This is the first in a series of posts about Peter Schwartz’s new book, In Defense of Selfishness: Why the Code of Self-Sacrifice is Unjust and Destructive.

Mr. Schwartz says, “the term ‘selfishness’ means only a concern with one’s own interests”. That is not true. I have never heard of anyone being described as “selfish” for working for self-improvement. People who go to the gym for health are not selfish. Have you ever heard anyone say, “You’re trying to lose weight? How selfish!” People who eat well for health are not selfish. Have you ever heard anyone say, “You’re trying to eat more healthily? How selfish!” People who read literary fiction or who educate themselves about science or history are not selfish. Have you ever heard anyone say, “How dare you read Tolstoy! How selfish!” People who do their work well and conscientiously are not selfish. Have you ever heard anyone say, “You put in a full eight hours today just like you were required to, and you were working diligently the whole time, and exceeded expectations? How selfish!” If you’re like me, you have not. That’s because the word doesn’t apply to those actions.

Mr. Schwartz says:


Altruism’s purveyors… try to equate selfishness with the destruction of others. Note how some dictionaries have slipped this notion into the very definition of ‘selfish’. Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, for example, defines it as ‘regarding one’s own comfort, advantage, etc., in disregard, or at the expense, of that of others. Defining selfishness in this manner makes it seem that the harming of others is an integral part of the concept.


No dictionary that I’ve checked has failed to “slip” “destruction of others” “into the very definition of ‘selfish’”. That’s because the destruction of others is the very definition of ‘selfish’. This is just a fact about the English word ‘selfish’, available to any native speaker of English. ‘Selfish’ does not and has never meant a concern with one’s own interests. It is not true that “The authentic concept of selfishness, of simply pursuing one’s interests, has been surreptitiously expunged from our vocabulary.” The concept of simply pursuing one’s interests was never the concept expressed by the word ‘selfish’. And it obviously hasn’t been expunged from our vocabulary, since “simply pursuing one’s interests” is a perfectly good phrase of English that Mr. Schwartz uses correctly and that precisely expresses the concept that he desires to express. You can’t say, “Here is a concept that I cannot express in this language”, and then express it in this language.

Why is Mr. Schwartz tilting at this linguistic windmill? I think that there are two reasons, the first of which is not an “elementary” error: he doesn’t know the difference between concepts and words. (The second one is another elementary error that I’ll talk about in another post.)

Notice that he blurs the distinction in this remark: “…there is simply no concept, in common usage, that refers to actual, i.e., non-predatory, selfishness. The word that should identify the behavior of an honest producer is used instead to identify only the behavior of an unprincipled parasite.” If “common usage” means “language”, then there is no concept in common usage at all, since words are what are in common usage and words are not concepts. Words, unlike concepts, are conventional symbols with histories. That ‘cat’ means cats is a convention of English that results from the etymology of the word. The word ‘cat’ can change its meaning and could have had different meanings from what it has, had linguistic history gone differently. But that the concept of cats is of cats is not conventional and it doesn’t result from anything; that’s just part of what it is to be the concept of cats. The concept of cats results from a process of abstraction from experience, but the fact that that concept is of cats isn’t an additional fact about it, above and beyond its being the concept that it is. The fact that the word ‘cat’ means cats, on the other hand, is not just the fact that it is spelled c-a-t and sounds like “kat”; the same word could have had, and could acquire, a different meaning. If someone has a concept that doesn’t apply to all and only cats, then it isn’t the concept of cats, even if he tries to use ‘cat’ to express it. Words are bound by language; concepts are not. I have no words in common with a speaker of Chinese, but we share most of our concepts.

We use words to, among other things, express concepts. (We can use words to refer to objects because we use them to express the concepts of those objects.) The fact that a word expresses a given concept is conventional and the result of the history of use of the word. There are objective facts about those conventions and histories. But, blurring the difference between words and concepts, Mr. Schwartz has contended that, because the concept that he desires to express cannot be expressed with the word ‘selfish’, the objective facts about language — the reality of people speaking — are wrong and must be replaced by his preference.

The word ‘selfish’ expresses the concept of predatory, irrational behavior that is directed at satisfying desires for wealth, power, pleasure and so forth, at the expense of others; selfish behavior is nearly always self-destructive. The word ‘selfish’ has never expressed any other concept. To say that the word ‘selfish’ should express some other concept, instead of the one that it expresses, is near-perfect in its arbitrariness. Mr. Schwartz might as well complain that the real concept of a bachelor is the concept of a man, married or not, but being unmarried has been slipped into various definitions of ‘bachelor’, so that the word that should have meant ‘men’ doesn’t mean what it should and it is now impossible to talk about men as such.

Why does this matter? I’m not sure that it does; I’m partly writing this out of sheer frustration. I look at Schwartz’s book, and even though I want to throw it aside and give up, one thought stops me: the thought that it is philosophy and that I have to save it, as others could not pass a drowning man without leaping in to the rescue.

Addendum: No sooner did I wrap this up and turn to re-reading David Hume than I found exactly what Mr. Schwartz should have mentioned: Hume does indeed use ‘selfish’, in some places, in the way that Mr. Schwartz wants it used. (His specific phrasings had slipped my mind, unfortunately.) He seems to handle it gingerly, though — his “narrow” selfishness is what we would mean by ‘selfishness’, and he has several other words that he uses, such as ‘self-love’, that he seems more comfortable using to refer to a respectable character trait. I’m not sure how significant is the fact that three hundred years ago, it was possible to use ‘selfish’ to mean what Mr. Schwartz wants to mean by it without courting quite so much paradox. But I know how significant Mr. Schwartz thinks it is. If he (and Rand before him) had actually cared about the matter, then they might have actually given some evidence that the word ‘selfish’ means what they say that it means.

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