"Selfishness Without a Self:
The non-conforming tribalist"
by Ayn Rand
(An article published in the June 4, 1973 issue of The Ayn Rand Letter
"The grim joke on mankind is the fact that [a type of person who has no real self and no personal interests] is held up as a symbol of selfishness."
In my last two Letters ["The Missing Link"] I discussed the anti-conceptual mentality and its social (tribal) manifestations. All tribalists are anti-conceptual in various degrees, but not all anti-conceptual mentalities are tribalists. Some are lone wolves (stressing that species' most predatory characteristics).
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. Since a perceptual mentality cannot provide a man with a way of survival, such a person, left to his own devices, becomes a kind of intellectual hobo, roaming about as an eclectic second-hander or brain-picker, snatching bits of ideas at random, switching them at whim, with only one constant in his behavior: the drifting from group to group, the need to cling to people, any sort of people, and to manipulate them.
Whatever theoretical constructs he may be able to spin and juggle in various fields, it is the field of ethics that fills him with the deepest sense of terror and of his own impotence. Ethics is a conceptual discipline: loyalty to a code of values requires the ability to grasp abstract principles and to apply them to concrete situations and actions (even on the most primitive level of practicing some rudimentary moral commandments). The tribal lone wolf has no firsthand grasp of values. He senses that this is a lack he must conceal at any price -- and that this issue, for him, is the hardest one to fake. The whims that guide him and switch from moment to moment or from year to year, cannot help him to conceive of an inner state of lifelong dedication to one's chosen values. His whims condition him to the opposite: they automatize his avoidance of any permanent commitment to anything or anyone. Without personal values, a man can have no sense of right or wrong. The tribal lone wolf is an amoralist all the way down.
The clearest symptom by which one can recognize this type of person, is his total inability to judge himself, his actions, or his work by any sort of standard. The normal pattern of self-appraisal requires a reference to some abstract value or virtue -- e.g., "I am good because I am rational," "I am good because I am honest," even the second-hander's notion of "I am good because people like me." Regardless of whether the value-standards involved are true or false, these examples imply the recognition of an essential moral principle: that one's own value has to be earned.
The amoralist's implicit patter of self-appraisal (which he seldom identifies or admits) is: "I am good because it's me.".
Beyond the age of about three to five (i.e., beyond the perceptual level of mental development), this is not an expression of pride or self-esteem, but of the opposite: of a vacuum -- of a stagnant, arrested mentality confessing its impotence to achieve any personal value or virtue.
Do not confuse this pattern with psychological subjectivism. A psychological subjectivist is unable fuly to identify his values or to prove their objective validity, but he may be profoundly consistent and loyal to them in practice (though with terrible psycho-epistemological difficulty). The amoralist does not hold subjective values; he does not hold any values. The implicit patter of all his estimates is: "It's good because I like it." -- "It's right because I did it" -- "It's true because I want it to be true." What is the "I" in these statements? A physical hulk driven by chronic anxiety.
The frequently encountered examples of this pattern are: the writer who rehashes some ancient bromides and feels that his work is new, because he wrote it -- the non-objective artist who feels his smears are superior to those made by a monkey's tail, because he made them -- the businessman who hires mediocrities because he likes them -- the political "idealist" who claims that racism is good if practiced by a minority (of his choice), but evil if practiced by a majority -- and any advocate of any sort of double standard.
But even such shoddy substitutes for morality are only a pretense: the amoralist does not believe that "I am good because it's me." That implicit policy is his protection against his deepest, never-to-be-identified conviction: "I am no good through and through."
Love is a response to values. The amoralist's actual self-appraisal is revealed in his abnormal need to be loved (but not in the rational sense of the word) -- to be "loved for himself," i.e., causelessly. James Taggart reveals the nature of such a need: "I don't want to be loved for anything. I want to be loved for myself -- not for anything I do or have or say or think. For myself -- not for my body or mind or words or works or actions." (Atlas Shrugged.) When his wife asks: "But then what is yourself?" he has no answer.
As a real-life example: Years ago, I knew an older woman who was a writer and very intelligent, but inclined toward mysticism, embittered, hostile, lonely, and very unhappy. Her views of love and friendship were similar to James Taggart's. At the time of the publication of The Fountainhead, I told her that I was very grateful to Archibald Ogden, the editor who had threatened to resign if his employers did not publish it. She listened with a particular kind of skeptical or disapproving look, then said: "You don't have to feel grateful to him. He did not do it for you. He did it to further his own career, because he thought it was a good book." I was truly appalled. I asked: "Do you mean that his action would be better -- and that I should prefer it -- if he thought it was a worthless book, but fought for its publication out of charity to me?" She would not answer and changed the subject. I was unable to get any explanation out of her. It took me many years to begin to understand.
A similar phenomenon, which had puzzled me for a long time, can be observed in politics. Commentators often exhort some politician to place the interests of the country above his own (or his party's) and to compromise with his opponents -- and such exhortations are not addressed to petty grafters, but to reputable men. What does this mean? If the politician is convinced that his ideas are right, it is the country that he would betray by compromising. If he is convinced that his opponents' ideas are wrong, it is the country that he would be harming. If he is not certain of either, then he should check his views for his own sake, not merely the country's -- because the truth or falsehood of his ideas should be of the utmost personal interest to him.
But these considerations presuppose a conceptual consciousness that takes ideas seriously -- i.e., that derives its views from principles derived from reality. A perceptual consciousness is unable to believe that ideas can be of personal importance to anyone; it regards ideas as a matter of arbitrary choice, as means to some immediate ends. On this view, a man does not seek to be elected to a public office in order to carry out certain policies -- he advocates certain policies in order to be elected. If so, then why on earth should he want to be elected? Perceptual mentalities never ask such a question: the concept of a long-range goal is outside their limits. (There are a great many politicians and a great mean commentators of that type -- and since that mentality is taken for granted as proper and normal, what does this indicate about the intellectual state of today's culture?)
If a man subordinates ideas and principles to his "personal interests," what are his personal interests and by what means does he determine them? Consider the senseless, selfless drudgery to which a politician condemns himself if the goal of his work -- the proper administration of the country -- is of no personal interest to him (or a lawyer, if justice is of no personal interest to him; or a writer, if the objective value of his books is of no personal interest to him, as the woman I quoted was suggesting). But a perceptual mentality is incapable of generating values or goals, and has to pick them secondhand, as the given, then go through the expected motions. (Not all such men are tribal lone wolves -- some are faithful, bewildered tribalists out of the psycho-epistemological depth -- but all are anti-conceptual mentalities.)
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.
A tribal lone wolf feels that his "self" is dissociated from his actions, his work, his pursuits, his ideas. All these, he feels, are things that some outside power -- society or reality or the material universe -- has somehow forced on him. His real "self," he feels, is some ineffable entity devoid of attributes. One thing is true: his "self" is ineffable, i.e., non-existent. A man's self is his mind -- the faculty that perceives reality, forms judgments, chooses values. 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.
The grim joke on mankind is the fact that he is held up as a symbol of selfishness. This encourages him in his depredations: it gives him the hope of success in faking a stature he knows to be beyond his power. Selfishness is a profoundly philosophical, conceptual achievement. Anyone who holds a tribal lone wolf as an image of selfishness, is merely confessing the perceptual nature of his own mental functioning.
Yet the tribalists keep proclaiming that morality is an exclusively social phenomenon and that adherence to a tribe -- any tribe -- is the only way to keep men moral. But the docile members of a tribe are no better than their rejected wolfish brother and fully as amoral: their standard is: "We're good because it's us."
The abdication and shriveling of the self is a salient characteristic of all perceptual mentalities, tribalist or lone-wolfish. All of them dread self-reliance; all of the dread the responsibilities which only a self (i.e., a conceptual consciousness) can perform, and they seek escape from the two activities which an actually selfish man would defend with his life: judgment and choice. They fear reason (which is exercised volitionally) and trust their emotions (which are automatic) -- they prefer the tribe (the given) to outsiders (the new) -- they prefer commandments (the memorized) to principles (the understood) -- they welcome every theory of determinism, every notion that permits them to cry: "I couldn't help it!"
It is obvious why the morality of altruism is a tribal phenomenon. Prehistorical men were physically unable to survive without clinging to a tribe for leadership0 and protection against other tribes. The cause of altruism's perpetuation into civilized eras is not physical, but psycho-epistemological: the men of self-arrested, perceptual mentality are unable to survive without tribal leadership and "protection" against reality. The doctrine of self-sacrifice does not offend them: they have no sense of self or of personal value -- they do not know what it is that they are asked to sacrifice -- they have no firsthand inkling of such things as intellectual integrity, love of truth, personally chosen values, or a passionate dedication to an idea. When they hear injunctions against "selfishness," they believe that what they must renounce is the brute, mindless whim-worship of a tribal lone wolf. But their leaders -- the theoreticians of altruism -- know better. Immanuel Kant knew it; John Dewey knew it; B. F. Skinner knows it; John Rawls knows it. Observe that it is not the mindless brute, but reason, intelligence, ability, merit, self-confidence, self-esteem that they are out to destroy.
Today, we are seeing a ghastly spectacle: a magnificent scientific civilization dominated by the morality of prehistorical savagery. The phenomenon that makes it possible is the split psycho-epistemology of "compartmentalized" minds. Its best example are men who escape into the physical sciences (or technology or industry or business), hoping to find protection from human irrationality, and abandoning the field of ideas to the enemies of reason. Such refugees include some of mankind's best brains. But no such refuge is possible. These men, who perform feats of conceptual integration and rational thinking in their work, become helplessly anti-conceptual in all the other aspects of their lives, particularly in human relationships and in social issues. (E.g., compare Einstein's scientific achievements to his political views.)
Man's progress requires specialization. But a division-of-labor society cannot survive without a rational philosophy -- without a firm base of fundamental principles whose task is to train a human mind to be human, i.e., conceptual.
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Also see: "Selfishness vs. Selfishness" here.