Thanks to Google and M.S.N. for recognizing me as the 3rd highest “Greedy American.” If I could go choose to be known by any one moniker, it would be as a “greedy American.” But this got me to thinking: who are the real greedy Americans? (And how can I capitalize on my search engine hits?) What is the essence of being selfish, anyway?
The short answer is simple: a selfish individual places his interests and his life before that of others. But merely choosing to be selfish does not provide any guidance for action. To act on any abstract idea, you must decide how to apply it in concrete situations. Should you (as the common misconception goes) simply do whatever you feel like? Are cheating, lying, and thieving selfish actions? What about caring for other people? To answer these questions (and many others!) and apply them to your life, you must integrate abstract ideas into the rest of your knowledge. As Leonard Peikoff points out in OPAR, one cannot act on any idea outside the context of the rest of his knowledge.
To live a selfish life is to make one’s values a primary. But to be successful in living as a human being, man must life by rational values, not by random whims and desires, but by rationally chosen goals which are true to his nature as a human being. This requires a fully developed moral code based on the values required for man’s survival, such as rationality, productivity, and honesty. In other words, selfishness is not for dummies: it requires an active and constant dedication to being a purposeful, rational, and productive individual.
With this context in mind, who qualifies as the “greediest” American? I think the essence of a selfish individual is the absolute and uncompromising pursuit of his values. The main obstacle the majority of people have in this regard is not that they regard the pursuit of selfish values as wrong, but that they do not have values of their own to begin with. I don’t just mean the second-handed losers who are unable to make anything of their life, but also those individuals who are ostensibly successful and self-interested in their goals, but are unable to take pleasure from them because their philosophy does not allow them to enjoy their success.
I’ve known many such people in my life: by any normal measure, they are excellent students, dedicated to their goals, and envied by their peers. But because they implicitly accept a philosophy denies their life as an end in itself, they are plagued by constant feelings of guilt, inadequacy, and self-degradation. The most common external sign of their inner turmoil is their tendency to have self-destructive, abusive relationships, or an inability to have any relationships of mutual admiration.
For this reason, it is hard to know the moral character of a person merely by looking at his achievements. For example, Bill Gates is unquestionably a successful and passionate individual when it comes to his work – he must be in order to create a company like Microsoft. But just because he lives a productive and materially successful life does not necessarily mean that he has a philosophy that allows him to reap the rewards of his achievements. His true motivation might be an obligation to contribute to society, a need to outdo his peers, or perhaps feelings of inadequacy because he cannot live up to his father’s expectations. Perhaps he became a software designer to live up to social expectation in spite of his true ambitions of being an artist. Without knowing the motivation for his success, we can’t know whether he is able to enjoy it. The fact that he offers excuses (excuses, mind you!) for his success and wastes his wealth away on charities is certainly not a positive sign.
There is another kind of philosophy whose outcome I still don’t know because I’m too young to know anyone who has lived his life by it. It’s the individual who lives by a proper philosophy, but has given up on (usually unknowingly) on philosophy as such because the meaningless void of today’s culture is all he knows. He will usually describe himself as a pragmatist, but only because he does not realize that there exists a name for his morality: rational self-interest. I’ve only known a few such individuals in my life, and they are the ones I want to expose to the ideas of Objectivism. Why? Because I used to be one of them.