Bringing Selfish Back

By Katie Kieffer

"Selfish Reflections." Copyright Katie Kieffer, all rights reserved.

“Selfish Reflections.” Copyright Katie Kieffer.

Step aside, Justin Timberlake. Let’s bring selfish back, y’all!

Last week, I wrote that if you are a Christian, you must embrace Ayn Rand’s economic philosophy (capitalism). Today, I will explore this further.

To recap, philosophers who came before Christ (think Aristotle), philosophers who rejected Christ (think Rand) and philosophers who accepted Christ (think Thomas Aquinas) concur that human laws must stem from natural law, which stems from reason. Said differently, all rational thinkers embrace natural law. Capitalism is the most rational political system and therefore the best political expression of natural law, so rational Christians and non-Christians must be capitalists.

What exactly does it mean to live a capitalist lifestyle? To Rand, being a capitalist means being “selfish” and abhorring “self-sacrifice.” I believe this is compatible with Christianity.

Defining Selfish

Most people define “selfish” as greed; certain celebrities come to mind as examples of people who act like the world owes them superior treatment for inferior behavior (think Lindsay Lohan leaving a jewelry store without paying for the necklace around her neck). This is not how Rand defines selfish.

For Rand, a selfish person lives morally, independently and pursues happiness. By caring for himself, he is philanthropic (benefits society) without trying. He capitalizes on his unique talents. He produces a good or service that society needs at a competitive price. He selfishly saves his money via wise investments, thereby making capital available for new businesses and creating jobs. I think Christians and non-Christians should embrace this idea of selfishness.


Rand believes the goal of life is happiness. In her magnum opus novel, Atlas Shrugged, the hero, John Galt, says: “Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values.”

How would it even be possible to achieve happiness without making decisions that are in one’s own best interest? Said differently, what is the rational alternative to being selfish? There does not appear to be one.

Certainly, it can sometimes be challenging to determine one’s best interest. Rand herself seemed to struggle to achieve earthly happiness. In an open marriage, her lover betrayed her. She suffered from severe depression. And she sustained her long working hours through heavy smoking and stimulants.

At any rate, I think both Rand and rational Christians can agree that the goal of life is happiness, achieved by living morally on earth.  Rand maintains that life ends at physical death and happiness is achievable on earth. Christians simply take a longer view on life. To achieve happiness, both can agree that one must embrace a “selfish” lifestyle of seeking one’s best interest in a moral and productive manner.

Selfish Sacrifice vs. Self-Sacrifice

According to Rand, besides pursuing happiness, a selfish person refuses “self-sacrifice.” Rand also contends that it takes hard work and sometimes pain to achieve happiness. I will call this “selfish sacrifice.”

Galt says: “Joy is not ‘the absence of pain.’ …You [socialists] seek escape from pain. We [capitalists] seek the achievement of happiness.” And: “If you achieve a career you wanted, after years of struggle, it is not a sacrifice; if you then renounce it for the sake of a rival, it is. If you own a bottle of milk and give it to your starving child, it is not sacrifice; if you give it to your neighbor’s child and let your own die, it is.”

Like Rand, a Christian lives, not to avoid pain, but to achieve the reward of happiness. So, I think Rand defines sacrifice semantically different from Christians, not philosophically.

Rand describes her conception of Christian sacrifice thus: “I do regard the cross as the symbol of the sacrifice of the ideal to the non-ideal. Isn’t that what it does mean? Christ…personifies that which men should strive to emulate. Yet, according to the Christian mythology, he died on the cross not for his own sins but for the sins of the non-ideal people. In other words, a man of perfect virtue was sacrificed for men who are vicious…”

With respect to Rand, I think she misinterpreted Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. God encompasses perfect joy and strength so the crucifixion did not diminish his happiness or power; it was his way to show love (not deference) for his creation.

She also misinterpreted the Christian notion of personal self-sacrifice. Christians only sacrifice to their superior, namely God. It is blasphemous for a Christian to sacrifice to an equal (another human) or an inferior (an animal or plant). See the first through fourth commandments of Moses.

Christian sacrifice does not require flogging oneself (harming oneself) or bowing down to a worm (an inferior). Christian sacrifice is an outward sign to show God respect. Aquinas says: “Natural reason dictates to man to show, in his own way, submission and honor to the power that is above man. …inward sacrifice, to which all are bound… [is] to offer to God a devout mind.”

I think Rand’s view of acceptable pain or struggle en-route to happiness (“selfish sacrifice”) is consistent with Christian self-sacrifice. Let’s say I refrain from eating desserts during Lent. While it appears as though I am giving up pleasurable food, I am in fact selfishly seeking my own happiness by venerating my superior. Usually, my physical health improves sequentially.

Christians should embrace Ayn Rand’s economic philosophy of capitalism whole-heartedly as well as a “selfish” lifestyle because they are consistent with reason and the Gospel.

Works referenced or cited: Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, PB Magazine’s 1964 Interview with Ayn Rand and Thomas Aquinas’ Summa, Part II: Ethics: Treatise on Justice: Question 85: Of Sacrifice.

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  1. Sisyphus says:

    Katie, nice series of articles on Ayn Rand. I’m curious whether you have an opinion on Whitaker Chambers’ devastating review of “Atlas Shrugged” from National Review in 1957. Personally, I think his criticism of the book’s literary merit is valid; his attack on Rand’s philosophy is persuasive, if a tad harsh.

  2. Lodzia says:

    Katie, you point out that Rand had a very legitimate point about free market capitalism, one
    reconcilable with Aristotle and Aquinas. Awesome post!

  3. Brad Carlson says:

    Do you recall during the '08 campaign when Obama dinged the McCain-Palin ticket for not wanting higher taxes? Obama hit back at claims his tax plan was socialistic by saying McCain-Palin was making a "virtue out of selfishness." I couldn't ascertain if he was making reference to Rand's definition or not. If that indeed was his intent, I'm not certain he used the correct context.

    EIther way, I thoroughly enjoyed this post, Katie! A *fascinating* read.

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