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Contra Robert Reich, Some Firefighters Are Rationally Selfish

In his Salon article “Ayn Rand Could Have Learned from the Arizona Firefighters,” Robert Reich presumes that the nineteen firefighters who lost their lives June 30 while battling a wildfire in Arizona chose their dangerous profession based on “something other than rational self-interest”:

Like the first-responders to 9/11 and other emergencies, and members of the armed forces, they put themselves in harm’s way (or chose a job that did so) because they wanted to serve.

Reich asserts that what motivates such service is “want[ing] to be part of something larger than themselves.” And he claims that Rand’s philosophy of selfishness amounts to the idea that “the aggregation of great wealth and maximization of profit is the only justifiable motive.”

Clearly, Reich has not read Rand. Or, if he has, he’s pretending that she said something other than what he knows she said.

It is true that Rand rejected the notion that people should strive to be “part of something larger than themselves.” She held that the individual is an end in himself and that his own happiness is the proper, moral purpose of his life. But she did not hold that money is the only justifiable motive, which is why Reich did not and could not point to where she ever said such a thing.

Although Rand certainly saw financial profit as a noble motive, her morality of rational selfishness provides a far richer account of values and motivations—and this is unmistakably evident in every one of Rand’s books and essays in which she addresses this subject.

Rand held that one should choose a career for a variety of selfish reasons, including not only financial rewards but also spiritual rewards, such as purpose, self-esteem, pride, and joy. Howard Roark, the hero of Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, for instance, turned down huge sums of money in order to preserve his vision of great architecture and pursue a career in which he would thrive not only materially but also spiritually. Roark also spent much time visiting and socializing with his mentor, Henry Cameron, and his friends, such as Gail Wynand—through which he gained the selfish spiritual values of friendship, admiration, love. And then there was Dominique, Roark’s romantic interest . . .

But all of this is too difficult for Reich to see as possibly being of any selfish value to a person, because there is no money involved. (One wonders about Reich’s friendships, not to mention his sex life. Does he get no selfish enjoyment from them?)

As for the self-interested nature of firefighting, the fact is that many firefighters thrive on the physical and mental challenges of their work—the excitement, the high stakes, and the life-protecting nature of the job. As one career-oriented Web page notes, “Firefighting—especially wildland firefighting—is an attractive career for those who enjoy an adrenaline rush and want to protect other people.”

It is true that firefighters “serve” others in the sense that they receive payment for doing a job that benefits others—as does every productive worker in a market economy. But that doesn’t mean a firefighter sacrifices his personal values for others. It doesn’t mean that a different career would really be better for his life and happiness, but he chose this one instead to be selfless. Perhaps some firefighters make their career choice based on that depraved thinking, but there is no reason to disparage the entire profession and everyone in it by assuming that all firefighters do. Could Reich be more presumptuous—or more rude?

As for the high risks involved, a variety of professions in addition to firefighting or working for the police or the military involve higher-than-normal risks—including farming, mining, fishing, logging, carpentry, landscaping, and driving a bus. There is no inherent clash between accepting the risks involved in a career and selfishly pursuing its financial and spiritual rewards.

Firefighters properly pursue their own selfish values in pursuing their career. They help others—because they love the work and thrive on it. Perhaps not all firefighters regard their work as in their rational self-interest, but certainly many do. And the selfish heroism of those who do is what merits admiration and respect.

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Image: Joseph Kellard

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