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Scrutinizing Scruton’s Scrutinizing

This essay is part of a compilation ebook, Objectivism, available at Amazon.com or free with any subscription to TOS.

In an article titled “Altruism and Selfishness,” Roger Scruton challenges Ayn Rand’s concept of selfishness—by committing the very fallacy that Rand identified as the cause of all the confusion on this issue. (Scruton’s article has many problems; I’ll address only the most egregious of them.)

Scruton attributes to Rand the notion that being selfish consists in taking whatever action one wants to take or in taking whatever action one has a motive to take. Scruton writes that according to Rand:

When a father works to provide for his children; when a woman spends her money on a person she loves; even when a man lays down his life for his friend—all this is selfishness, doing what one wants to do, because one has the motive to do it, because that is what the I requires.

Not only did Rand not accept the idea that a motivated action is thereby a selfish action; she explicitly rejected it. Rand held that whether an action is selfish or unselfish depends on two things: the standard by reference to which the action is motivated, and whether or not the action is rational. If a person is motivated by the idea that the standard of morality is self-sacrifice—if he holds that being good consists in selflessly serving others—and if he therefore quits his cherished career, say, making music, in order to serve others by doing something he loathes, say, changing bedpans, then, if words have meaning, he is not being selfish; he is being unselfish.

Although Scruton somehow missed this, Rand demonstrated in several books and essays that the objective standard of moral value is man’s life—meaning, all that which is required for man to live and flourish materially and spiritually. She further demonstrated that the objective purpose of morality is to guide the individual in choosing and pursuing the values that will fill his days and years with meaning and joy. Correspondingly, on her view, for a person to be genuinely selfish, he must do more than take action “directed at the self”; he must also be guided exclusively by reason, because only reason can account for the long-range and wide-range requirements of his life and happiness.

Acting on the principle that one should selflessly serve others is not the same as acting on the principle that one should rationally pursue one’s own life-serving values. To treat these essentially different things as though they are essentially the same is to commit the fallacy that Rand called “package-dealing.”

Scruton commits the fallacy again here:

Learning to love your neighbor as yourself is learning to take pleasure in the things that please him, as a mother takes pleasure in the pleasures of her child. To call this “selfishness” is to abuse the language. A selfish act is one directed at the self; an unselfish act is one directed at others. And the truly unselfish person is the one who wants to perform unselfish acts, who takes pleasure in giving, and who enjoys the prospect of another’s success. This is not, as Rand would have us believe, just another form of selfishness. It is an altogether higher motive, one in which the other has replaced the self as the object of concern.

Who is abusing language?

The characteristic that makes an action selfish or unselfish is not whether it is directed at the self or whether one wants to take it or whether one takes pleasure in it or whether one enjoys it. If it were any of these, then junkies, rapists, welfare bums, and bank robbers would have to be considered “selfish” along with people who, on principle, take care of themselves, enjoy exclusively consensual sex, produce goods or services, and respect property rights. To say that it is illogical to treat these two radically different kinds of people as though they are essentially the same would be to understate the case.

For a person to be genuinely selfish, he must not only hold his own life as his ultimate value; he must also recognize and accept the principle that his only means of knowledge and his basic means of living is his faculty of reason; he must commit himself to being guided only by his rational judgment—because only it can account for the long-range and wide-range requirements of his life and happiness.

If one loves one’s neighbor because one judges him to be rational, honest, just, and of great importance to one’s life and happiness, then appreciating or taking pleasure in the things that please him can be selfish. If, however, one loves one’s neighbor not because one judges him to be rational and valuable to one’s life, but because one has accepted the religious dogma that one should “love one’s neighbor,” then doing so is unselfish. What could be more selfless than forgoing one’s own rational judgment and obeying religious dogma?

The only thing Scruton gets right in this regard is his recognition of the fact that a person who wants to forgo his own rational judgment—a person who wants to obey dogma in service to some “higher motive”—and therefore does so, is wholly unselfish.

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