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I've started the next painting of a mom and her baby.

I enjoyed working with a limited palette on the last painting, so I'm using only cadmium red medium, cadmium yellow medium, cobalt blue, and titanium white on this one. That might become a habit for me - using only four colors. We'll see. Maybe it fits along with four adjectives, eh?

I was writing to a friend yesterday, Annette, who lent me The Fountainhead. We were discussing Ayn Rand's notion of the virtue of selfishness. If you haven't been down this road before, it looks like this:

Many people use the adjective "selfish" to describe regard for one's own welfare to the disregard of the well-being of others. "Selfish" people are brutish people who are oblivious to the negative consequences of their actions for their friends and loved ones and who abuse the patience, trust, and good will of all comers to satisfy their petty whims. Rand certainly recognizes that there are people who fit this description, and she certainly does not believe that their behavior is in any sense virtuous. But she opposes labeling them "selfish." Humans live in a social world; in order to maximize the value of their interactions with others, they should cultivate a firm commitment to the virtues of rationality, justice, productiveness, and benevolence. A commitment to these virtues naturally precludes such brutish behavior.

Rand argues that the conventional understanding of selfishness implies an altruistic framework. Within this framework, the question, "Who is the beneficiary of this act?" is the most important moral question: right acts are acts undertaken for the "benefit" of others and wrong acts are acts undertaken for one's own "benefit." Altruism permits no concept of a self-respecting, self-supporting man - a man who supports his own life by his own effort and neither sacrifices himself nor others ... it permits no concept of benevolent co-existence among men ... it permits no concept of justice.

The truly selfish person is a self-respecting, self-supporting human being who neither sacrifices others to himself nor sacrifices himself to others.

I agree with Rand's notion up to that last bit. Sometimes, it's necessary to sacrifice oneself for others. And my most immediate example of that is: children. Of course I would sacrifice my own interests for those of my children. Or for my friends and extended family.

Personally, I selfishly get a lot of joy in giving to others. Surprising someone with a gift that will put a smile on their face is a kick for me.

Just as Rand disagrees with the conventional definition of selfish, I disagree with the conventional definition of selfless. "Selfless" typically means that I abandon all thought of myself. But that's destructive. Nature demands that I think of myself to survive. I have to think of my own needs. Food, water, clothes, housing... all of these certainly, but also leisure, enterprise, interacting with others - these are all self-caring acts.

What's more, those who practice altruism today generally have a selfish motive behind the action. It's attached to an agenda... giving money to political campaign to receive audience and favors later, giving a huge financial gift to a university to have one's name in lights for the recognition, or doing something nice for someone to hold it against them as though it were a debit in a checking account.

For me, true selflessness is doing something for others for the sheer desire to do so without the expectation of or need for any reward. In other words, I do it because it's what I want to do and that's the end of it. So let me revise Rand's defintion.

The truly selfish person is a self-respecting, self-supporting human being who never sacrifices others to himself, and who sacrifices himself to others by his own choice with no agenda.
Again, with kids as my example, I give to my kids selflessly with no expectation of reward. What's more, I must. They have no capacity for rewarding me in return when they are young. As they get older, I release them to their own pursuits and care, but my motive in caring for them as they grow has no agenda. If it does, they grow up to be dysfunctional and hurtful people. I owe society the obligation of raising my children to be selfish people: self-respecting, self-supporting people who expect nothing from others. To do that, I must be selfless.

There's nothing wrong with selfishness, and I hate it when people do things for their own care and then hate themselves for it. It's not healthy, and too often we absorb the labels that others ascribe to us when such labels aren't true, but are actually an effort to control us. The truly selfish person is self-aware and won't react to these labels if they don't stick. Anytime that I hear that someone calls another person "controlling," it's always their own drive to control the other person. And seeing it for what it is empties the power from such statements. Anytime that I hear someone call another person "greedy" for wanting to keep the money that they earned instead of allowing others to take it, this too is just an effort to control the behavior of the person who earned the money. "You're selfish!" Nope, not at all. Self-supporting. Self-respecting. If everyone were that way, society would be much more functional.

Selfishness, demonstrated in my self-sustaining acts, is truly a virtue. It lightens the load that I place on others, freeing them to achieve their own pursuits without the need to sustain me. And by not expecting that from others, I would call it love for my fellow human being.


by Brett Rogers, 2/18/2006 9:14:12 AM



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