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A Peek at Thinking in Principles: The Science of Selfishness

From The Objective Standard, Vol. 9, No. 1.

Author’s note: The following are the introduction and first chapter of my forthcoming book, Thinking in Principles: The Science of Selfishness. The book, which will be published this December, is aimed primarily at active-minded young adults who have some familiarity with the principles of rational egoism. Its purpose is to elucidate the importance and method of thinking in principles. I hope you enjoy these early pages. —CB


Your basic tool for making your life the best it can be is your mind. Your basic skill toward that end is your ability to think—to identify and integrate facts, to understand the world and your needs, to choose life-serving values and goals, to plan your days and years for maximum happiness, and to execute your plans effectively. The quality of every aspect of your life—from your career to romance to friendships to recreation to leisure time—depends on how well you think.

How can you maximize your thinking skills? What are the principles of good thinking? How can you embrace and apply those principles to fill your life with values, projects, and people you love? The answers to these and related questions are the subject of this book.

Whereas my first book, Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It, demonstrates that being moral consists in being selfish, Thinking in Principles: The Science of Selfishness shows what being selfish means in the realm of cognition.1 It is about how most effectively to use your mind in service of your life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. You need not have read Loving Life in order to profit from reading this book, but reading either Loving Life or Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness before reading this book will better equip you to understand and integrate the ideas discussed herein.2

This book, of necessity, assumes a certain level of agreement about what is true and false, moral and immoral, right and wrong. For instance, it assumes recognition of the fact that reason (i.e., observation and logic) is your only means of knowledge, that neither feelings nor revelation nor faith is a means of knowledge. It assumes some understanding of the propriety of pursuing your own life-serving values and of the impropriety of sacrificing for others, society, or “God.” And it assumes some understanding of the morality of a social system that protects each individual’s rights to live by the judgment of his own mind and to keep the product of his effort—and of the immorality of social systems that violate these rights. A reader with no knowledge of such truths will have trouble focusing on the subject at hand—the principles of thinking in principles—because he will constantly be challenged by the content and evaluations of various principles being used as concretes for discussion. We couldn’t begin to discuss a science of good thinking for good living without assuming a basic understanding of what good thinking and good living consist of, and these ideas are part of such an understanding. If they are foreign to you, I suggest reading one of the above-mentioned books before proceeding.

The purpose of this book is to examine the nature and need of principles; to identify and elucidate the principles of the method of thinking in terms of principles; and to integrate those principles into a systematic, scientific approach to living and loving life.

Chapter 1, “What Principles Are and Why You Need Them,” discusses the nature of principles, surveys various kinds of principles, draws crucial definitions of “principle” from the survey, and shows the vital role of principles in thinking.

The next six chapters identify and elucidate the principles of thinking in principles and examine various errors and fallacies that are violations of these principles.

Chapter 2, “Axioms, Corollaries, and Proximate Fundamentals,” examines the principles at the very base of all thinking; shows their relationship to other principles that underlie and govern various areas of life (e.g., romance, business, recreation, parenting); considers some major aspects of the process of forming and validating principles; and briefly addresses the crusade against principles (i.e., anti-foundationalism and pragmatism).

Chapter 3, “The Excluded Middle and Matters of Degree,” zeros in on the crucial role of the law of excluded middle in identifying and applying principles; addresses misconceptions of and objections to the law; clarifies the proper use of the law with respect to mixed ideas, mixed situations, and “slippery slopes”; and demonstrates the binary, either-or nature of principled thinking.

Chapter 4, “Proper Classification and Definition,” surveys the basic principles of Ayn Rand’s theory of concepts; shows the proper formation and use of concepts to be at once governed by principles and essential to principled thinking; examines several kinds of violations of the principles presented, including package deals, anti-concepts, and frozen abstractions; and shows why you must form and use concepts in certain ways and not others if they are to serve your life and happiness.

Chapter 5, “Hierarchies of Knowledge and Values,” examines the hierarchical structures and interrelationships of conceptual knowledge, moral principles, and personal values; examines the fallacy of the stolen concept, further demonstrating why you must use concepts properly if they are to serve your life; and shows how to organize your values hierarchically and use the “math of egoism” to dramatically improve your thinking, decision making, and all-around effectiveness in pursuing and achieving your goals.

Chapter 6, “Context, Knowledge, and Values,” expands on the principles of hierarchy, examining the broader relational nature of concepts, principles, and values; shows why and how these three elements properly fit together to form an integrated, noncontradictory whole in service of your life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness; and examines the fallacies of context dropping, omission of volition, and the argument from intimidation.

Chapter 7, “Evidence, Knowledge, and Happiness,” examines the nature of evidence (both perceptual and conceptual); demonstrates the crucial role evidence plays in thinking, forming principles, applying them, and choosing and pursuing values; and shows the highly destructive nature of arbitrary (evidence-free) assertions, which throttle and thwart thinking in myriad nonobvious ways.

Chapter 8, “The Science of Selfishness,” pulls together all of the foregoing principles, demonstrating their unity as an observation-based, integrated, life-serving system of thought; shows how this system applies to specific situations and goals; and shows how to use the principles of the system to create highly effective personalized micro-principles and standing orders to guide specific day-to-day actions, enabling you to achieve massively challenging life-enhancing goals.

Chapter 9, “The Art of Selfishness,” shows how the fully formed science of selfishness applies to a broad array of real-life and hypothetical situations, from personal to social to political, demonstrating its immense power to clarify your thinking, simplify your decision making, and fill your days and years with values, projects, and people you love.

If that interests you, let’s dig in.

Chapter One: What Principles Are and Why You Need Them

“I don’t have any principles. If I believe in anything, I believe in rules of thumb,” boasts an outspoken college professor. “Therefore, as I say quite often (and it’s true) my forward time span is generally two hours. By that I mean I tend not to think about or worry about anything more in the future than two hours hence.”3

If this professor’s claim were true, he would not be able to function as a human being. Granted, if he didn’t think about anything more in the future than two hours hence he wouldn’t need principles or have any to speak of. But, then, he wouldn’t have a life to speak of either.

Consider just a few reasons. . . .

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1. I borrow the phrase “thinking in principles” (short for “thinking in terms of principles”) from Ayn Rand, who used it to name her method of thinking. To my knowledge, Rand did not explicitly state the elements she regarded as central to the method, but certainly the basic principles of her philosophy, such as her theory of concept formation, are the kinds of things she had in mind. Although I think Rand would agree with the elements of thinking in principles that I present in this book, and although several of the elements are drawn from her philosophy, I obviously cannot speak for her. A philosopher’s work is what he or she says and writes, no more, no less. My purpose in this book is not to convey Rand’s ideas on thinking in principles, but to convey my own. My approach to the subject is greatly influenced by her philosophy, with which I fully agree, but my ideas are mine, and hers are hers.

2. Craig Biddle, Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It (Richmond, VA: Glen Allen Press, 2002); Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964).

3. Stanley Fish, There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech: And It’s a Good Thing, Too (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 298. Fish is equally forthright on this matter elsewhere, for instance: “Let me say at the outset that I am . . . against an adherence to principle”; Fish, The Trouble with Principle (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 2. And, as we will see toward the end of chapter 2, he is not alone on this count.