely different choices–producing among us almost infinitely unique characters. It’s those characters that make up the concrete referents of each basic virtue, and that we fall in love with (or don’t).

          So when that woman loves Steve Jobs but not Thomas Edison, she’s not in love with “Steve Jobs the productive man,” but with “Steve Jobs the founder of Apple.” It’s this latter quality that warrants our identifying him as a productive man, and it’s that concrete particular that’s the object of her love–not the abstraction “productivity” itself, of which this happens to be just one of a limitless many possible instances.

  • Cody Orr

    Great article. It is interesting how people cherry pick things from Rand’s Philosophy to make their points viable.