This is the third post that explores the tenets of objectivism as stated by Ayn Rand which are: reality, reason, self-interest and capitalism. The first post introduced objectivism and the first tenet which is reality. The second post built on the definition of reality and explored the implications of reason. In Ayn Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged, characters such as Henry Reardon used reason to build a business empire based on his knowledge of a superior steel. Dagney Taggart used her reason of that superior steel to build a major railway connecting the nation to critical goods. Francisco d’Anconia supported both of these entrepreneurs with his knowledge and understanding of profitably extracting minerals from the earth that enabled the economic fabrication of the steel and ultimately the cross continental railway lines.
Each of these characters acted in their own self-interests, yet the benefit was realized by many other people. First, wages supporting individuals and families were the direct result of their success. Second, consumers had access to goods that in the case of raw agricultural products sustained life. Third, the indirect result were the wages of those who performed services to direct employees and consumers, such as restaurants, retail outlets, health and legal services and government leaders who were charged with maintaining a level playing field for the production of goods.
When self-interest is mentioned, however, it would seem that Scripture speaks against this in heavy, clear and direct terms. For instance, let’s look at a few of the passages which speak to the issue:
3 Instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, each of you should, in humility, be moved to treat one another as more important than yourself. 4 Each of you should be concerned not only about your own interests, but about the interests of others as well. (Philippians 2: 3-4)
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Matthew 16:24)
I can do nothing on my own initiative. Just as I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I do not seek my own will, but the will of the one who sent me. If I testify about myself, my testimony is not true. (John 5: 30-31)
48 The one who rejects me and does not accept my words has a judge; the word I have spoken will judge him at the last day. 49 For I have not spoken from my own authority, but the Father himself who sent me has commanded me what I should say and what I should speak. 50 And I know that his commandment is eternal life. Thus the things I say, I say just as the Father has told me.” (John 12: 48-50)
43 Why don’t you understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot accept my teaching. 44 You people are from your father the devil, and you want to do what your father desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not uphold the truth, because there is no truth in him. (John 8:43-44a)
The first verse clearly articulates against self-interest at first, but then introduces a curious caveat that we should also be concerned, perhaps primarily with our own interests before we can be concerned with the interests of others.
When I was trained in a local CERTS program one of the ground rules for engagement in an emergency is to take care of your own safety prior to helping anyone. We learned that firefighters never go into a burning building without support for their own safety. It did not seem “heroic” to think this way, but the instructor explained if we become incapacitated during the emergency, it expands the need for people and resources to effectively mitigate the emergency and puts more lives at risk.
The next few verses above are Jesus’ words pertaining to his purpose on earth. It is good to juxtapose these verses with his statement that he has the authority to lay his life down when he wants and also to take it up again. (John 10:18). Again, the caveat is present in this passage that there is an underlying premise to the question of who maintains ultimate authority for our choices.
For a potential clue to unravel this apparent dichotomy, let’s go back to what scripture says about humanity’s first task on earth. In Genesis 2:19 the man was given the authority to name the animals, in the first recorded exercise of apparently acting purely in self-interest. God brought the animals to Adam, and he gave them all a name. Was the mechanism of naming the animals enabled by anything other than self-interest? Remember, this was prior to the documented fall of man in chapter 3. There is an indication that the man was alone at this time.
Self-interest is hard for us at our unique vantage point to separate from the effects of sin on the nature of humanity, but this passage seems to indicate that there was a time and place where this was a pure expression ordained by the reality God had created.
I concur that this requires further unpacking, however. I anticipate digging into the idea that self-interest may have a beneficial, and perhaps even a God-ordained purpose within the reality He created for us in the next post.
Our starting point for the next post will be the scriptures we have mentioned along with Ayn Rand’s definition of self-interest:
“the word ‘selfishness’ is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends . . . and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment. Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word ‘selfishness’ is: concern with one’s own interests.”
Her concept does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us whether concern with one’s own interests is good or evil; nor does it tell us what constitutes man’s actual interests. She leaves this task to the field of ethics to answer such questions. The core of Rand’s philosophy is that unfettered self-interest is good, and altruism is destructive. This, she believed, is the ultimate expression of human nature, the guiding principle by which one ought to live one’s life.