Estimated reading time 27 mins.
“You’re not an Ayn Rand guy, are you?”
“Or are you?” Larry King adds quickly, allaying the tone of contempt and derision palpable in his first accusatory question.
Matthew McConaughey, his guest on Larry King Now, looking amused though slightly taken aback at the perceivable rancor, answers with a disarming smile, “I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
This brief exchange followed Larry’s reading of a quote from Matthew, in which he had said:
“I’ve got much more selfish. I’m a fan of the word ‘selfish.’ I am less concerned with what people think of me. I’m not worried about how I’m perceived. ‘Selfish’ has always gotten a bad rap. You should do for you.”
As I’ve now discovered at seeing multiple memes and other references to it, that quote is a relatively well-known one from Matthew, and the interview under discussion here was published on YouTube in 2014. (The relevant exchange is from 8:57-11:45.) But I myself have only recently seen it, and as I wonder whether Matthew has since revised his conception of selfishness, I would nonetheless love to talk with him about it.
To Larry’s credit, he does follow up with the appropriate and intelligent question, “In terms of ‘selfish,’ how do you define the word?” Instead of just taking the meaning of the concept for granted and continuing along a line of disapproval, he at least inquires as to whether there is another possible interpretation to ascribe to the concept his guest is referring to.
And as articulated in this interview, I was encouraged to find that Matthew just about had it, although I think that because of a failure to understand and reject a few conventional premises was unable to hold his idea without contradiction. I also think, however, that if I might attempt to help clear up the confusion, he might discover that he is an Ayn Rand guy.
In the overture to Matthew’s response, he refers to an “ideal spot” where he likes to be but only rarely can reach and which is reserved for “guys like Jesus Christ…and other prophets.” This “sweet spot” is defined as “when what I’m doing selfishly for me—even hedonistically for me—happens to be what’s best for the most amount of people.”
He first gives the example of his character, Cooper, in his film Interstellar (2014), who “wants to fly—selfishly, to live his dream. Is it also for the chance to absolutely save mankind? Yes.” He then concludes to say, “I like to personally try and find a selfish reason why I want to do everything.”
And Larry seems to accept as much as that last. After nodding and saying very genuinely, “Yeah, I understand that,” he ventures to reflect Matthew’s view back to him by suggesting that in a sense he is selfish because he wants his show to do well and project well. To Larry, I say that that is indeed selfish and that he might observe that by striving to produce a good show, he benefits other people more than if his focus were primarily on whatever he imagined their interests were. This sounds something like Matthew’s “sweet spot,” and, incidentally, it is a result of the nature of rational self-interest as defined by Ayn Rand.
To Matthew, however, I would suggest that his statement implies one of those mistaken premises which leads to future contradictions and subsequently undercuts one’s self-esteem. The mistaken premise is that the moral purpose of one’s life is to consider others above oneself and that service to others is the moral justification for one’s own existence. Why does what’s good for you have to be what’s good for the most amount of people in order to be moral? From where did these nameless “others” earn such a lofty status? And while one could argue whether or not “the most amount of people” were helped by Jesus’ sacrifice for their sins, it is clear that he wasn’t acting selfishly at all, so I don’t know how he was cited as one who was able to hit Matthew’s ideal consistently. Of course, give him that he was just speaking extemporaneously, but there is in any case a great deal of confusion there.
But Matthew is by far not alone in accepting that premise explicitly. Most people hold some version of the view that “others before self” is the moral code of a good person. Yet no one—to the extent they are breathing—lives (or can live) by it consistently. And as integrity is an indispensable condition for self-esteem, most people are psychologically crippled by a lack of clarity on this.
See if the following pattern isn’t recognizable. People go about their lives, constantly looking to satisfy their needs and wants and to advance their lot. They seek self-improvement, a better job, a better home, a more comfortable and safer car for their family, the healthiest food and best education for their kids, better opportunities for them and themselves, a better place to live in which they may thrive and see their kids thrive, etc. This melioration (and even simple maintenance!) of our own worlds is a day-to-day process, and each of us is engaged in it. To achieve any success at all requires unceasing thinking and effort. And as we gain some momentum, seeing our kids happier and healthier, seeing ourselves and the environments we’ve built around ourselves get progressively more prosperous and joyous, as we begin to feel the incomparable pride and triumphant glow of earned self-esteem, it only takes one reminder that those “others” are out there with their moral claim on you, and while perhaps you’ve been “virtuous” in the practical side of life, you’ve quite clearly been vicious on the spiritual or moral side, seeing only to yourself and yours.
This is where the proponents of the morality of “others first” gain power over you. Guilt is perhaps the most powerful weapon of any. Guilt undermines any attempt at self-esteem and happiness, as once a person feels he is no good, you may ask him to do anything. To assuage the guilt of having lost focus of “others” while busy with the (genuinely moral) task of living, one will “go to church on Sunday” and spout generalities and lip-service to the morality of sacrifice, ever-louder and aggressive in voicing one’s conviction that “others before self” is a moral ideal but that morality is for saints and has nothing to do with practical reality. One will conclude that humans are base by nature, including oneself, and what are we to do? At least I’m not the only rotter. And if I don’t think too much about it, I can snatch at that glowing state referred to above for some short periods—allowing myself a little pride in how far I’ve developed myself and improved life for my family and those I love—before I’m made aware again of how little I’m living up to that which I profess is the morally good. In a desperate attempt to preserve our integrity, like Matthew above, we might at last try to justify our vicious selfishness by claiming that sometimes it can “happen to be what’s best for the most amount of people.”
Nobody is buying this. It is common wisdom that two wrongs don’t make a right, and nobody is believing that by engaging in some magical combination of vice, as people like Jesus might, it will somehow add up to virtue. It is a mess—and a very unnecessary one. But what if there was an alternative, a morality in which what is good is not defined in opposition to human success and happiness but in accordance with it? What if that “vice” were actually good? What if the moral were also the practical?
“I am the warrant and the sanction.”
An “Ayn Rand guy” would learn that of course when virtue is defined and derived from the facts of reality including human nature, to the extent an individual acts virtuously (i.e. gains values and thrives), others are also the beneficiaries. He would learn there is no clash of interests among rational individual human beings each pursuing their own values, and besides, that one cannot be of any value to others if one has not first made something of oneself.
But paramount to this, he would learn to ask an important question in the first place regarding the superior moral status of “others” in relation to himself: Why?
Why has he to consider his usefulness to others as a moral justification for his existence? Why does the happiness and welfare of others supersede his own? Who says so? Where is the proof of this? And aren’t they then selfish if they benefit from his sacrifice? And if they’re selfish in accepting, does that mean that virtue consists in serving vice? Also, shouldn’t he, from these others’ perspective, be the morally proper beneficiary of their actions? And then how does that work? Wouldn’t he then be selfish in accepting their sacrifice?
Instead of being ensnared in such nonsense, an Ayn Rand guy would learn that one’s own life is the justification for its own existence, as he recognizes and respects that this is true for each and every other human being. Her Anthem protagonist expresses:
“This, my body and spirit, this is the end of the quest. I wished to know the meaning of things. I am the meaning. I wished to find a warrant for being. I need no warrant for being, and no word of sanction upon my being. I am the warrant and the sanction,”Anthem, p.94
But now, if others are not a justification for one’s existence, how have moral intellectuals been able to get away with having us accept such an idea? Why not just accept the seemingly obvious fact that one’s own flourishing ought to be the moral purpose of each individual’s life and the justification for its being?
Hedonism versus “doing for you”
The lead to the answer can be found within Matthew’s earlier remark, in his equation of hedonism with selfishness (i.e. “…what I’m doing selfishly for me—even hedonistically for me…”).
If one wants to put over an impractical or evil idea, one can either lie about its nature and/or create a false—and more unattractive—alternative. That latter is, you set up a straw man as the antithesis of the idea you want to peddle and denounce it as an unequivocal evil. In this case, you say that the opposite of “others first” is a “me first” which will necessarily interfere with others’ pursuit of flourishing and so can never “happen to be what’s best for the most amount of people.” You say this is obvious because to consider oneself before others means hedonism.
So while the ethics of “others first” has no basis of proof in reality, is confusing, contradictory, and therefore impossible to practice, the alternative is to walk over everybody and anybody toward one’s hedonistic, selfish ends. In Ayn Rand’s vivid metaphor, one can either be a “sucker or a bloodsucker.” And in an alternative of that kind, most will struggle with, brush over, or evade the contradictions in what they sense is not perfect but that simply must be right—if the latter is the only other option—and go along with the former. At the same time, resenting the sucker role, they will become cynical of morality altogether, discarding it as having nothing to do with practical living.
(One cannot escape the practical need for morality, however, and one’s accepted code will always sit in the shadows of one’s mind ready to judge one’s actions, which is why it’s so important to consciously formulate and choose one’s moral code—and make sure it’s true.)
But while most take the equation of hedonism with selfishness for granted, one ought first to define one’s terms clearly and then ask whether hedonism is at all comparable or compatible with one’s self-interest or what Matthew calls aptly “doing for you.” Because an Ayn Rand guy would learn that hedonism is the opposite of doing for you.
And Matthew almost gets this. To illustrate the idea that common images of being “selfish” aren’t really selfish (i.e. they’re just straw men), he gives the examples of hangovers and “lying, stealing, and cheating,” as he refers to the well-known idea of “delayed gratification.” At times, he sounds precisely like an Ayn Rand guy. But allowing the concept of hedonism to mingle with the selfishness he describes so well indicates a lack of conceptual clarity and discrimination, the kind an Ayn Rand guy would be cured of.
In order, then, to think clearly on this crucial subject, let us first define what hedonism means. Hedonism is primarily a devotion to pleasure as a way of life, the doctrine that pleasure is the highest good. Pleasure is characterized by immediate gratification, satisfaction, or delight, with an emphasis on the frivolous nature of that which is pursued. It is distinct from authentic happiness or what I refer to interchangeably on this blog as flourishing or thriving, which is characterized by its integration of values like health, material prosperity, and genuine emotional happiness founded upon a righteously earned self-esteem, with an emphasis on the rational rigor such values require to attain.
The latter concept is what Matthew does well to describe in his examples. He explains rightfully how lying, stealing, and cheating doesn’t work to one’s selfish advantage because:
“maybe you get the reward immediately, but that also means you’ve gotta look over your shoulder wherever you go. It also means that you can’t walk freely around the world. So that would be not selfish.”
He’s right that “screwing people over” is not to one’s selfish advantage but is actually self-destructive. But I’ll add that it’s more than just having to look over your shoulder. It’s also true that you can’t look yourself in the mirror. The self-demise in snatching unearned values is not just the threat of being caught. Suppose you could guarantee the perfect crime? Suppose your alibi is impeccable, or someone else has already been laid to blame and so you’re scot-free? You could put a lot of the looking over your shoulder to rest. An Ayn Rand guy understands that while the threat of being caught is not a happy predicament under which to live and so cannot be characterized as selfish, the real self-extinction comes in having sacrificed one’s integrity, an indispensable foundation to one’s self-esteem.
Ayn Rand defines happiness as a state of “non-contradictory joy.” To have “integrity” means to be integrated, without contradiction. It means in practice that one “talks the talk” and “walks the walk.” It means that one does not separate one’s current actions from one’s future. This rational conception counters such intellectual sloppiness as saying that something might be selfish in the short-term but then self-destructive in the long-term (or vice versa) and is unequivocally distinct from hedonism.
Matthew seems to get this, as he at one point refers explicitly to pleasure-seeking as being anti-self:
“What is selfish is not necessarily, ‘Well, I have to have the pleasure right now.’ Because if you get the pleasure right now, but you have a bad hangover tomorrow, that’s not very selfish.”
There is no such thing as “good for me now and bad for me later,” or “bad for me now and good for me later.” There’s only “good for me” or “bad for me.” We are rational and we can project the future. We live long-range and we must account for that fact. A hedonist accounts for nothing but his own feelings of the moment—and achieves nothing close to what one might call “non-contradictory joy.” This is why Ayn Rand refers to her concept of selfishness as rational egoism, which is really a redundancy. There is no irrational egoism because the irrational leads not to the success but to the frustration of one’s goals. Values like physical and mental health, material prosperity, meaningful relationships, self-esteem, and genuine happiness have causes, and it is only the mind that can identify and pursue them. If this blog is titled “Think & Thrive” and summarizes a moral ideal, then its antithesis is “Do what you feel like & Suffer inevitable failure and self-destruction.” An Ayn Rand guy knows that the moral is the practical, and irrationality is hopelessly impractical.
“Cashing that check”
An eloquent statement of what it means to make a choice without dropping the long-range context of a human life—of deciding between “good for me” or “bad for me”—is when Matthew is asked about whether he is happy in his fame. He responds by saying that he “cashed that check a long time ago.” He goes on to explain that he looks less at it as if “I’m this guy and I’m famous,” as if they were two separate things, but rather that while he happens to be a celebrity, he’s also an actor and a father among other things and that it’s up to him to “throw them all in the pot and say it’s part of the deal.”
This is what a successful career in acting means. This is what fame means. Given the full context, Matthew must ask himself: Is it good for me or bad for me? Do I want it and everything it entails? Cash it.
And this is what it means to have integrity. He doesn’t attempt to separate some of his choices today with who he is tomorrow. That’s hedonism, not selfishness. Each of us is an integrated being, and it is up to each of us to preserve that integrity. We must think: What choices am I going to make that comprise who I am? Are they consistent with my other values and the whole of who I propose to be? Given all that “comes with the deal,” are they good for me or bad for me? After clear, careful, rational consideration of what this means for my life, do I want it? Yes? Cash it. (And then don’t talk about “bad for me later”.)
Consider a few examples. Do I want to be a parent? In what ways will this enrich my life? What comes as “part of the deal”? On the whole, is it good for me or not? Cash it (or not).
Should I take this job? How will it enrich my life? Will I be challenged intellectually, compensated satisfactorily, fulfilled creatively? What am I giving up as “part of the deal”? Good for me or not? Cash it (or not).
Should I marry this person? How will s/he enrich my life? What parts of my life will change as “part of the deal”? Is marriage a good thing for my life or bad thing for my life, given the full context? Cash it (or not).
Do I want to sleep with “the hot chick at the bar” (as per a famous Ben Shapiro comment on The Rubin Report tediously erecting the classic straw man)? What will it mean tomorrow and every day I must live henceforth, the days I cannot separate from the immediate moment and must integrate into the whole of my life and of who I am? Can I look at my wife ever again? Can I bear thinking about what it will mean to her? Is it possible to have a happy marriage henceforth? How will this affect my children? Can I continue to hold my head and eyes straight as I speak to them of integrity and virtue for the rest of my life? Can I claim any credibility to anyone whatsoever in the future? Can I stand to look at myself in the mirror ever again?
Cash it if you dare.
But don’t accuse yourself of being selfish. You’ll have chosen to annihilate supremely cherished values in a single hedonistic impulse. Whatever pleasure you may take from one lustful night with the “hot chick,” separated and in contradiction to the whole of your life and values, it is your integrity which is sacrificed most irrevocably. This disintegrated state makes self-esteem impossible and is what it means to be unable to look oneself in the mirror. And it is grotesque and preposterous to equate such pleasure as one might have enjoyed with the exalted state of “non-contradictory joy” which is the crown of integrated virtue.
With the ability to project that miserable future, understanding all that “comes with the deal,” taking that deal is unmistakably bad for you, i.e. the opposite of selfish.
And that any honest and intelligent person (least not a brilliant guy like Ben Shapiro) can’t distinguish this concept of rational self-interest from hedonism and self-sacrifice (i.e. the giving up of precious values for lesser ones) after conscientiously reading Ayn Rand is incredible to me.
So why the opposition?
But many don’t read her conscientiously. Instead, they evade and distort what has been explained unequivocally and in-depth and repeatedly hold up the hedonist in place of her concept of a virtuous, rationally self-interested person.
So why? Why do people persist in being so antagonistic toward Rand and, in particular, her ethics? The basic reason I can see why people carry on ignoring or deriding this relatively easy-to-grasp conception of rational selfishness while continuing to propagate the hedonist caricature of selfishness is to protect their accepted morality of altruism (literally, “other-ism,” in contrast to ego-ism). They don’t want to let it go. But then, if this accepted morality leads people in practice to self-denial and disintegration (as illustrated above), we must further ask why people don’t drop this hot potato and embrace the life-promoting morality of rational self-interest? There are a few reasons I can make out, with varying degrees of corruption.
As to the most evil, we have discussed the efficacy of guilt as a weapon for those who lust for power over others, so we can see why religious leaders, politicians, would-be dictators, and the like have a vested interest in endorsing altruism and its credo of service and sacrifice. Ayn Rand explains:
“It stands to reason that where there’s sacrifice, there’s someone collecting sacrificial offerings. Where there’s service, there’s someone being served. The man who speaks to you of sacrifice, speaks of slaves and masters. And intends to be the master.”The Virtue of Selfishness, p.56
Of course, then, such are keen to keep us in the fog as to what altruism really means and also what it really means to be selfish. But then what about those who allow themselves to be kept in the fog even after the issue is made clear?
For some who are older, it is that they dare not risk a challenge to their religion or to a morality they have believed for so long, as in a tragically ironic way, they view it as a threat to their integrity. Rather than face the prospect of betraying their longtime code, they will evade such clear illustrations as above while clinging to, exaggerating, and propagating various distortions of Rand’s view.
And then for those younger and more innocent, it is often some mixture of envy and a lack of self-confidence. But this lack of self-confidence is usually exacerbated by the guilt wrought by the “others first” morality itself, thus creating a vicious cycle. At the same time, the envy is generated by those who conjure the false hedonistic parody and point to any they claim are its exponents as the cause of their frustration and distress, both emotional and material.
Add to the latter two groups that it is very difficult to think about such complicated issues, and we point again in a most accusatory way at the intellectuals—whose job it is to make clear rather than obfuscate—as the guiltiest.
To those more innocent, I offer Ayn Rand’s morality of rational egoism as the antidote. You can choose to look first-hand at what she actually says and decide for yourself. You can shrug off the unearned guilt and discover that “doing for you” is what morality is all about before it’s too late. (And while this mainly implies the young, I submit that because even older people have free will, it is never too late.)
But the scope of this article cannot support going deeper into motives, so I’ll direct the present discussion back to focus on the nature of what it means to be truly selfish, in the way Matthew McConaughey has laudably groped to portray.
“Customizing your life” is selfish—and good
At the end of the interview in the social media questions segment, Matthew admirably (albeit I suspect unwittingly) summarizes what an Ayn Rand guy would describe as being properly selfish. Saying that he’s enjoying the aging process, he elaborates:
As you get older, you customize more your life. You know what you like, you know what works for you, you know what doesn’t. That leads to some more self-satisfaction and happiness.
I hear in that: More thinking, more thriving. Whose thriving? Your own. It’s all about living a better life for oneself. It means thinking about what is best for you and arranging your life accordingly, adopting and amplifying what works and identifying and dispensing of what’s not to your benefit, etc. This implies no abuse of others and is, in fact, independent of others, while one appreciates that each individual also strives to optimize their own lives. So where others do come in, it means seeking relationships that are mutually rewarding and dropping toxic or sacrificial ones, which means being neither a sucker nor a bloodsucker—but an independent trader—both in spiritual and material values. Customization means choosing very deliberately everything about one’s life—including one’s relationships with other people—to the end of making it the healthiest, most prosperous, most satisfying and happiest life one can achieve.
What can we call this if not selfish? And I don’t mean so much the term per se as I do the concept. A concept is a mental package, including essentially similar things and excluding essentially dissimilar things. Let us please no longer package a person who thinks painstakingly about and customizes his own life to achieve optimal well-being with the hedonistic self-destroyer. These two don’t belong together, as, more than distinct, they are polar opposites. This poor mental packaging is what has caused honest and good people untold confusion and suffering. Let us now instead, understanding the cleanliness of it, uphold the virtue of rational selfishness and denounce and dispose of the poisonous and needless vice of servitude and self-sacrifice. And if “us” as a culture won’t as yet, then let any individual who can see this truth adopt it at once and revel in the guilt-free self-satisfaction and happiness an Ayn Rand guy may learn how to deserve.
An open invitation to Matthew McConaughey
Only you can know fully, but from where I can see, I suspect that you’re in your own “sweet spot” much more often than you think. And to the extent that you’re not in it, I’m going to suggest that this is in most cases due to the contradictions inherent in your own definition of it, primarily to the extent that it holds that the purpose of your own actions ought to be for the benefit of others if they are to have moral worth.
I know this because I spent many years living under the same explicit moral code as most people—the one I was brought up on and which dominates our culture. It’s the code I’ve discussed at length above, the one that emphasizes service and sacrifice to others as one’s highest moral duty. Implicitly, or by “common sense,” I knew, like many people, that there was some place in a good life for “self-improvement, -development, -mastery, -actualization, -esteem,” etc., and I had enjoyed a mostly happy life for many years as I experienced personal triumph, success, love, growth, etc. But it was chronically mingled with a sense of deep-rooted guilt which could intensify at various periods but which was numbingly ever-present.
Since discovering Ayn Rand at 24, however, that guilt has wilted. I now only feel guilty when I disappoint myself or those I love. It is when I betray commitments I have made to myself or to them, whether explicitly or implicitly, but not to random “others” at large and for debts which I have not agreed to take on and that I don’t know the nature of. I live a wholly selfish, flourishing life of non-contradictory joy, and I’m proud to say so.
And more, I have learned that the more I focus on bettering myself, the more I am of use to others than if I were focused primarily on their well-being anyway. Again, not that it’s my purpose in life (I hope I’ve made that clear by now), but there it is. I’ve also seen that the people who have done (and do) the most for me are those who have made the most of their own lives.
Larry working on his show benefits others. Cooper’s dream. Steve Jobs’s vision. Ayn Rand’s books. Their purpose nor focus was not others. By stark contrast, they were intensely set upon their own goals. But look at the inestimable value added to others’ lives. And this is true of every lesser achievement, whatever the scale.
Your own movies, your lifestyle, your fun-loving attitude. From what I’ve gathered from interviews and such little an outsider can glean, people respect and want to be around you not because you give up your values for others but because you seem to be a model of personal (may I say here selfish?) success and joy.
More than just the material goods that intimately passionate focus and efforts produce in the world—(iPhones, inspiring novels, and life-changing philosophies improve lives on earth)—the most valuable thing a rationally selfish person can offer others is a model of what living a moral life means and of what the reward looks like:
“Don’t help me or serve me, but let me see it once, because I need it. Don’t work for my happiness, my brothers—show me yours—show me that it is possible—show me your achievement—and the knowledge will give me courage for mine.”The Fountainhead (p.503-4)
Your “sweet spot,” properly defined, is virtuous. But it isn’t for Jesus Christ or others like him, and I hope you don’t aspire to his fate. In a proper morality, sainthood doesn’t cost us our lives and happiness by sacrificing values but is achieved to the extent we gain values toward furthering our lives and attaining our own happiness. Such people as described above are closer to the saints we should aspire to be, each of us to the best of our own abilities.
I see you haven’t subscribed to this blog, but if you happen to come across this article, I further invite you to contact me so we can talk more about this. I would love to clarify any points you’d like to talk out, and I’m sure that I could learn a lot from a guy like you. I’ve done my best for now within the limits of an article to lay out some of what it means to be an Ayn Rand guy, but it would take a book or more to really get it. Fortunately for you and mankind, there are several such books, and I implore you, for your own selfish sake, to read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. And for a didactic discussion—eminently fuller and clearer than what I’ve managed here—you can enjoy The Virtue of Selfishness. From there, you will likely find yourself consuming other volumes of golden content.
I understand that celebrities are regular people with extraordinary lives and, like most regular, good people, struggle with the same lack of moral clarity as described above. Only celebrities are much more out there and subject to public moral judgment. Add to this that their careers are very tied to popular opinion, and they tend to play safe toward a culture’s predominant morality, regardless of any questions they may sense. But being idolized as they are, people look to them for examples. And to the extent they let the status quo go unchallenged in their own minds, they help reinforce the predominant trends of the culture. So it’s very refreshing when someone like you is confident enough to even attempt to articulate a controversial idea as you have. What I hope you realize is that because your benevolent character and goodwill is well-established, you have enough clout to say such things and make people pause a moment to consider that there might be something more in them than what their immediate emotional reaction tells them. Emotions are simply automatic reflections of fixed ideas and will reflect differently as ideas are changed. But they must be challenged to be changed.
Empowered with your right ideas more clearly conceived, I hope you can be an even better champion for the virtue of selfishness, and I hope more celebrities would be so brave to, instead of appeasing our musty, reeking, centuries-old, self-deprecating morality, proclaim proudly and righteously that they, too, “like to personally try and find a selfish reason why I want to do everything.” It’d be a lot cooler if they did.