On Selfishness II

I recently listened to the Soho Forum debate on the virtues of selfishness between libertarian Gene Epstein and Randian objectivist Yaron Brook. It seemed at first to be centered around semantics, but I must refrain from classifying it that way. It was my impression that Epstein believes the word “selfishness” is too morally tainted in both historical and contemporary usage to be useful to free market enthusiasts, while Brook believes the word can and must be redeemed as a counter to the morally bankrupt idea of “selflessness“. I believe that both debaters were correct. So what’s the solution? While I can’t say for certain, perhaps the solution lies somewhere around using the word as an attention grabber, than backpedaling in order to clarify your audience or discussion partner’s understanding of the concept before proceeding to make the point that self-interested action, not at the expense of others, in the context of markets is beneficial both to yourself and to society-at-large. Methinks that oughta do it. What do you think? And that’s today’s two cents.

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Founder and editor of Everything-Voluntary.com and UnschoolingDads.com, Skyler is a husband and unschooling father of three beautiful children. His writings include the column series “One Voluntaryist’s Perspective” and “One Improved Unit,” and blog series “Two Cents“. Skyler also wrote the books No Hitting! and Toward a Free Society, and edited the books Everything Voluntary and Unschooling Dads. You can hear Skyler chatting away on his podcasts, Everything Voluntary and Thinking & Doing.

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4 years ago

I think Adam Smith was correct. His claim was self interest that moved people. Self interest and selfish can and should be separate ideas.

Kilgore Forelle
4 years ago

It may be an apocryphal story, but I read somewhere that Ayn Rand’s publisher inserted the title, The Virtue of Selfishness, without her prior input. None of Rand’s essays’ titles in the book have the same title, or even the word, selfishness. There are only 12 spots in the body text where versions of the word, selfish, appear.

Enemies of individualism have associated selfishness with libertarianism/voluntaryism/anarchism. In fact, selfishness (in the public school sense) is one of the least relevant attributes of our philosophy. Debating the semantics of “selfish” seems like a low order priority, a low return action.