Ayn Rand and the Dictionary Definition of “Selfishness”

Introduction

Ayn Rand has greatly impacted my thinking about selfishness. I think her ideas on the subject are immensely valuable, and they motivated me to create The Selfishness Project as a way of helping to spread them. I say more about Rand and The Selfishness Project in my three-minute video “Introduction to The Selfishness Project,” which you can find here.

While I think very highly of Ayn Rand and her ideas, I also think she made a puzzling and perhaps problematic statement about selfishness, a statement that I think deserves careful consideration. The statement occurs in the introduction to her book The Virtue of Selfishness (in paragraph six). There she writes:

“the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word ‘selfishness’ is: concern with one’s own interests.”

Is that statement correct? Is it really true that “concern with one’s own interests” is the dictionary definition of “selfishness”? And of what significance is it (if any) whether or not she was right about this?

These are questions I have researched and thought a lot about. I have discussed them at length elsewhere online, but on platforms that require an account or a paid subscription or that are used for discussing many other issues as well, with the result that this particular issue gets buried over time as other issues arise. I wanted to make my thoughts on this subject more widely available and to provide a permanent, prominent, dedicated home for them where they do not get buried, so I decided to create this page for them here on my website (a link to this page, labelled “Ayn Rand & DDS,” is included in the menu at the top of my website).

In this post I just wanted to introduce the issue. In future posts, I will discuss it. To be notified of future posts, both about this issue and other issues related to The Selfishness Project, you can subscribe to my website here.

(Oct. 6, 2020)

 

Why it matters

Before addressing the issue of whether Ayn Rand was right to say that the dictionary definition of “selfishness” is “concern with one’s own interests,” I want to address the issue of why it matters whether she was right about this.

The reason it matters (or at least one reason it matters—perhaps there are others) is that it affects one’s choice of terminology: If Rand is right about the dictionary definition of the word “selfishness,” then she is justified in using the word “selfishness” as a label for the view she advocates in ethics; if not, not.

Or at least the above is a view one might hold. One might also hold the view (and I think some of Rand’s followers do hold) that it really does not matter, as far as choice of terminology is concerned, whether she was right about the dictionary definition, and that she is right to use the word “selfishness” as a label for her view regardless of what definitions in dictionaries say. I may consider this latter view later. But at first (starting in my next post) I just want to address those who think that the definitions that appear in dictionaries do matter to one’s choice of terminology, i.e., to the question of whether “selfishness” is a correct term for Rand’s view.

(Nov. 25, 2020)

 

Definitions of “selfish” in actual dictionaries

Here are a few examples of definitions of “selfish” that can be found in online dictionaries:

Google

(of a person, action, or motive) lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.

“I joined them for selfish reasons”

 

Merriam-Webster

1: concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself : seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others

2: arising from concern with one’s own welfare or advantage in disregard of others

// a selfish act

3: being an actively replicating repetitive sequence of nucleic acid that serves no known function

// selfish DNA

also : being genetic material solely concerned with its own replication

// selfish genes

 

dictionary.com

1. devoted to or caring only for oneself; concerned primarily with one’s own interests, benefits, welfare, etc., regardless of others.

2. characterized by or manifesting concern or care only for oneself:

selfish motives.

How do these definitions compare to Ayn Rand’s definition?

None of them are identical to her definition—“concern with one’s own interests.” But are they basically the same in meaning as her definition, even if they use different wording?

At least for the most part, I think the answer is “no.” The definitions one typically finds in dictionaries are, I think, significantly different in meaning from Rand’s definition, since they include words or phrases like “only” or “without regard for others” that Rand’s definition omits. If such words or phrases were omitted, then I think one would have definitions that are basically the same as Rand’s. Here are the above definitions again, now revised so that such words and phrases are omitted (I ignore, i.e., make no attempt to change, the third, scientific Merriam-Webster definition):

Google [revised to be like Rand’s definition]

(of a person, action, or motive) lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.

“I joined them for selfish reasons”

 

Merriam-Webster [revised to be like Rand’s definition]

1: concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself : seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others

2: arising from concern with one’s own welfare or advantage in disregard of others

// a selfish act

3: being an actively replicating repetitive sequence of nucleic acid that serves no known function

// selfish DNA

also : being genetic material solely concerned with its own replication

// selfish genes

 

dictionary.com [revised to be like Rand’s definition]

1. devoted to or caring only for oneself; concerned primarily with one’s own interests, benefits, welfare, etc., regardless of others.

2. characterized by or manifesting concern or care only for oneself:

selfish motives.

If one thinks the definitions that appear in dictionaries matter to one’s choice of terminology, i.e., to the question of whether “selfishness” is a correct term for Rand’s view, one might think such definitions provide evidence that “selfishness” is not a correct term for Rand’s view, for by including such words as “only” and “without regard for others,” they mean something significantly different than what Rand, who omits such words, means.

(Dec. 30, 2020)

 

Definitions of “selfish” in old dictionaries

After hearing that dictionaries typically don’t have the definition of “selfish” that Ayn Rand gives, one might think that that may just be because one has been looking in the wrong dictionaries. For instance, maybe one has just been looking in recent dictionaries, and if one looked in older dictionaries, perhaps Rand’s definition, or at least something more like it, would be found. I’ve heard people say this, and I’ve wondered about it myself.

But I’ve looked in older dictionaries, and what I’ve found is similar to what I’ve found in recent dictionaries. A few details about my research: A couple of years ago, I looked in eighteen old dictionaries at the main library of my university (Shields Library at the University of California, Davis). The dictionaries I looked in were published in 1755, 1773, 1828, 1848, 1858–9, 1863, 1875, 1879, 1885, 1894, 1895, 1899, 1900, 1904, 1914, 1920, 1933, and 1935. These included Samuel Johnson’s landmark A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Noah Webster’s landmark An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), and the monumental, multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary (1933).

All of them (with one possible exception, which I may mention in a later post) give a definition of “selfish” and/or “selfishness” that significantly differs from Rand’s. For example, A Complete and Universal Dictionary of the English Language (ed. Barclay, 1848) defines “selfishness” as “attention to one’s own interest, without any regard to others; self-love” (italics added).

I don’t think it should be surprising that’s Rand’s sort of definition is hard to find in dictionaries, whether recent or old. The conventional meaning of “selfish,” which I think it is the lexicographer’s task to record, has not, so far as I know, changed in any important way over the last few centuries. If so, there is reason to think that the dictionaries of the last few centuries will generally include “without any regard to others” (or wording to similar effect) in their definitions of “selfish.”

(Feb. 5, 2021)