Question: What does Ayn Rand mean when she describes selfishness as a virtue?
Answer: Ayn Rand rejects altruism, the view that self-sacrifice is the moral ideal. She argues that the ultimate moral value, for each human individual, is his or her own well-being. Since selfishness (as she understands it) is serious, rational, principled concern with one's own well-being, it turns out to be a prerequisite for the attainment of the ultimate moral value. For this reason, Rand believes that selfishness is a virtue.
In the introduction to her collection of essays on ethical philosophy, The Virtue of Selfishness (VOS), Rand writes that the "exact meaning" of selfishness is "concern with one's own interests" (VOS, p. vii). In that work, Rand argues that a virtue is an action by which one secures and protects one's rational values—ultimately, one's life and happiness. Since a concern with one's own interests is a character trait that, when translated into action, enables one to achieve and guard one's own well-being, it follows that selfishness is a virtue. One must manifest a serious concern for one's own interests if one is to lead a healthy, purposeful, fulfilling life.
Rand understands, though, that the popular usage of the word "selfish" is different from the meaning she ascribes to it. Many people use the adjective "selfish" to describe regard for one's own welfare to the disregard of the well-being of others. Moreover, many people would be willing to characterize any instance of desire-satisfaction in these circumstances as "selfish," no matter what its content. Thus, many people arrive at the following composite image: 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 goodwill 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." Rand believes that this application of the word blurs important philosophical distinctions and foreordains false philosophical doctrines. First, this understanding of selfishness construes both whim-fulfillment and the disregard of others' interests as genuinely self-interested behaviors, which they are not. Second, this understanding of selfishness suggests an altruist framework for thinking about ethics.
To elaborate on the first point: Rand believes that the elements of human self-interest are objective. All human beings have objective biological and psychological needs, and one's actual interests are identified by reference to these needs. Mere whim-fulfillment is therefore not constitutive of human well-being because one's whims might be at odds with one's actual needs. Moreover, the character traits of the "selfish" brute are not compatible with any human being's actual, rational interests. 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. (For the Objectivist view of benevolence and its component virtues—civility, sensitivity, and generosity—see David Kelley's Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence.)
To elaborate on the second point: Rand argues that the conventional understanding of selfishness implies an altruistic framework for thinking about ethics. 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." Rand believes that this approach passes over the crucial ethical questions: "What are values?" and "What is the nature of the right and the good?" In addition, the altruist framework suggests a dichotomy between actions that promote the interests of others to one's own detriment and actions that promote one’s own interests to the detriment of others. Rand rejects this dichotomy and affirms the harmony of human interests (see "The 'Conflicts' of Men's Interests," VOS, pp. 57-65).
Rand writes, "[A]ltruism 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" (VOS, p. ix).
For her, the truly selfish person is a self-respecting, self-supporting human being who neither sacrifices others to himself nor sacrifices himself to others. This value-orientation is brilliantly dramatized in the character of Howard Roark in The Fountainhead. The further elements of selfishness—the character traits that, when translated into action, implement a concern for one's own real interests—are discussed and illustrated in that work, in Atlas Shrugged, and throughout Rand's non-fiction.
Finally, one might ask why Ayn Rand chose to use the term "selfish" to designate the virtuous trait of character described above rather than to coin some new term for this purpose. This is an interesting question. Probably, Rand wished to challenge us to think through the substantial moral assumptions that have infected our ethical vocabulary. Her language also suggests that she believes that any other understanding of selfishness would amount to an invalid concept, i.e., one that is not appropriate to the facts and/or to man's mode of cognition (see VOS pp. vii-xii, and Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, esp. Ch. 7). In addition, one might interpret Rand as asserting that her definition captures the historical and etymological meaning of the word. But certainly, her praise of selfishness communicates instantaneously and provocatively the practical, this-worldly, egoistic, and profoundly Greek orientation of her ethical thought.