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The California Murderer’s “Selfishness Without a Self”

invisible man standing with folded arms over his chest against gMy recent blog post on the murderer of six people in Santa Barbara explains that he “was an anti-individualist in every essential way.” He judged people not as individuals but as members of a group, and he acted not for his own life-promoting values but “by and for the opinions of others.”

In her 1974 essay, “Selfishness Without a Self” (republished in Philosophy: Who Needs It), Ayn Rand perfectly describes the sort of tribal “lone wolf” mentality exhibited by the murderer—and explains why that mentality is diametrically opposed to rational selfishness:

The majority of such wolves are frustrated tribalists, i.e., persons rejected by the tribe (or by the people of their immediate environment): they are too unreliable to abide by conventional rules, and too crudely manipulative to compete for tribal power. . . .

With all of his emphasis on “himself” (and on being “loved for himself”), the tribal lone wolf has no self and no personal interests, only momentary whims. He is aware of his own immediate sensations and of very little else. Observe that whenever he ventures to speak of spiritual (i.e., intellectual) values—of the things he personally loves or admires—one is shocked by the triteness, the vulgarity, the borrowed trashiness of what comes out of him. . . .

To a tribal lone wolf, “reality” is a meaningless term; his metaphysics consists in the chronic feeling that life, somehow, is a conspiracy of people and things against him, and he will walk over piles of corpses—in order to assert himself? no—in order to hide (or fill) the nagging inner vacuum left by his aborted self.

Rand thus offers a hauntingly accurate portrayal of the psychology of the California murderer (as corroborated by his lengthy writings and videos).

As Rand points out in this essay and elsewhere, the tribal lone wolf mentality has nothing to do with genuine, rational, life-promoting selfishness. A rationally selfish individual, far from “living” (or killing and dying) by the opinions of others, lives by his own independent judgment and for his own self-achieved happiness, creating values and trading value for value with others.

“The grim joke on mankind is the fact that he [the tribal lone wolf] is held up as a symbol of selfishness,” Rand writes. The tribal lone wolf literally has no “self” (in the spiritual sense); he has only concrete-bound whims and conspiracy theories concerning others.

Genuine selfishness is a profound moral achievement possible only to the degree that one holds “reason as [one’s] only absolute,” rationally pursues life-promoting values, and recognizes the moral right of each individual to live for his own purposes and happiness.

Those who seek to confuse genuine selfishness with lone-wolf tribalism either have no understanding of what selfishness is or intend to pervert its meaning. But their misunderstandings or dishonesty does not change the nature of reality. Human life requires independent thinking and rational self-interest. Those who act otherwise suffer the consequences—and sometimes harm or even kill others in the process.


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