STRIVECon Recap: Questions and Clarifications on Self-Interest in Ayn Rand’s Philosophy


From November 6th-8th, enterprising students from across the country (and even beyond) gathered in Atlanta, Georgia, for STRIVE’s annual student conference. At this year’s event, on “The Morality of Value Creation and Trade,” students attended lectures and breakout sessions by entrepreneurs, professionals, and intellectuals on the philosophical and business principles necessary to create and trade value. The following is one in a series of reports composed by enthusiastic attendees on their favorite among the weekend’s presentations.

Three philosophers talking about Ayn Rand’s philosophy, dozens of students standing in line to ask questions and over a hundred more listening to the answers—this is what it was like to attend the last panel at STRIVE’s 2015 student conference.

Objectivism, Rand’s philosophy, was the basis for many of the talks at the conference. So, at the last panel, students were invited to pose final questions about Objectivism to the panelists. The panel was comprised of philosophers Jason Hill (DePaul University), Greg Salmieri (Anthem Foundation; Rutgers University), and Onkar Ghate (Ayn Rand Institute).

Many of the questions and answers were related to Rand’s idea of self-interest or selfishness, a foundational concept in the moral framework of Objectivism. One student asked each panelist to explain which of Rand’s ideas they found most difficult to realize and understand.

In response, Hill mentioned the relationship between self-interest and benevolence, stating that he wants more conversation in Objectivism “on the virtue of goodwill toward one’s fellow human beings,” where people behave benevolently in ways “that need not result in sacrificing one’s self-interest to others.”

Later, in response to a follow-up question, Hill clarified that “any self-respecting person should expurgate from his or her conscience or psyche” the concept of self-sacrifice, which Rand strongly rejected.

But Hill also questioned whether everyday interactions (such as smiling at someone else on the elevator) could be explained by Rand’s “Trader Principle,” which suggests that all interactions should involve mutually-beneficial exchanges.

Salmieri agreed, explaining that such everyday interactions are not trades. When you engage in ordinary acts of benevolence, he said, you’re really “expressing a feeling of appreciation…for [some characteristic of] human beings in general,” which you are reminded of by “something in this person” (e.g. the random stranger on the elevator).

Ghate expanded on this, reminding everyone that “Rand viewed benevolence and altruism as opposites” (and self-interest as compatible with non-sacrificial benevolence), though most people “think that [benevolence and altruism] are synonyms.”

Also, on the nature of self-interest, another student asked if people really behave selfishly, even when they do things for avowedly altruist reasons.

Ghate noted that there is a common confusion between a person having a goal and having one’s own self-interest and happiness as his ultimate goal.

Using the example of Mother Teresa, he pointed out that while people often say that she benefited “spiritually” (in the religious sense) from her actions, “it’s exactly wrong to say that what she was doing was selfish.”

This is because, Hill added, there’s a real difference between the pursuit of “subjective happiness” and “rational happiness, your highest moral purpose in life.”

A drug addict, he suggested, is not pursuing his self-interest or his rational happiness—rather he’s a slave to his “desires and whims” and self-interest is comprised of seeking rational happiness.

Salmieri added that the issue is connected to Rand’s concept of free will (Objectivism holds that free will exists). He said, “If everyone’s really working toward their best interest, then there’s not really free will.” Instead, acting in your own self-interest, he explained, takes volitional thought and work.

Another student asked panelists to help her grapple with the issue of doing what you’re good at vs. doing what you love. Is it in your self-interest to choose one over the other?

Ghate replied that you need to have a clear answer to the question, “Do I think I can get to a point where, from my perspective, I’m creating values?”

Noting that early on, he was very bad at philosophy but later improved, he encouraged the student to strive to be better at what she loved because, as he noted, you have to both have a selfish love of your work and be able to create value through it.

Hill agreed, adding that every endeavor “has its own objective currency” by which success is measured, and that it won’t always be money-making. For instance, “the currency that one uses to evaluate a work of art cannot be, of course, if it makes money, but if it solves for example a literary problem or if it achieves an ideal.”

“It’s [also] not a good idea to create a false dichotomy between what you want and what you’re good at, because if there’s something that brings vitality to your body, that you feel a sense of aliveness, an enthusiasm, an exuberance for but you’re not good at it in particular, then there are alternative ways to organize such goods in one’s life…it can be a hobby,” Hill continued.

Salmieri expanded on this, reminding everyone that “what we choose for ourselves isn’t just a career, it’s a whole life.”

According to Salmieri, you can’t think of your career “as an isolated thing” without thinking about the rest of your life. “It’s the whole life that you have to love, and the job is the centerpiece, but it’s not everything,” he explained.

Photo credit: Eric Rosenberg/The Undercurrent 

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