Ayn Rand and the Dictionary Definition of “Selfishness”


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.

October 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.

November 25, 2020